The Mini: Good Things Come in Small Packages

“I’ve always been asked, what is my favourite car? and I’ve always said the next one.”

– Carroll Shelby

A man who understands this only too well is The MALESTROM’s resident car buff, and gargantuan gearhead Frank Evans, who returns this week with his latest instalment looking at classic cars. Where on this leisurely drive through the motoring landscape are we venturing on this occasion? Well buckle up, it’s none other than the most classic of British motors the Mini. A car so synonymous with all things quintessentially British, it’s iconic image resonates with all who hail from Blighty. So get set it’s 3,2,1 Go…

Readers of the The MALESTROM will be familiar with the phrase “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” Well this phrase can best describe how our next car was conceived. We need to go back to 1956 and the Suez crisis. Not only did it lead to the resignation of a British Prime Minister but also a shortage of fuel. There followed a fall in the sale of Cars in the UK for a short while. The boffins at The British Motor Corporation, as it was then known, were given the task of designing a new small car that was light on fuel and was able to ensure the German Bubble car was removed from the streets of Britain. The car in question outlasted the fuel crisis by about 40 years.

We are of course talking about the Mini made between 1959 and 2000. Since 2000, the new shape Mini has been made by BMW but still made in the UK.

Regular readers of The MALESTROM may be wondering why a supposedly ordinary car has been chosen for review. The answer is, that the Mini is far from ordinary. It is not only the best selling British made car of all time but it was a car that was ahead of the curve and was reimagined in every decade it was made.

It is rumoured that bosses at The British Motor Corporation (BMC) wanted the UK streets to be free of the German Bubble car and the Mini was the car to take up the challenge. The car was designed by the late great Sir Alec Issigonis. He was responsible for the design of the Morris Minor so the job was in safe hands. The size of the car had to be contained in a box 10x4x4 feet which created many design problems for the team. The main problem was how do you make a small car that can fit 4 people. The answer was the space saving transverse engine, front wheel drive layout with the gearbox incorporated into the sump of the engine. This meant the engine and gearbox shared the same oil, which was feared to be in short supply after the Suez Crisis of 1956.

The savings meant 80% of the floor plan could be used for passengers and luggage. This was so ground breaking that even today the same principles are used to manufacture front wheel drive cars. In 1999, the Mini was named the 2nd most influential car behind the Model T Ford.

When the Mini went on sale in 1959, it was like no other car on the road. It was pitched as a family car capable of carrying 4 people in relative comfort and of course had a great fuel economy. Figures produced at the time show the Mini was capable of 43.5 miles per gallon. The car had an 850 cc engine which produced 38bhp and a top speed of 72mph. Prices started at around £537 but you could pay more if you wanted extras. Today that would mean parking sensors, climate or traction control and of course a Sat-Nav. In 1959 you would be looking at things like door mirrors, seat-belts, a heater or a radio. How times have changed?

The car was badged as either a Austin 7 or a Morris Mini Minor. You could have either the normal shape car, an estate, pick up, a van and there was even a four wheel drive car called the Mini Moke. In 1962 the Austin version was re-branded the Austin Mini and became a Marque in its own right in 1969. In later years it became known as the Austin Mini again and finally the Rover Mini.

Initial sales were slow but thanks to the rich and famous, the Mini became an icon of the 1960’s. Famous Mini owners included The Beatles, Peter Sellers, Princess Margaret, Mary Quant, and Graham Hill .

Improvements followed, including an automatic gearbox, a bigger 998 cc engine with an improved top speed of 77mph. By the end of the sixties, sales had reached 2 million worldwide.

A grey Morris Mini Traveller parked in a driveway

The Morris Mini Traveller

The estate version was called the Morris Mini Traveller and Austin Mini Countryman. It had double doors at the rear. They were also identifiable by the wood trim on the rear of the car which gave a similar appearance to the Morris Minor Traveller. The mini van as the name suggests was quite small but was popular with tradesmen as there was no sales tax to pay as it was classed as a commercial vehicle.

The Mini became a popular car for rallying thanks to John Cooper. He was a friend of Sir Alec Issigonis. He had previously built formula one rally cars but saw there was potential in the new mini car. He collaborated with Issigonis to create the Mini Cooper (1961 to 1970 ). A new version of the Mini Cooper was produced from 1990 to 2000. The car had a 998cc engine with power increasing to 55bhp.

In 1963, a more powerful car was made called the Cooper S. A rally version was made for the Monte Carlo Rally. The Mini Cooper took 1st place in 1964, 1965 and 1967. In 1966, we had to be content with England winning the World Cup. The Mini took 1st place but was disqualified due to it’s head lights not meeting the rules. The Mini was not alone as other cars were also disqualified for the same reason.The eventual winner was a car that had crossed the finish line in 5th place.

The Monte Carlo Rally winning red Mini Cooper on display in a Museum

The Monte Carlo winning Mini Cooper

We cannot talk about the Mini without mentioning the film The Italian Job starring Michael Cain. The car scene with the Minis has to be one of the best car chases in cinema history.

During the 1970’s, the car had a slight face lift and improved specification with the introduction of the Mini Clubman and Mini 1275 GT which replaced the Mini Cooper. Top speed increased to 90mph and 0 to 60 was 12.9 seconds. By the end of the 1970’s, global sales of the mini had reached over 4 million.

By the 1980’s, the Minis owner, British Leyland , was looking for a replacement for the car. This marked the start of the end of the Mini but the end would not come until 2000. In 1980, British Leyland introduced the Mini Metro. The Car was slightly bigger and was sold along side the Mini. To help boost sales of the Metro, production of the Mini was cut back and sales never reached the previous highs of the 1960s and 70s. By 1985 sales had passed the 5 million mark, but by the end of the decade, sales were at a steady 20 to 30 000 a year.

In the nineties, there was a slight revival in sales due to the reintroduction of the sporty Mini Cooper. The Car had a new engine and styling and fuel injection was standard. The car was a big hit in Japan and was seen as a retro cool icon. Special editions were made to keep the demand going. The cars were given classy names like Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Park Lane. In 1995, Autocar magazine named the Mini as the European Car of the Century.

During the 1990’s, the then owner, The Rover Group, had been split up due to financial problems and the Mini name was now owned by BMW. Under an agreement between BMW and Rover, Rover continued making the mini until BMW were ready to release its replacement. The last Mini  came off the production line on October 4th 2000. This was a red Mini Cooper Sport which was donated to The British Motor Industry Heritage Trust were it went on display to the public. Total sales for the Mini were 5,387,862 with 1.6 million cars being sold in the UK.

With such strong sales you would think that the Mini was a big hit in the USA, but it was not to be. As mentioned in my report on the E-Type Jaguar, the US environment lobby was very powerful in the 60’s and 70’s. When the Mini failed tough emission tests in the 60’s it was decided it would be too costly to redesign the car and as a result, the Mini was withdrawn from sale. Sales in America totalled no more than 10,000.

In 2009 the car celebrated its 50th birthday. To get people in the party mood, the Royal Mail released a series of stamps with the Mini on them. In May of that year, 1450 Minis took part in a parade. They met at Crystal Palace in London and took part in the London to Brighton run. There was also a big party at the Silverstone race track, were it was estimated 10,000 minis took part.

Earlier on in the decade there was the remake of the film The Italian Job. The new shape Minis were now the stars, but there was a cameo appearance from a 1990’s red Mini Cooper. Michael Caine also made a brief appearance to keep the connection with the original film.

The Mini is without doubt a classic car and it has changed the way we thought about motoring since it was introduced in 1959. When ever I see an old one now, it makes me smile and better still, makes me proud to be British.

A mini emblazoned with the Union Jack Flag

If there’s a car you’d like to see featured, leave us a comment below.

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