When the wraps came off the first Mini, 60 years ago this year, there was never any question that the car was cute or lovable. If you’d even suggested that to its dogmatic designer, he’d have shot you a look of such withering, intense scorn you’d have felt ashamed for being so soppy.
Alec Issigonis designed the Mini as an exercise in engineering logic of a purity rarely known before or since. In a little over two years, he created from scratch a car that could carry four adults within the smallest dimensions possible to allow reasonable comfort. Running costs promised to be meagre and every frippery had been banished. There were cheap sliding windows, pull-cords rather than internal door handles, a shelf instead of a dashboard, tiny 10-inch diameter wheels; it was pretty austere.
Issigonis was already well-known as a clever car designer within the industry when, in 1956, he was asked by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) to come up with the ultimate economy car. It needed a vehicle to win back car-buyers attracted to the thrifty ‘bubble cars’ that thrived after the Suez Crisis and resultant fuel shortages. He agreed to take on the challenge but only if he was given complete freedom to do it his way, because he was brimming over with new ideas to meet the challenge.
It was such a radical little machine that buyers were initially wary of the Mini. It also had teething troubles due to the super-fast development time, with gremlins such as water leaks and flimsy exhausts fixed only as the first cars were flowing down the production lines. Sales soon snowballed, though, and new owners began to experience something they’d never encountered before in an economy car: fun.
Front-wheel drive and the fact that the Mini’s wheels were at its extreme corners – like a go-kart – gave the car tenacious roadholding, and this meant the car could be driven swiftly and safely at the same time. Together with precise, direct steering and superb weight distribution, the Mini felt fast even if it wasn’t actually very powerful.
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Owners weren’t the only ones to spot a performance car just itching to get out: so did Formula 1 car-builder John Cooper. He built a souped-up version with tuned engine, extra carburetor and disc front brakes, and the legendary Mini Cooper was born in 1961. The combination of added engine power and the Mini’s surefooted handling made the car a phenomenon on racetracks and rally circuits throughout the 1960s, and well beyond.
Meanwhile, on the street, celebrity buyers started to spend eye-popping amounts of money customising their Mini Coopers. The quickest cars for getting across London now became the most luxurious too, with Rolls-Royce-style seats, dark-tinted windows, walnut dashboards and built-in tape recorders.
The very height of the Mini’s popularity actually came in 1971, its best-ever year when 318,000 were sold. It was a peak from which the Mini rapidly tumbled, though. A new breed of ‘super-mini’ was emerging, exemplified by the Ford Fiesta with its hatchback third door and folding rear seats, still fun to drive but now more comfortable and practical. They stole Mini sales and started to make Alec Issigonis’s little gem seem rather dated.
By now, BMC had merged with Leyland to become British Leyland. The firm went bankrupt and was bailed out by the British government in 1975, and there was never any money to revamp the Mini. Fortunately, despite the design ageing rapidly, diehard fans and wealthy Mini fanatics in Japan provided just enough demand to keep it alive. In 1990, the Mini Cooper made a welcome return to the range (it had been axed in 1971), its feisty character undimmed by the passage of time, and the car, quite astonishingly, survived another decade.
In 1994 the ownership of the Mini passed to BMW. The Germans immediately recognised its genuinely iconic status and set about planning a replacement. The process was fraught, with British and German designers and engineers forced to work together. Sparks flew and arguments were heated, and when the all-new all-capitals MINI was launched in 2001, its place in the motoring world had subtly shifted at BMW’s insistence.
This new MINI traded strongly on the performance, image and heritage of the Mini Cooper. It was larger overall but not very roomy inside; a fun ‘hot hatchback’ with vivid retro overtones for well-paid professionals, not a bargain-priced family tin box.
BMW’s thinking, however, was spot-on. The new MINI was again enormously exhilarating to drive and could be personalised with a dizzying array of options and liveries. Soon there was an entire family of MINI cars, including convertibles, Clubman estates and Countryman four-wheel-drive versions.
In 2006, another all-new replacement arrived, its outer profile and characterful interior retained but its innards fully updated for optimum performance, economy, emissions and safety. And in 2014 the car was transformed once again, with new engines and the first five-door model. Having grown considerably in size and scope, the MINI range now sold all over the world, including the USA where the original car had never been anything more than a curious 1960s novelty.
That said, owners of the original car have always hated the new one. Too big and fancy, they claim, and a betrayal of Issigonis’s purist thinking. Owners of the new MINI, meanwhile, just enjoy it as the premium product it undoubtedly now is, largely unaware its 1959 ancestor is the most influential single car Britain has ever produced.
Mini 60 Years by Giles Chapman is published on 30 April by Quarto Motorbooks
Under the bonnet
Key to maximising passenger space was using a front-wheel-drive layout. But, to fit BMC’s trusty A-series engine into his car, Issigonis positioned it transversely across the engine bay and tucked the four-speed gearbox underneath rather than end-on. Power was fed to each front wheel via constant-velocity joints, and Issigonis ensured everything that made the car move fitted under its bonnet. He designed a compact suspension system using rubber cones that took up less space in the interior than conventional metal springs.
Every one of The Beatles owned a Mini, although John Lennon couldn’t use his car with its psychedelic paintjob because he had no driving licence.
The Mini proved popular with police forces across the UK in the Sixties and Seventies.
Comedian Peter Sellers gave a customised Mini to Britt Ekland as a wedding present.
Issigonis hated listening to the radio when he drove. Consequently, he didn’t bother to design a place for one inside the Mini.
Actor Laurence Harvey paid £3,600 to personalise his Mini Cooper in 1970, which included a cassette player, a full-length sunroof and his initials in gold leaf on the doors.
Lord Snowdon was passionate about early Minis and is often credited with introducing the car to his celebrity friends.
Mini Cooper S cars won the Monte Carlo Rally three times in 1964, ’65 and ’67. It finished first in 1966 too, but was disqualified for a rule-breaking headlight setting.
30 Mini Coopers were used in the making of the 1969 film The Italian Job.
Groovy baby! This 1966 Mini with its striking stick-on plastic decoration was advertised for sale in a Thames Ditton showroom priced at £385.
In 2004, MINI revealed a stretched show car with six wheels and a Jacuzzi in the back; it didn’t make the showroom, sadly.