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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A Brief History - BMC Mini

The first and last Minis ever
Look at these two cars and there's very little to tell you that they are separated by a full 41 years, or exactly 15,018 days. While the cream car on the right (621 AOK) came out of the Cowley factory on the 26th August 1959 as a cheap and innovative new small car for the housewife (according to chief designer Sir Alec Issigonis, not me), the final car on the left (X411 JOP) exited the Rover factory in Longbridge on the 4th October 2000 to much fanfare as a celebrated British icon, loved by millions and regarded as setting the template for all small cars that followed (except for not having a 'hatchback' tailgate, that was popularised by the Renault 5). With total sales of 5,387,862 units, it's also the best-selling British car in history. It is, quite simply, the Mini.

Originally it wasn't just called "Mini" though, as BMC sold it with two different names; customers could choose between the Austin Se7en (meant to evoke memories of the '20s/'30s Austin 7 people's car) or the Morris Mini-Minor (so-called because it was smaller than the Morris Minor, a car which was about as technologically advanced as a shoebox), until Mini became its own marque in 1969. It became a brand in its own right because in the 1960s it achieved something any car company these days wants its small car to achieve. It became a fashion icon, driven by the likes of David Bowie, Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland, even three of the Beatles even had their own ones, all highly customised. F1 overlord Bernie Ecclestone had a supercharged one modified in-house. The list goes on. These people could afford Jaguars or even a Rolls-Royce, and they bought Minis. Even now, the Mini is known for being used by Matt Damon in the chase scene from The Bourne Identity in 2002, as well as playing a main role in Mr. Bean and, of course, The Italian Job.

The car they were buying was also a revolution in small car design. The engine was mounted sideways and on top of the gearbox, leaving a massive 80% of the car's length for passengers and luggage, something all FF-layout compact cars now do. Despite having a trunk the size of a school desk, it was practical because there were so many pockets and holes to keep things in, both alongside and under the seats (the original cars came with wicker baskets under the rear bench). Freeing up 80% of the floor for passengers also meant that they could make this 3-metre (10ft) car a genuine four-seater, although the rear bench allows a fifth person, of course. Unfortunately, being built by British Leyland, it may have been designed brilliantly, but it wasn't put together all that brilliantly. By the 1990s though, they had ironed most of the creases out! Aside from sorting out reliability issues though, it didn't need replacing for 41 years, because why kill it off? If the design ain't broke, don't fix it. That's the mark of a truly great design. It was merely updated with the times, getting newer engines and safety features, with the occasional styling re-touch.

It wasn't just sparkly celebrities that helped the Mini stay in the public mind for so long, its very low weight and "go-kart handling" characterised by having the wheels at each corner of the car made it ideal for racing, something a certain John Cooper (designer of Formula 1 cars at the time and the first to put the engine behind the driver, an important shift in F1) saw in the Mini pretty quickly. In 1961 the first sports-tuned 'Mini Cooper' came out, with the engine enlarged from 848cc to 997cc and power boosted from 34bhp to 55bhp, and in 1963 the first Mini Cooper S came out with 71 horsepower. Some may laugh at that "massive 71bhp", but it's more than it sounds, considering it weighs about half of a Mazda MX-5 and has a tiny wheelbase.

It promptly went rallying, as well as entering the British Saloon Car Championship, where it diced with not only Lotus Cortinas but massive, V8-powered Galaxies and Camaros, creating exciting David-and-Goliath races where the flyweight Cortinas and Minis would dart around the flabby American cars in the corners, only to get monstered in the straights. It was rallying where it became a motorsport icon though, as it won the prestigious and gruelling Monte Carlo Rally four times in a row from 1964-67. Well, I say four times, but the race organisers didn't want it to win three in a row, and disqualified all Minis after the race for having an illegal arrangement of extra night lights in 1966, a trivial and pathetic excuse to let something else win. In 1968 it was beaten by a Porsche 911, of all things.

While the 2-door Mini Cooper is the one we all know and love, there were actually numerous variations of the simple Mini. There was a pickup (if you think a Mini pickup is a silly idea for a utility vehicle, you should see Japanese Kei trucks...), a van (same point), and a 2-door station wagon (either called Austin Mini Clubman or Morris Traveller, complete with optional wood trim). There was also the Mini Moke, a spartan off-road version with no doors or roof, originally designed with two engines and Four-Wheel-Drive for treacherous conditions, but after the military said "no Mokes", it was reverted to the conventional FF layout and sold as a lifestyle vehicle. There are even Mini ice cream vans and motorhomes! Owners of stranger influences have also made them into monster trucks, dragsters, stretch limos, shortened 2-seaters, you name it, because it was so easy to work on and to modify. So cheap, too. Nowadays there are the necessary parts to do literally anything to your Mini for a relatively small outlay. This is one of many reasons why they are still highly popular today, despite being out of production for 11 years. In the end, it just couldn't avoid its age, and Rover stopped building it after 41 years. It arguably all went downhill from there for the final remnant of BMC...

It became as iconic as red phone boxes and black taxis. It endured the tests of time like the Land Rover Defender and the Lotus 7. It left behind a legacy a supercar would envy, and its DNA can be seen in every small car on sale today, including the German one that so crudely impersonates it now. It is, quite simply, the Mini.

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