Before the Mini no mass produced British car had front wheel drive all independent suspension. An engineer's car designed without regard for fashion, the Mini's extraordinary functionalism gave it a timeless style.
The much loved Mini has turned 50. Launched by the now defunct British Motor Corp. in 1959, this quirky little car has gone through several owners and various iterations from the early Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor to vans, station wagons, and convertibles. Immortalised after its starring role in the 1969 film The Italian Job, the Mini has long been a cult favourite.
Its iconic following is even more unfathomable, considering it's not perceived to be a mainstream vehicle, with its size and shape its most endearing characteristics.
There is much more to the Mini of course, as it redefined the notion of a 'small' car. It is a masterpiece of packaging that set the standard for every small car since. It was voted the Car of the Century in an exhaustive poll conducted by respected UK 'Classic & Sports Car' magazine in 1999 relegating the Ford Model T and Volkswagen Beetle to second and third respectively. It is considered by many as Britain's most influential car ever, which is a big call considering the breath of British automotive history and string of magnificent marques that have evolved over 100 years.
That a quirky British legend that fell on hard times for decades has, thanks to a well executed revival by BMW, should again be enjoying international popularity is nothing short of remarkable.
In the five decades since they were first produced, Minis have been used as everything from delivery vans for narrow city streets to military vehicles to canvases for artistic embellishment. The Mini has a surprisingly varied history, with the last of the classic Minis built in 1968. Since then BMW have provided new and exciting models in standard, Clubman and convertible variants.
Origins of the Mini
The concept was always unique - and to this day it remains unique in all its features, qualities, and characteristics. It was fifty years ago, to be precise on August 26, 1959 that British Motor Corporation (BMC) proudly revealed the result of their development activities in creating a new, revolutionary compact car. And indeed, right from the start the public was able to admire no less than two new models: The Morris Mini-Minor and the Austin Seven. This double premiere of two almost identical four-seaters was of course attributable at the time to the broad range of brands offered by BMC in the market.
They were characterised by having lots of space inside with minimum dimensions outside, seats for four passengers, impeccable driving characteristics, superior fuel economy, and a very affordable price - precisely this was the brief the creator of the Mini, automotive engineer and designer Alec Issigonis, received from BMC's top management.
The Mini was largely the creation of one man in a way that would be impossible in today's motor industry. That man was Alec Issigonis an inspired motor engineer that Leonard Lord, chairman of the British Motor Corporation poached from luxury carmaker Alvis to design a new small car. Just as the British Land Rover evolved as a stopgap vehicle of necessity, using available materials in the late forties, the Mini was also determined by economic circumstances of the day.
Its roots can be traced to the Suez crisis of 1956. During this conflict between Britain and Egypt the major impact on the domestic economy was a petrol shortage. Issigonis had already designed the Morris Minor and was commissioned to head a team to design and build a new small car, with the stipulation that it had to use an existing BMC engine and be market ready within two years.
Issigonis was appointed BMC's head engineer in 1955 and headed a small think tank that explored future product concepts. The first prototype to emerge was a rear wheel drive 1.5-litre saloon coded XC9001. It had simple styling and looked similar to the yet to be designed Mini. It was followed by a smaller car that was designed to be a replacement for the Minor. This time it employed front wheel drive, and was coded XC9002. Both projects were shelved to make way for the Mini, but played important evolutionary stages in Issigonis's thinking when designing the Mini.
Design and development
Issigonis was a demanding taskmaster that knew what he wanted. Lord instructed him to begin work on the new small car in March 1957. Issigonis had total control of the body, chassis, interior design and powertrain. He often explained his ideas using detailed sketches, which could be made on anything from envelopes to a restaurant tablecloth!
He had a clear vision of what he wanted and while today the notion of a transversely mounted engine combined with front wheel drive in a tiny wide track body makes sense, in 1959 it was considered ridiculous!
On August 26, 1959 the Issigonis minimalist design was unveiled. The first two models, called the Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor, didn't come with radios. The dashboard was fitted with just three instruments: a speedometer, odometer, and fuel gauge. And even an interior heater was an add-on. Such space saving measures meant that 80 percent of the Mini's floor plan was available to passengers, allowing the diminutive car to hold four adults and their luggage.
It was just 3 metres long and achieved a top speed in excess of 110km/h. It had all independent suspension, unheard of in a small car in 1959. The engine was mounted transversely to save space. While in itself this was not rare, the position of the gearbox below the engine in an enlarged oil sump was unique to Mini. This enabled it to use a four cylinder engine, when other small cars only had two.
To maximise the interior space, and to preserve balanced proportions in a small car he stipulated 10-inch wheels - at a time when 13-inch were the norm. Smaller wheels meant less wheel arch intrusion and thus more internal space.
The suspension was by rubber cones, which automatically became stiffer under heavier loads. This was not the original choice, with a fluid and rubber suspension (later called Hydrolastic) only rejected after attempts to miniaturise it failed. The rubber cone springs had three virtues: they were compact, light and offered the variable rate characteristics desirable in a small, light car where differing loads would vary significantly as a proportion of the overall weight of the vehicle. At the front - steered by rack and pinion - the suspension used single unequal length arms acting on vertical rubber springs; at the rear there was an independent arrangement using trailing arms and horizontally disposed spring units. A beam rear axle had been considered, but intrusion into the boot ruled it out.
Getting power to the wheels was another challenge, with conventional constant velocity joints deemed unsatisfactory, as they would have a limited life. In the end the Rzeppa joint, which was produced for submarine control gear was adopted for the outer driveshaft coupling. The inner joints were initially of conventional design, but after problems with drivetrain harshness, these were replaced by rubber insulated universals.
The structure of the Mini was extremely simple and was conceived to be virtually self-jigging on the assembly line, owing to its external seams and one-piece sides. At first the monocoque shell of the prototypes used a straightforward sheet metal box to hold the engine and transmission, this structure being part welded and part bolted to the body. Substantial suspension loadings resulted in cracks appearing, so it was decided to change over to a separate sub frame at the front and another at the rear, where similar problems had been encountered.
Other changes during development were to turn the engine and transmission through 180 degrees. This was intended to combat carburetor icing experienced during winter testing and it placed the carby behind the engine and thus the ignition system at the front, resulting in the notorious problem of water in the electrics suffered by early Minis in bad weather conditions. More beneficial side effects were better cooling from the fan (allowing a 20 percent reduction in radiator size), an easier route for the exhaust and better synchromesh through the elimination of the large and heavy reduction gear used to transmit power from the engine to the gearbox.
Other development modifications saw the discarding of a French style push pull dashboard gearchange because it transmitted too much noise to the interior, and widening the body by 2 inches for additional space and aesthetics. The possibility of the brakes locking and provoking a skid saw the removal of the battery from under the bonnet to the boot, and by fitting a pressure-balancing valve.
The engine's capacity of 948cc originally enabled the Mini to reach an incredible 148km/h, but was reduced to 848cc, as the higher speed was considered excessive!
Much of the appeal of the Mini was in its simplicity. The cabin was spacious and uncluttered with a wide shelf facing the driver and passenger, and large door pockets. There were sliding front windows, to allow single skin doors, and the steering column and the seats were more upright than normal, to give more vertical seating that took up less space. Finally the boot revived pre-war practice of having a lid, which could be folded down to form a luggage platform.
As is common with any new car, Mini had more than its share of early teething problems. Notable issues included 'floating floors', when water mysteriously found its way into the car through the floor. It was eventually discovered that this was because the sill section had been designed the wrong way, and water was getting in past the spot welds. The prototypes were seam welded and were tested during the dry summer of 1959, and so the problem escaped detection. Such problems were progressively eliminated.
Mini Model range
There were four initial versions: the Austin Mini Seven and Morris Mini Minor, both available in basic or deluxe trim. They are considered to be the classic Mini.
The models were respectively advertised as "A new breed of small car', and as 'Wizardry on wheels', the separate advertising campaigns emphasising the spurious differentiation of the two marques felt necessary to appease the one time rival dealer networks for Austin and Morris vehicles.
The Morris Mini-Minor and the Austin Seven, differing solely through their radiator grille, wheel caps and body color, were both powered by a four-cylinder engine fitted crosswise at the front and delivering maximum output of 34hp from 848 cubic centimeters.
The performance of both models was identical, as was their luggage capacity of 195 litres or 6.83 cubic feet at the rear.
The Mini was not an instant success, with its first full year of production (1960) totaling 116,677, made at both the Morris plant in Cowley and Austin's Longbridge factory. In 1960 the Mini's designer, Sir Alec Issigonis, managed to get Queen Elizabeth to take a ride in the vehicle. The resulting press attracted London's in crowd, and sales improved. By the mid 1960s, the Beatles were driving Minis, and mania had set in. In 1961, Mini sales jumped 34 percent and in 1962 by 47 percent.
The first additional variant, launched in May 1960, was a closed side panel van. It was 10-inches longer and built on a 3-inch extended wheelbase. A pickup followed in January 1961. From the van was developed an estate car, introduced in September 1960 as the Morris Minor Traveller and the Austin Seven Countryman. With a flat floor measuring 1.1 sq metres with the rear seat folded, the Estate was a superb load carrier and offered up to 435 litres of luggage space with the rear seat in use. With glass windows all round, as well as two rear doors, like the van, the two models were technically identical.
A very special variant destined more than any other to create the legend of the classic Mini made its appearance in the second half of 1961: the Mini Cooper. John Cooper, the famous engineer and manufacturer of sports cars already a close friend of Alec Issigonis, had recognised the sporting potential of this new small car right from the start, when the first prototypes appeared on the track. So he received the go-ahead from BMC's top managers to develop a small series of 1,000 units of the Mini Cooper featuring a modified power unit enlarged in size to 1.0 litres and offering maximum output of 55hp.
The response to this car entering the market in September 1961 was quite simply euphoric, with only one further request from enthusiasts everywhere: even more power! So Issigonis and Cooper enlarged engine capacity to 1071 cc, raising engine output to 70hp.
This made the Mini Cooper S a truly exceptional performer not only on the road, with Finnish driver's Rauno Aaltonen's class win in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally marking the starting point for a truly unparalleled series of outstanding success in motorsport. The highlight, of course, was three overall wins in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967.
Along with the Mini Cooper, the Mini Super was also introduced in 1961.
The Super was mechanically unchanged from the deluxe version, but offered improved seats, trim, carpet, an oval instrument cluster incorporating water temperature and oil pressure gauges, improved sound insulation and lever style handles replaced the cheap cable pulls of the original variants.
The Cooper had the same body and trim specification, but an improved long stroke 997cc engine with twin carburetors. There was also a close ratio gearbox with a stubby gear lever, and 7-inch front disc brakes.
The 1071cc Cooper S continued until August 1964. Two new Cooper S models were introduced in the same year: the 970 and the 1275. The latter being considered the definitive Cooper S, delivering 107kW of power at 3000rpm. The 1275 continued until July 1971, being revised as the Mark II and Mark III along the way. 40,652 were manufactured in total.
Two other examples of badge sharing saw the classic Mini badged as the Wolseley Hornet and the Riley Elf in October 1961. This saw two other BMC brands benefitting from the concept of the classic Mini, both models proudly bearing their own distinguished look through their majestic radiator grilles, an extended luggage compartment and swallow-tail wings at the rear. These cleverly contrived pocket sized luxury saloons disguised the Mini shape by a projected boot and by a Wolseley or Riley radiator grille. These additions added to vehicle weight, dulling performance and prompting fitment of a 998cc engine in 1963. These models were further upgraded between 1966-69, gaining wind-up windows, face level vents and the Cooper's remote gear change. Both models were superseded in 1969 by the arrival of the Mini Clubman.
Versatility at its best: from the Mini Moke to the Mini Clubman.
In August 1964 BMC presented yet another version of the classic Mini originally conceived for military use: the Mini Moke, a four-seater open all round and destined to remain in the price list for four years. The first prototypes were made in 1959.
The "body shell" of this unique car was made up, for all practical purposes, of the floor pan with wide, box-shaped side-sills, together with the engine compartment and windscreen. In the event of bad weather, a folding soft top appropriately referred to as a "ragtop" at least tried to provide some protection.
Using the drivetrain and technical features of the "regular" Mini, the Mini Moke became a genuine success particularly in sun-drenched parts of the USA and in Australia. The Moke was rejected by the Army on account of its limited ground clearance. A more 'Jeep like' model was produced, having a shorter wheelbase, increased ground clearance and the addition of a sump guard. Again there were no takers for the vehicle, so Issigonis added four-wheel drive in a bid to increase the Mokes marginal off road capabilities. Four-wheel drive was achieved by fitting a second engine and transmission at the rear of the car. A 'Twin Moke' (as it was called) was tested by the US Army, but was rejected with the Moke instead entering production in 1964 as a purely civilian vehicle. The Moke was a failure, with 14,518 made before production was moved to Australia in 1968. Just 10 percent of the British made Mokes were sold in the UK. Manufacturing continued in Australia until 1982, with ground clearance increased through the fitment of 13-inch wheels. In 1982 production moved to Portugal, and with Australian input considerably improved the car. In 1990 the Moke project was sold to an Italian company.
By 1967 the time had come for a thorough update of the classic Mini, the car receiving a more powerful engine offering 38hp from a larger capacity of 998cc.
Two years later the Mini Clubman joined the range as a slightly larger model with a somewhat different front end compared to the classic Mini. Indeed, this sister car was some 11 cm or 4.33" longer than the original, the Estate version replacing the Morris Mini-Traveller and the Austin Seven Countryman measuring exactly 3.4 metres or 133.9" in length, while width, height, and wheelbase remained unchanged.
At the same time the Mini Cooper was taken out of production, being replaced by the top model in the Clubman range, the Mini 1275 GT developing 59hp from its 1.3-litre power unit.
A number of other details also changed in 1969, the front sliding windows so typical of the classic Mini since the beginning being replaced on all models by wind-down windows, the door hinges at the outside being moved to the inside, and a special "Mini" badge now standing out proudly on the engine compartment lid.
Never-ending classic Mini and the comeback of the Mini Cooper.
Numerous special versions of the classic Mini with all kinds of highlights - from sporting to trendy, from distinguished to fresh - entered the market as of mid-1970.
Between 1980 and 1983 the model range was streamlined appropriately, with the Clubman, Estate and Van leaving production. The "only" car left over, therefore, was the classic Mini with its 1.0-litre power unit now delivering 40hp. And customers, simply loving the car, remained faithful to this little performer for years to come, the five-millionth classic Mini coming off the production line at Plant Longbridge in 1986.
In 1990 fans the world over were delighted to celebrate the comeback of the Mini Cooper once again entering the model range. Now this special model was powered in all cases by a 1.3-litre, production of the 1.0-litre in the Mini ending in 1992 on account of growing requirements in terms of emission management. So from now on all models came with the 1,275cc power unit and fuel injection.
Yet another new variant of the classic Mini made its appearance in 1991 as the last new model in the range. And this was indeed the only Mini to originate not in Britain, but in Germany: Like some tuners before him, a dedicated Mini dealer in the German region of Baden had cut the roof off the classic Mini, turning the car into an extremely attractive Convertible. And contrary to earlier attempts, the result was so good this time in its quality that Rover Group, now responsible for the classic Mini, decided to buy the construction tools and production equipment for the Mini Convertible, which from 1993 to 1996 accounted for sales of approximately 1,000 units.
Production of the classic Mini finally ceased once and for all in the year 2000. In the course of time more than 5.3 million units of the world's most successful compact car had left the production plants in numerous different versions, among them some 600,000 cars built at Plant Oxford between 1959 and 1968.
But even after 41 years, there was still a long way to go. For after a break of not quite one year, a new chapter in the history of this world famous British brand opened up in 2001.
NEXT MONTH: A new start for Mini
Source: JUST CARS, August 2009, Collectors Issue #162