Alec’s Mini

The resulting car was officially presented on August 26, 1959, introducing a way of conceiving the car which was completely different from other examples of the period, and the Mini was so modern that it remained the benchmark for ten years.

The article I am about to offer you here is certainly a bit of a contradiction with most models covered on my site, the memory of which is mainly just of interest to a small niche of fans. This time, however, we will analyse the history of a car that is still present in today’s collective imagination.

I could start underlining that with the success it created: a fashion, a status, captivating stylists, actors and VIPs from all over the world. Even Enzo Ferrari himself owned one. Furthermore, we can say that, thanks to its small size and perfect mix of agility and performance, it became the protagonist of the famous chase in the film “The Italian Job” (1969). Of course, when it comes to the Mini, you can’t fail to connect it to the factors mentioned above, but they are not all that characterise this small car, created by the genius of Sir Alec Issigonis 60 years ago.

It should firstly be remembered that since its debut the Mini has been marketed under various marques, starting with Austin and Morris, passing through three-volume versions marketed under the Wolseley and Riley marques, in Italy as Innocenti, in Spain as the Authi from Pamplona and, finally, under the glorious Rover marque. To sum up, the Mini has been there for a good slice of the British motor industry’s days, from its heyday to its ruinous collapse.

So far we have talked about the original Mini but I would like to clarify that since the name is still in use today it would be right to make a distinction between Mini and MINI, the latter of course a marque owned by BMW which markets cars of various sizes, only drawing inspiration from the appearance of the famous very small car. The MINI marque, written in capital letters, first saw the light of day in 2001 at the same time as the original Mini ceased production after 41 years.

Obviously I take it for granted that the history of the MINI by BMW will not be covered since it is really only a pastiche of the original Mini and if we think about it, apart from its body style being inspired by glories of the past, what do these kind of retro revivals really offer? The new MINI is, of course, much safer, more secure and modern than its ancestor but, although it is undoubtedly a very good car, it doesn’t offer any noteworthy innovations, unlike the original Mini, which in 1959 changed the way in which cars are conceived forever.

After this deviation from the story we return to introducing the story of what was at the very start simply the ADO 15 (Austin Drawing Office) project, the path of which we will analyse through its more than four decades of production.

As already mentioned, behind a successful product there is always a brilliant mind, and in this case the prominent personality in the Mini story is without doubt Sir Alec Issigonis (1906 – 1988), the brilliant engineer who had previously designed the Morris Minor in 1948 and who, after a short spell at the  prestigious Alvis company, accepted BMC chief Sir Leonard Lord’s invitation to return to Longbridge to lead the project to develop a new car which would be able to compete with the successful Bubble Cars which had made in name for themselves in the aftermath of World War Two for their cheapness. The first studies started in 1957 and it seems that Issigonis had drawn his first sketches in the usual proverbial way, on the back of a napkin in a restaurant, but apart from this anecdote Issigonis later stated that for this project he decided not to even look at the characteristics of the possible competition, which was certainly the winning card.

In just over three metres he managed to package an extremely manageable car that could accommodate four people and some luggage thanks to excellent use of the space, ensuring respectable habitability in relation to the compact external dimensions. The front wheels were driven, with the engine mounted transversely, with a sump and gearbox sharing the oil, a solution which gave the car a minimal footprint and, to further optimise space, the radiator was mounted at the side in the usual position in relation to the engine, instead of in the front behind the grille; these were all unprecedented solutions for a car in that period.

The resulting car was officially presented on August 26, 1959, introducing a way of conceiving the car which was completely different from other examples of the period, and the Mini was so modern that it remained the benchmark for ten years, which is how long it took the competition to catch up and offer compact cars with front-wheel drive which would be able to give the Mini a hard time and, amongst those we remember our own Autobianchi A112, present in 1969.

At the time of its debut the Mini was marketed as the Morris Mini Minor and Austin Seven, identical apart from badges and front grilles, but the latter name was only used for a short time, after which its name changed to Austin Mini. The car was initially only available with the 34.5 bhp 848 cc engine which, despite its low power, gave it good performance which, combined with the fantastic road-holding made it extremely easy to handle and fun to drive. Despite its only fairly reasonable price the Mini had quite basic interiors, such as the cable which had to be pulled to open the doors, rather than a door-handle, and the very simple dashboard which still managed to include the essentials, all within a single circular instrument set in just a large open ledge beneath the windscreen.

These economies did not, however, prevent the new small BMC car from being an instant success, prompting the group to already the following year present the estate car versions, the Morris Mini Traveller and Austin Mini Countryman, both with external wood cladding, although more basic sheet metal versions were introduced later. Simultaneously with the launch of the estate cars the commercial versions called Minivan and Pick Up were also introduced. In 1961 the Mini myth was consecrated with the introduction of the Cooper, the result of collaboration between the racing car company and the BMC group, giving rise to the birth of an icon of history. The first version of the sporty Mini featured an engine upgraded to 54 bhp from 997 cc, better interior equipment levels similar to those which were by now fitted to the Super and DeLuxe Mini versions, like three circular instruments on the dashboard and hinged rear side windows, but also fitted to Coopers were different radiator grilles, disc brakes, a remote gear-change, nicer seats and minor exterior trim differences.

The decision to start competing in rallying led to the creation of an even more sporty version, hence the birth of the Cooper S, which initially had a 1071 cc engine producing 68 bhp, later enlarged to 1275 cc, with bigger servo-assisted front disc brakes which were fade-resistant.

The first big test of the credentials of the new Cooper S was the 1963 Alpine Rally with driver Rauno Aaltonen at the wheel, who achieved excellent results, topping his class throughout the race and achieving the Mini Cooper’s first victory, soon to be followed by victories in the Monte Carlo Rally, the result of the perfect mix of the agility of the car and skill of the two drivers, the aforementioned Aaltonen and Timo Makinen.

In contrast to the birth of the Cooper versions it should also be mentioned that 1961 also saw the birth of three-volume versions of the Mini, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet, which featured much more luxurious leather trim and wooden dashboards; they were stylistically less successful than the regular Minis but remained in production for nearly a decade.

In 1964 came two important changes, the first of technical interest when, instead of the basic rubber cone suspension fitted so far, the Hydrolastic system, pioneered on the Austin 1100 two years earlier, was fitted. Also introduced that year was the Moke, a spartan open version of the Mini, destined to be made in small numbers and remaining on the price-list until 1994. Also commencing from 1965 production began at the Lambrate (MI) plant of Innocenti, where the Mini was built under licence from BMC in three series, lasting for 10 years and producing about a third of the model’s sales. In 1974 a collaboration between Innocenti and Bertone began, with a new Mini being developed using the mechanicals of the original but with a modern, square body style which, despite various changes in fortune, remained on the lists until 1993. This was the first example of a modern Mini concept, but it had no effect on the production of the original British model, which was nowhere near the end of its life.

In 1967 the Mark 2 version of the British-made Mini was introduced, characterised by a new-shaped front grille, new rectangular rear lights and a slightly wider rear window; also worthy of note was the adoption of the 998 cc A-Series engine, only available in the top Super De Luxe version. Two years later came what can be considered to be the first real attempt to replace the Mini, the Clubman, characterised by a 12-centimetre longer square-shaped front, which did not fit well with the nice shape of the 1959 car and, of course, vexed the purists who continued to appreciate the classic version, which remained on the price lists after the arrival of the restyled car. The Clubman failed to win over a lot of buyers and only continued until 1980 in the saloon version and for another two years as the Estate car.

Simultaneously with the launch of the Clubman in 1969, the third series of the classic version was introduced which, amongst the numerous new features, included a new logo with the word ‘Mini’ replacing the previous Austin and Morris, thus becoming a sort of marque in its own right within the galaxy of names in the new Leyland Group.

Other improvements included the disappearance of external hinges which were moved within the slightly larger doors, winding windows and through-flow ventilation outlets at the extremities of the dashboard. The rubber cone suspension of the original model were reintroduced in place of the expensive and complex Hydrolastic system and this series also saw, in 1971, the demise of the final Cooper S, replaced by the new 1275 GT; it would be many years before the collaboration with John Cooper would be renewed.

To keep a product which was now beginning to feel the weight of the years fresh, British Leyland introduced the fourth series of the Mini in 1976, recognisable by the plastic front grille and other minor details. In 1980 there was a second attempt to replace the Mini with the launch of the new Austin Mini Metro, later becoming known simply as the Metro, which saw the light of day during a very complex period for the company, which had to face the disposal of marques and closure of plants in an attempt to stem the huge losses. The Metro was limited to supporting the classic Mini, which was updated with the introduction of the 1000 HL, replacing the 850 version, on the price-lists from August of that year. In 1982 the revamped Austin Rover Group introduced further updates to the range, still based on the 44 bhp 1000 cc engine, introducing the City E, HLE and Mayfair levels of trim. In 1984 more improvements led to the fifth series, in which front disc brakes were introduced together with wider track camouflaged by new plastic wheel-arches and 12-inch wheels in place of the 10-inch ones of the originals. In the ’84 range the special commemorative 25-years version was also added, based on the Mayfair and with a limited number of 5000 cars built for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the car’s original launch. Numerous special versions appeared from the middle of the 1980s through the 1990s, including the Chelsea, Park Lane, Black Jack and Red Hot, the Studio 2 and, later, the Racing Green, Flame Red and Checkmate versions with a contrasting white roof to signify the return of that style in the Cooper version of 1990.

Returning to the chronological order, in 1985 further changes affected the Mini, including the definitive retirement of the central instruments of the basic set-up, which adopted a panel behind the steering wheel of the best-equipped versions. In 1986 the five millionth version of the Mini came off the Longbridge production lines but despite that great achievement for the group and the British motor industry Austin Rover finished the year with a loss of nearly £900 million, leading the new management, with Graham Day in charge, to a further restructuring, creating the Rover Group.

Meanwhile, in 1989, the Mini blew out 30 candles on its birthday cake and a parade was organised to mark the occasion at Silverstone, where fans came from all over the world, again demonstrating the love for this iconic little car.

For this occasion the commemorative Thirty version appeared, offering the possibility of two colour choices, Black or Cherry Red.  The exterior was still marked by classic chrome bumpers, a new grille with horizontal chrome strips and 8-spoke Minilite-style alloy wheels, in addition to the specific logo featuring the old Austin marque surrounded by the rampant lions of British nobility. 1990 was marked by the great return of the Cooper, a revival expected by many, which lived a second life thanks to its timeless charm combined with almost unchanged performance from the original model. The engine used was the classic 61 bhp 1275 cc unit, increasing in power to 63 bhp in 1991 with the adoption of a catalyst, and with a respectable maximum speed of 152 km/h. Features special to the new Cooper were the white roof in contrast to the body colour, as per tradition, and the Mini Cooper logo on the body sides, whilst the interior featured fabric and leather upholstery. To complete the classic picture the instruments were behind the steering wheel, consisting of three circular dials, combined with a unique leather three-spoke steering wheel with the Cooper logo. The sixth series of the Mini appeared in 1992 and saw the 1275 cc engine adopted across the whole range instead of the 998 cc and the new British “Open Classic”, featuring an electric canvas roof which opened up the whole roof to the sun.

Also in 1992 the Mini Cabriolet, developed in collaboration with the German Karmann company, saw the light of day at the Birmingham Motor Show, featuring refinements such as a wooden dashboard and leather steering wheel, whilst the unusual plastic bumpers with built-in spoiler stood out and were connected to the wheel-arches, all painted body-colour. Only 414 examples of this special model were made before production ended in October 1996. Also in 1996 the sixth series of the Mini was superseded by the seventh and last series, differing from the previous one by the adoption of a driver’s side airbag and a glove box on the dashboard, whilst from the technical point of view the radiator was moved from inside the left wing to the front.

The 40 LE special version of 1999 celebrated forty years of Mini production and saw the final farewell of the car one year later. On October 4th, 2000 the last of the Issigonis creations left the assembly lines; it was a red Sport version of the Cooper. The farewell range of the Mini was called Final Edition and included four versions: the Seven as the base model, whose name was based on the first of the Austin-branded Minis, the Cooper, Cooper Sport and, ultimately, the luxurious and refined Knightsbridge.

Thus the curtain fell on the Mini di Alec after more than 5,000,000 examples had been built: an icon of a car against which no revival can ever compete, even though it must contribute to keeping its memory, if not its revolutionary peculiarities, alive.

Text by Tommaso Lai

Translation by Norman Hawkes

Copyright © Cars Forgotten Stories. All rights reserved.


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