The History of the Classic Mini


To provide space for four, Head designer A.Issigonis devoted 80% of the car’s 10 foot length to passengers and luggage. This left him with little more than 18in to accommodate the engine and gearbox. But by turning the engine sideways, and mounting the gearbox, it could be squeezed in to drive the front wheels.

Issigonis favoured having most of the car’s weight over the front wheels for stability and this, together with Alex Moulton’s clever rubber suspension and quick steering, gave the Mini its legendary agility. Many technical difficulties had to be overcome to make all this work. The Mini’s driveshafts used technology inspired by a submarine’s periscope mechanism. Its hard-worked tyres had to be developed by Dunlop to last more than 5000 miles, and the oil companies set to work on an oil that could be shared by engine and gearbox – none easy tasks. But Issigonis and his team got there, and in record time.


The Mini was launched in 1959, as the British Motor Corporation’s answer to the new bubble cars. They appeared because of the Suez crisis of 1956, which had brought on petrol rationing. BMC boss Leonard Lord, who hated bubble cars, instructed his brilliant designer Issigonis, who had previously designed the Morris Minor, to produce something that would drive the bubble car off the road. His brief was: a car that would seat four, use an existing engine and be smaller than anything else the corporation currently made.


Just two years and one month after Lord had driven the prototype and given it the go-ahead, the first Minis launched. It was launched in two versions – the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven – in August 1959, to great reviews from the motoring press. But, though the Mini was cheap – almost as cheap as the crude Ford Popular, despite the newer car’s greater sophistication – people were put off by its complexity. It was only when personalities such as film star Peter Sellers, the Beatles and the Queen started driving Minis that it began to take off. Its popularity with racing drivers helped too.


A couple of years after launch, the Cooper came along. The racers soon discovered that the Mini was a winner both on the track and in the forest. John Cooper drew up a specification for a production Cooper for BMC, and the hot Mini was born. It was not long before a Mini Cooper was the car to have – a bit like having a Golf GTI 10 years ago, or an Audi TT today. And the Mini won silverware by the ton, most famously on the Monte Carlo rally, which it won three times.


Its success was such that it was manufactured in countries around the world, including Italy, South Africa, Australia and Chile. It introduced a word to the language, and it became a symbol of modern ’60s Britain. It also shared its name with a skirt. Despite the success, BMC developed it slowly. For example, it didn’t get wind-up windows until nine years after launch! Instead, BMC and British Leyland, as it became, busied itself with irrelevant new models like the Riley Elf, Wolseley Hornet and the Clubman, rather than developing the car properly. And, crime of crimes, the Cooper was dropped in 1971.


But the Mini kept selling, especially when the fuel crisis struck in 1973. It would be years before sales dwindled to the tiny level they are at today. Demand is largely sustained by enthusiasts – especially in Japan – aided by the re-introduction of the Cooper in 1990. When BMW acquired Rover ,there were more improvements, the 1997 changes – which will be the last of any significance – upgrading the engine, shifting the radiator to the front to quieten the car, and adding a driver’s airbag, seat-belt pretensioners and side impact beams to the standard equipment list. Features like this seem almost too modern for the Mini.

But that’s the point of this car! The Mini 59 years old, has been bought by 5,387,862 people and loved (and hated) by millions more. The most brilliant car Britain has ever produced, and has influenced that of every small car you seen today. And no matter how good it is, it will not be possible to say that of the new Mini.