“One thing that I learnt the hard way – well not the hard way, the easy way – when you’re designing a new car for production, never, never copy the opposition,” declared Sir Alec Issigonis, when asked to summarise his approach to car design. This attitude led in 1959 to one of the most influential cars ever, with a mechanical layout that was adopted by every manufacturer from Autobianichi to Zestava, and which is without doubt the most influential car of the 1950s.
From the mid 1950s, as Europe got back on its feet after the war, there were many attempts to define the modern car – VW made a lot of rear engined air cooled Beetles, and derivatives like the Type 2 vans and camper vans, and other German brands followed suit; Renault followed VW’s lead with the conceptually similar 4CV and Dauphine; but with water cooling, and later the front wheel drive Renault 4; Britain’s Rootes came up with the Imp – again rear engined. But, notably, there had been no truly small front engined four cylinder cars prior to the Mini.
Fiat continued to produce smaller rear engined cars, typified by the twin cylinder 500 of 1958 and the earlier 600, reflecting the requirements of the less affluent Italian market, and which were the closest in size to the Mini. Citroen plugged away with 2CV, which was of course very different, larger but still twin cylinder. Ford and GM (Opel and Vauxhall, then still separate) were still fixed on the rear wheel drive format.
By 1955, within BMC, under the leadership of Chairman Leonard Lord, there was little clarity on which direction was perceived to be the way to go. Lord was clearly determined to establish an internal capability to think, as we would now say, “outside the box”, which was the main reason Lord re-hired Sir Alec Issigonis in late 1955, after Isisgonis had left BMC for Alvis in 1953.
Was it to front or rear engine? Was it to be water or air cooled? If it was to have a front engine, was it to be rear wheel or front wheel drive? Where was the gearbox to be fitted on a front wheel drive car? What suspension should be used? BMC developed, and asked outside consultants to develop as well, some concepts on various themes, none of which matched the standards Leonard Lord had set.
But, as ever, events intervened – in this case the Suez Crisis of 1956, complete with petrol rationing in the UK. BMC felt the competition from micro cars and in March 1957 Lord asked Issigonis to come up with something to compete against them. The only pre-requisite was that the car had to use an existing BMC engine.
Lord’s instruction was something Issigonis had been waiting for, and he quickly developed the first Mini prototype, known initally as XC9003. By placing the engine transversely with the gearbox underneath it, sharing the sump and the engine’s lubrication system, he demonstrated that it was possible to accommodate a four seat car within a length of 10 feet, with around 80% of the car’s length allocated the cabin and boot. Issigonis also specified a compact rubber suspension, and commissioned Dunlop to provide special 10 inch diameter wheels for the Mini, purely for reasons of space efficiency, as he had with 12 inch wheels on the Morris Minor 10 years earlier.
The size constraint was pretty tight and challenging. For comparison, a 1957 Fiat 500 was 117 inches long, a Goggombil around 110 inches, neither of which offered the accommodation Lord was looking for. The Mini was 3 inches longer and 3 inches wider than the Fiat, and the accommodation and performance significantly greater.
To clarify something that is sometimes incorrectly understood and reported, the Mini was not the first transverse engine car – that honour is held by the German Lloyd and DKW 2-strokes. It was, however, the first transverse engined four cylinder car – the Lloyd, DKW and the later Trabant all had twin cylinder engines. Issigonis used the BMC A series engine, which dated back to 1951 and was by then being used on all BMC cars under 1.5 litre. This was an in-line, water cooled, four cylinder OHV unit, and would see service right up to 2000, when the Mini ceased production.
By October 1957, Issigonis had shown Lord a working prototype and the decision had been made to manufacture the car. The design was such that Lord and BMC Managing Director Sir George Harriman were concerned about the high cost of the manufacturing tooling. Undaunted, Issigonis designed the tooling himself. But the rush to get the cars on the road caused problems for the early models of the Mini, particularly with the engine mountings and floor panel overlaps and Issigonis later admitted that the floor panels leaked because some floor panel flanges were the wrong way round.
The car initially used an 848cc version of the A series engine, with a four speed gearbox, with no synchromesh on first gear. There was a late change of heart, though, about the engine installation, when it was determined to put the ignition and not the carburettor at the front, necessitating a reversal of the engine, and the addition of another gear. The consequent gear whine was a Mini trait thereafter.
Fully synchromesh gearboxes came in 1968, following a four speed automatic option in 1963. Later cars had 998cc or 1275cc engines, the latter being initially the preserve of the Mini Cooper and later the 1275GT performance variant. By the end of production in 2000, the 1275cc was the only choice.
By October 1959, the Mini was on sale and when the press first got their hands on BMC’s new car, they were not shy to praise it; the Mini’s unique personality, exceptional space efficiency, relatively good performance and tenacious front-wheel-drive handling meant that it was a sure fire hit with the critics. It confronted the conservative image of BMC head on, which the rest of BMC range then deserved. Even more significantly, it effectively defined the configuration of the small and medium car for the next 50 years. Perhaps only the new Renault Twingo/Smart ForFour pair have challenged it with any credibility.
The Mini had many distinctive features over and above its mechanical layout. The seams on the body were turned outward, rather than inward, to save space internally and to ease manufacture; the door and boot hinges were externally mounted; the boot lid was hinged at the bottom and could be used to support luggage protruding from inside the boot.
Elsewhere, the doors were opened internally by a simple cord, the windows were sliding not wind up, leaving space for large door pockets (suitable for a bottle of Issigonis’ favourite Gordon’s Gin apparently), and the instruments were clustered centrally in a binnacle on the shelf that was the dash.
Initially, the car had an ignition key and switch on the dash and a starter button by the driver’s left heel, and a foot operated headlamp dimmer switch (dipswitch in English, though you use it initially to move the lights onto full beam) somewhere near the root of a very long gear lever.
Issigonis dictated the styling of the Mini himself, as he had the Morris Minor. In the late 1950s, Pininfarina were consultants to BMC, and when Battista Farina first saw the Mini, he asked to Issigonis: “Why don’t you style it a bit?” to which Issigonis quickly replied “It’ll still be fashionable when I’m dead and gone”. How right he was.
Early cars were not actually called Minis. They were either an Austin Seven or a Morris Mini-Minor, picking up on established branding. It was 1961 before BMC gave in and called them all Mini, and 1969 before they were marketed as just Mini, without an Austin or Morris label.
So, BMC had a market-leading car, based on technical innovation and with some proven components that proved to be an instant market success?
No. It took a couple of years for the Mini to succeed in sales volume, after it had become a fashionable thing to have, when second car ownership started to emerge as a market force and when the rally successes started getting noticed. And frankly, until people had got used to seeing such a small car around, and believing it really did seat 4 people, and take some luggage.
The initial take up of the Mini was slow, indeed much slower than BMC had expected. BMC loaned cars to high profile personalities, including Lord Snowdon (husband of the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, and a friend of Issigonis) and actor Peter Ustinov, to stimulate attention. The one above was loaned to Stirling Moss. Slowly, but surely, the fashion conscious urban users began to buy Minis, and that made it more credible as a choice for the second car user, the pure urban driver and the first time (new) car buyer – the original target market. It was a classic case of affluent “early adopters” leading the market.
Sales grew from 116,000 in 1960 to 244,000 in 1964, but it took three and a half years to sell the first 500,000. However, by the end of the 1960s, 2 million had been built and over 300,000 were being built each year. It was manufactured at Longbridge in Birmingham and Cowley in Oxford, the Victoria Park factory in Sydney and later also in Belgium, Chile, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela and Yugoslavia. Whether it ever made any money is questionable, though.
The Mini was launched at the same time as a brand new Ford, the 1959 Anglia 109E with its reverse rake rear window and other transatlantic styling cues, a car that was costed to the last penny in the Ford tradition and on which Ford were reportedly making a unit profit of £50 – around 9% of its £589 showroom price.
The Mini, therefore, came as a shock to Ford. Not only was the car technically more advanced than any Ford, but its basic price of £496 undercut the Anglia by 15 per cent. Ford resolved to find out how BMC did it, and bought some Minis to find out how, and stripped down a car to find out how.
Ford came to the conclusion that the Mini cost about as much to make as the Anglia, on which Ford were making roughly £50 profit. In other words the Mini cost around £530 to manufacture and distribute, while it was being sold at £496! Ford even informed BMC of their discovery, but not surprisingly BMC didn’t raise the retail price of the Mini. Ford could then relax, content to sell the Anglia at a profit, whilst they were aware BMC were manufacturing a loss maker. When Anglia production ceased in November 1967, some 1.28 million had been made compared to 1.66 million Minis in the same period.
Anecdotally at least, Austin policy immediately post war had been to base the pricing of its cars by price matching Morris. Then Austin chairman Leonard Lord believed that William Morris (Lord Nuffield) was the master in cost control and simply assumed that Longbridge’s cars cost a similar amount to manufacture. With the formation of BMC, the corporation, under Leonard Lord, now looked at Ford for its pricing policy. It appears that BMC possibly decided to sell simply price the Mini at a similar price to the old sit-up-and-beg Ford Popular, which ceased production in 1959.
An interesting contemporary observation comes from The Times report on BMC’s results in November 1961. “Mr George Harriman now reveals in his statement that the £5m plus fall in profits to £11.5m was based on a turnover of £311m, almost exactly the same level as in the previous year. Last year 60 per cent of the group’s total output was represented by products of under 1000cc. This compares with 57 per cent for the previous year, and only 43 per cent five years ago.”
It seems even then that the small cars did made small profits, and that the data was available.
BMC, being BMC, then took their traditional view that, as the car was selling well, it didn’t need much development. In 1964, the rubber cone suspension, which was key to some of the space efficiency, was replaced by the (equally compact) hydrolastic suspension used on the BMC 1100 (ADO16) since 1962.
But BMC did create numerous versions of the Mini. Not only was it sold in Austin and Morris forms (classic badge engineering as the two were practically identical; only colours and minor trim details differed), BMC offered estate (some of which were wood framed, Morris Minor style, though not structurally), van and pick up versions on a longer 84 inch wheelbase.
BMC, as ayou’d expect, tried to move the Mini upmarket, and also created the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet. This 1969 New Zealand assembled example was spotted by our friend Big Paws in California earlier this year.
These were Minis with a longer boot grafted on creating a classic saloon profile, old fashioned vertical grilles, small rear fins and wood trim interiors, and were the first cars with the 998cc engine. The (top hinged) boot added over 8 inches to the length – a lot on a ten foot car, especially as the interior was no larger than a standard Mini.
The Mini went to North America in 1960, and over the next 7 years around 10,000 were sold before safety standards and the availability of the Austin America (ADO16) led to its withdrawal.
John Cooper, another friend of Issigonis, owner of the Cooper Car Company and designer and builder of Formula 1 and rally cars, saw the potential of the Mini for competition. Issigonis was initially reluctant to see the Mini in the role of a performance car, but after Cooper appealed to BMC management, the two men collaborated to create the Mini Cooper, effectively a nimble, economical and inexpensive sports car, and maybe the first hot hatch, lacking only the hatchback. The Austin Mini Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper were launched as early as 1961, and generations of British motorsport were based on Minis on one form or another.
The original 848cc engine was increased to 997cc, boosting power from 34bhp to 55bhp, using twin SU carburettors, a closer-ratio gearbox and front disc brakes, uncommon at the time in a small car. One thousand units of this version were commissioned by BMC, designed to meet the contemporary rally regulations.
A more powerful Mini Cooper, dubbed the Cooper S, followed in 1963 and BMC’s chosen promotion was rallying, then a more fragmented scene than it is now, and very much less professional or “corporate”. The success started in 1963 with the Cooper S winning the arduous Alpine Rally and in 1964, the Mini Cooper S won the Monte Carlo Rally, then the most famous and glamorous international rall, beating a variety of cars that ranged from Ford Anglias and Renault Dauphines to the Citroen DS and Ford Falcons. The rally consisted of cars converging on a common meeting point at Rheims in France, from all over Europe, followed by competitive time trials in the wintry Alps above Monte Carlo. The Minis started from, not Longbridge or Trafalgar Square, but Minsk.
A true sign of the times is that the winning driver, Irishman Paddy Hopkirk, did not know he had won until he was telephoned at 3 am by a reporter. Hopkirk is quoted as saying “I didn’t believe it, so I had another beer, and went back to bed!” When he got congratulations by telegram from Britain’s Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home and (separately, one suspects) the Beatles did he start to believe it.
In a noticeable achievement of imagination and organisation, BMC immediately flew the winning car, Hopkirk and his co-driver Henry Lidden to London, where it starred on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, then Britain’s leading TV variety show, in front of 20 million British viewers. You can’t buy that sort of publicity easily.
The Mini Cooper S won again in 1965 and Minis were initially placed first, second and third in the 1966 rally as well, but were disqualified after a controversial decision by the French stewards for using a variable headlamp dimming in place of a dual-filament lamp. BMC probably received more publicity from the disqualification than they would have gained from a victory – but had the Mini not been disqualified, it would have been the first car in history to be placed in the top three on the Monte Carlo for six consecutive years.
Once again, the cars were put on an aircraft and flown to London, where all 3 drove on to the darkened stage, using their illegal lights, of the London Palladium on the cue of “The real winners of the Monte Carlo Rally!”
Over 100,000 Cooper and Cooper S models had been sold by 1971, when BLMC cancelled it, as Chairman Donald Stokes considered it uneconomic, primarily because of the royalty BLMC had to pay to Cooper for each car sold, including those used in the iconic 1960s film The Italian Job, for which BMC refused to loan cars, and the closing titles of which pointedly thanked FIAT and the city of Turin, and not BMC.
By then, of course, the Mini had established itself as Britain’s favourite small car and as an icon of Britain across much of the world, rivalled only by a London taxi or a Routemaster bus. It had become, along with the Beetle and Citroen DS, one of the most recognisable automotive shapes in the world. Looking back, this seems unlikely given some of the shortcomings, such as an appallingly compromised driving position, an awkward gearchange, a pretty lively ride, excessive gear whine and a BMC/BLMC quality reputation.
To contrast with the compromises needed in Mini ownership, the benefits can be seen in two ways. It was a very compact car, obviously, with an ease of manoeuvrability consistent with its size, visibility was good and it was economical. In many ways, it was an ideal second or city car, rather than the first car Issigonis had initially claimed it to be.
But there was another side to the Mini, highlighted by the rally successes. Even a basic 848cc was an absolute hoot to drive, with quick, direct steering, great roadholding, lively performance and an ability to entertain like a happy, lively puppy. Almost, the archetypical kart. Whole generations of British youngsters learned their driving skills in a family Mini that their parents had driven them to school in. Later, the same people would adopt the family Mini as their first car, and the modifications would start, from wider wheels to more power and everything in between. For many, many years, the Mini was the most common student car.
But how did BMC react to this sales success and popular affection? By continuing to build the same car, essentially unchanged, for over 20 years, as the company’s main small car.
Consideration was given to replacing it in the late 1960s, but Issigonis’s resulting 9X concept was too expensive, the Mini selling too well and BMC had no money. BLMC had further attempts in the early 1970s, but still had no money.
Innocenti in Italy did design and build a visually modern hatchback on the Mini platform in 1974, but sales were essentially restricted to Italy, right up to 1993 when it had Daihatsu engines and much revised suspension.
The most significant change BLMC made was to offer the Mini Clubman, from 1970. A Maxi and Marina style nose was grafted on to the Mini’s otherwise unchanged body shell, adding four inches of length with no benefit other than style. A new interior with a binnacle of instruments placed in front of the driver rather than centrally completed the makeover.
Essentially, the Clubman 1000 replaced the Riley and Wolseley variants and the 1275GT replaced the Cooper, as BLMC gently trimmed the marque options throughout their range.
The range of Mini and Mini Clubman endured right throiugh the 1970s as BLMC’s entry offering, and the only car BLMC had to compete with the modern superminis from Europe and Japan. BLMC had plans to replace or supplement it, but the questions of available investment and adequate return were seemingly insoluble.
The closest BLMC ever got to replacing the Mini was the 1980 Austin mini-Metro, using the Mini 1000 and 1300 drivetrain, hydrogas suspension from the Allegro with a modern hatchback body on an 88 inch wheelbase (8 inches longer than the Mini). The Metro (the mini prefix was soon dropped) was more commodious than the 6 inch longer Ford Fiesta, partly by using the same Issigonis conceived gearbox in the sump configuration. An awkward driving position helped as well. Yes, the company that invented the Mini was 10 years late in offering a supermini.
The Metro became BL’s mainstream entry level car from 1980, and the Mini sales dropped by half in a year and it started to move, slowly but surely, to a place where no other small car had gone before. It became an accessory, a statement, a fashion item. Throughout the 1980s, the car was sold on an image of happiness, as a badge of about town fashion and style. By 1990, the Mini Cooper was back, with the 1275cc engine and 12 inch wheels, fuel injection, a front mounted radiator and (finally) an internal bonnet release. Production lasted until 2000, when almost 5.5 million had been built, a record for a Britrih design.
In 1994, BMW bought Rover (to a somewhat surprised reaction from the British public, to say the least) and began again the process of devising a replacement Mini. The final answer, of course, was the MINI – perhaps best seen as a view on what the Mini Cooper would have become if it had evolved over 40 years in the way the Porsche 911 did. And now these have been coming out of Cowley, at a rate and with a profit margin BLMC could only dream off, for 12 years, and showing no signs of slowing down.
But it’s not a true Mini, and never will be. Somehow, you just know it hasn’t got the personality of the original.