A machine that revolutionised the concept of the city car, and what has now become a pure symbol of Englishness!
This little machine is simply known as the Mini!
Construction of the Mini first began in 1959, with the car designed by the British Motor Corporation’s (BMC) chief designer Sir Alec Issigonis, who envisaged a car that had as much space as was humanly possible devoted to the passenger so as to combine the practicality of a big car with the nippy nature of a Dune Buggy. The result was that 80% of the car’s platform was available for use by both passengers and luggage. The car was also designed to be fuel efficient, built in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis which resulted in rising fuel prices and petrol rationing. During this period it became apparent that German ‘Bubble Car’ equivalents such as the Heinkel Kabine and various Messerschmitt designs were starting to corner the market, and thus the Mini project was launched under project name ADO15 (Amalgamated Drawing Office project number 15). Great care was taken to make sure that as much space was saved for the passenger, including the instalment of compact rubber springs instead of conventional metal and the small but powerful BMC A-Series four-cylinder engine tucked away at the front.
In April 1959 the car was launched to the press under the designation of both the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor (due to the amalgamation of the Austin and Morris brands under BMC). By the time the car was let loose thousands had already been sent abroad in an audacious promotional campaign. Things however started slow for the Mini, but this rising star soon became an icon during the 1960’s, selling 1,190,000 by 1967.
But, behind all the shining sales figures, there were some major problems for BMC and their wonderchild. Baffled by the car, Ford bought one for the base price of £497 and took it apart, desperate to know how their rivals were doing it for the money. As it turns out they weren’t, and were able to determine that BMC was losing at least £30 on every single car they sold. Novelty was the only way to get the car properly moving in this competitive new world, and the Mini was all about that. By 1970 the car had appeared in a variety of movies and TV shows, the most famous of which was their charge to glory in the 1969 film ‘The Italian Job’, where a trio of Minis were used to plunder gold from under the noses of the Mafia and the Italian Authorities. A Leyland Mini holds a place in the heart of British TV under the ownership of Mr. Bean and his various clumsy antics, usually involving an unfortunate Reliant Regal. At the same time it was a car of choice for TV and Music Stars who wanted to show off their quirks!
From then on the car continued to keep up its notorious status as a British symbol of motoring, with a huge variety of cars being made including a spacious van, a country camper, a pickup truck and the Moke dune buggy! There were also two almost identical saloon versions of the car known as the Wolseley Hornet and the Riley Elf that were built between 1961 and 1969 as more luxurious alternatives to the original.
In 1969 the first major facelift came in the form of the Clubman (lower picture), designed under British Leyland to give the car a new lease of life, but ended up being something of a mongrel. Although functionally the same, the boys at British Leyland couldn’t help but get things off to a bad start by relocating construction from the Cowley Plant to the Longbridge Plant, which meant that all kits and tools had to be moved too and thus initial sales were very slow. British Leyland’s reliability reputation was soon to follow, with the unfortunate Mini becoming a victim of the shoddy workmanship that had mired so many of its other products.
Eventually the Clubman was killed off in 1980, although the original Mini design had been built alongside and was still selling strong. British Leyland however had plans to kill off the Mini in 1980 by introducing its new small economy car, the Austin Metro. Built very much to the same principals of the Mini, the Metro was a much more angular design but still a capable little family hatchback. But the angular lines and big bulky body did nothing for the Metro, and the car failed to sell in the numbers domestically than those of the Mini internationally!
Towards the end of the 1980’s and 1990’s, the car came in a variety of different ‘Special Editions’ as the car became less of a mass-market machine and more a fashion item. The iconic nature of the car had sealed its fate with new owners of the Rover Group, BMW, who intended to keep the car going for as long as possible. At the same time the car was a major seller in Japan, which gave a boost of sales in the early 1990’s with 40,000 new cars being exported there.
Eventually however, the design was starting to look very tired and with Rover Group making heavy losses, the Mini and its spiritual cousin the Metro were killed off in 2000 and 1999, respectively. Rover was granted the ability to run-out the model to the very end before Rover itself was sold off in 2000. During the breakup, BMW designed a new version of the Mini which was launched in 2000 and is still being built today as quite a sleek and popular machine, a little bit more bulky than the original but certainly keeping the novelty and charm. The originals however ended on the 4th October 2000, with a red Mini Cooper S bringing an end to 5,387,862 cars.
However, although the original Mini is now very much dead, the novelty that surrounds these tiny little cars is enough to keep thousands and thousands of these machines preserved or in continual everyday usage. Older Mini-Minors are a bit hard to come by and the Clubmans rusted away before you could get them home from the showroom, but the later Mini’s sold in the 1980’s and 1990’s are still alive and kicking on the roads of Britain, and can still draw the attention of passers by even 56 years after the first ones left the production line!