The Mini is one of the most recognizable cars in automotive history. Even in countries where the Mini wasn’t sold it was so ingrained in popular culture that it became as recognizable as the Jaguar E-Type. The Mini’s innovative transverse engine and front-wheel drive layout went on to have a profound effect on car design along with a host of other design features.
The Mini’s production run was immense as well, starting in 1959 and ending in 2000 and through a chain of 3 ownerships. It was also manufactured in Spain, Italy, Australia, South Africa, Belgium, Chile, Malta, Portugal, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia. The Mini was also incredibly successful in motorsport due to John Cooper and spawned the performance Cooper line that BMW carries on to this day with the rebooted MINI brand. That all means there’s a lot of ground to cover so we’ll start at the very beginning and its first manufacturer, the British Motor Corporation (BMC).
The story starts with a fuel shortage in 1957 caused by the Suez Crisis. The UK experienced a post-war rationing of fuel and sales of large cars tanked while small cars like the original Fiat 500 and German bubble cars spiked. Leonard Lord was the head of BMC and ran the company as his surname suggests. He also despised the tiny foreign cars and set about creating a “proper miniature car”. He set out some basic design parameters, including that the car should fit in a box that measures 10×4×4 feet, passenger space should be made up using 6 of the 10 feet in length, and it should use an existing engine to save cost.
In stepped the innovative English-Greek designer Alec Issigonis. He took the brief and went all out to meet it, while having to invent solutions on the way. He took an existing BMC engine and placed the transmission in the sump and then mounted it transversely to make sure it took even less space at the front. Issigonis then had his friend Alex Moulton design a compact, effective, but inexpensive suspension system based on rubber cones rather than traditional steel springs.
With the new drivetrain layout, the new suspension system and the wheels pushed all the way out into the corners, the car had room for 4 inside and a wide stance. It also had excellent balance, forward traction, and all-round grip as well as being light in weight while using a stiff monocoque chassis. Issigonis was also a chain smoker that hated listening to the radio as he drove, so the Mini didn’t come with a radio at first, but it did have an ashtray for the driver. It was a very different time in automotive design.
The Mini launched in 1959 and was marketed as both the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor, and arrived as a two-door sedan. It did show up for a short while in North America named the Austin 850 and Morris 850, but that was about as much as the US saw of it in the metal. Sales were slow to start with, and Ford famously claimed BMC must have been losing around £30 per car. Based on that and for Europe, Ford ignored the small car market and built the Cortina instead. BMC claimed that loss just wasn’t the case, and the way the Mini’s cost was shared out with other models, and the techniques used like door hinges mounted on the outside and welding not being hidden clearly helped keep costs down. A two-door van, two-door pickup, and a convertible coupe followed into the 1960s, and sales started picking up.
Popularity and Popular Culture
The Mini entered popular culture in the 1960s as celebrities and pop stars bought and were seen with them. While that was a major spark that lit the fire, the fact was the Mini was close to a perfect design built at exactly the right time. It was a small, inexpensive, but also fun to drive car and full of character.
The Mini became fashionable as the early 1960s became the swinging 60s, and popular culture embraced the Mini in TV and movies, most notably in the jingoistic yet classic movie, The Italian Job. In the heist movie, a lovable criminal gang led by Micheal Cain steal gold bullion in Italy. The climax of the movie featured the getaway drivers using the Mini’s (one painted red, one white, and one blue) size and agility to the maximum in threading their way through the traffic-jammed streets of Turin.
The seventh and final generation of the original Mini hadn’t changed in its overall look by much. The fourth generation was the last to see major updates, and by then featured larger doors with concealed hinges, bigger rear side windows, and the sliding front windows had been replaced glass that wound up and down. The second generation had seen a new front grille and someone said, “Hold on lads, I’ve got an idea!” before adding synchromesh to all the four forward gears. The rubber cone suspension was changed in the first generation to the equally space-efficient Hydrolastic system in 1964 to give the car a softer ride.
The Mini came to the attention of the racing driver, race car builder, and friend of Issigonis, John Cooper, who recognized its potential for performance. He gave the 848cc mini engine a longer stroke, twin SU carburetors, added a closer-ratio gearbox and front disc brakes to gave birth to the Mini Cooper. 1,000 were commissioned so it could meet homologation rules for Group 2 rally racing.
The more powerful Mini Cooper S hit its stride in racing by showing up much bigger cars. The 1963/1964 Monte Carlo Rally saw the Cooper, in the hands of Paddy Hopkirk, become a motorsport legend overnight with an overall win. A year later, Timo Mäkinen pulled off another win in weather so bad only 35 out of 237 entries finished. The following year sealed the Mini’s iconic rallying status with a 1,2,3 win in the hands of Timo Mäkinen, Rauno Aaltonen, and Paddy Hopkirk.
The Mini carried on its success in all forms of racing, and legendary racers including Graham Hill, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, John Surtees, and James Hunt all started out racing Minis.
The Last Original Mini
After 4 decades in production, the last Mini to roll off the line was a seventh-generation red mini Cooper Sport. Over 5 million Minis were sold in its production run cross 41 years. The last year it appeared in the top 10 best selling cars in the UK was 1981, which is incredible for a car born 22 years earlier.
In polls and magazines, the Mini has been credited as the most important car built after Ford’s Model T. Although that’s arguable, there’s no doubt it changed the automotive landscape. While not being the first front-wheel-drive car, it made the more economical layout popular and showed how effective it could be in an economy car. It also showed rear-wheel-drive wasn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all for performance cars.
By the time the Mini ended its production run it had been the BMC Mini, the Leyland Mini, and the Rover Mini. It was a car so good none of the three companies famous for being awful could screw it up. If there’s one thing that shows just how great Issigonis’s design was, it’s that none of those companies could kill it while they managed to ruin just about everything else on 4 wheels. Not only could they not ruin the Mini with ineptitude, but the Mini thrived in spite of it.
In 1994, and amongst a colossal error in judgment getting involved with the UK’s car industry, BMW acquired Rover. They sold off most of Rover in 2000 but made the smart move of keeping the rights to the Mini name. In 1999 BMW unveiled the new Mini Paris Auto Show and launched it in 2001. While it’s larger than the old Mini, it’s still compact by today’s standard and has carved its own niche in the automotive industry. As the name moves further into the future, at the time of writing BMW has just claimed it has received 45,000 reservations of the upcoming all-electric Mini Cooper.