To the enthusiast, fuel-economy and emissions mandates that push automakers to develop small cars are bad news. After all, there's no replacement for displacement, right? Well, fifty years ago, the Mini showed the world that big fun was possible in a little package.
Americans may not have felt a petroleum pinch in 1956, but the British certainly did. In the middle of the Suez fuel crisis, gasoline went from being an inexpensive accessory to a rationed commodity across the United Kingdom. Refueling even a thrifty Morris Minor suddenly became a substantial investment, especially for the working class.
A quick-fix solution: the bubble car. First seen at the end of World War II, these cartoonishly compact vehicles found a receptive audience in Britain shortly after the oil stopped flowing. Cars like the Isetta and the Heinkel were imported in greater numbers, while a few British marques joined in with their own designs. To frugal consumers, bubble cars were manna on wheels; others saw them as little more than scooters with enclosed bodywork.
Such was the mind-set of Sir Leonard Lord. The leader of the British Motor Corporation seemed to boil at the suggestion that those vehicles were cars, and by 1957, he'd had enough of the nonsense. Lord vowed to rid the streets of bubble cars by building what he deemed a "proper miniature car."
To do so, Lord lured Alec Issigonis - an engineer/designer with a knack for creating small, lithe automobiles - back to his staff and away from carmaker Alvis. Small cars weren't uncharted territory for Issigonis - he'd been largely responsible for the Morris Minor during a previous stint at BMC - but Lord's requirements for the new program were extremely strict. The "mini" car would be only ten feet long, but the passenger and cargo compartments would measure eight and a half feet in length.
Issigonis used BMC's 848-cc in-line four-cylinder but applied a few of his space-saving tricks. In the interest of interior space, he chose a front-wheel-drive configuration, mounted the engine transversely, and developed a new transmission that was so tightly mated to the engine that the two shared their lubrication. Issigonis also employed a novel suspension system, designed by inventor Alex Moulton, which replaced coil springs with small rubber cones.
In 1959, the final product, sold as both the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor, was revealed to the motoring press. Initial skepticism at the car's stature and styling was dismissed after the first drive - the Mini offered plenty of room, adequate power, and remarkable handling.