It wasn't only gas-starved and cash-strapped misers who flocked to the car. The style-conscious middle class found the £496 price tag (equal to about $1400 at the time) an absolute steal, and the compact coupe became as chic a fashion accessory as the miniskirt. Minis served as celebrity transportation (all four members of the Beatles had one, and Peter Sellers had several), film stars (need we mention The Italian Job?), and, in the hands of John Cooper, veritable rally weapons. By the end of 1962, the Mini was so popular that BMC had already built 500,000 examples.
BMC hoped to find similar success in North America, but it wasn't to be. Approximately 10,000 units were pushed through dealers between 1960 and 1967, but BMC wasn't interested in adapting the car to meet federal safety standards enacted for 1968. The Mini soon disappeared from our shores, but it carried on elsewhere with little notable change until 2000; more than five million examples were sold along the way, including Clubman, Moke, van, pickup, and, of course, high-performance Cooper and Cooper S variants.
Many vintage Minis now living in America - including our test vehicle - were later imports. This late-model Cooper, owned by Motor City Mini in Utica, Michigan, was originally sold on the Continent, and it includes such luxuries as a walnut dashboard and an AM/FM stereo. Everything else, however, is exactly as Lord and Issigonis intended.
Once behind the wheel, it's easy to see why the Mini never changed: it didn't need to. There's still plenty of space for even today's overweight driver. Moulton's wacky rubberized suspension handles broken and neglected road surfaces with aplomb. The 1275-cc in-line four - which Motor City Mini admits is "hopped up" - is easily powerful enough to propel the Mini down freeways at 65 to 70 mph.
Better yet, it's an utter delight to drive. The Mini reacts instantaneously to steering input, its responses more akin to a go-kart than a modern compact car. Body roll is remarkably well-controlled, and the Cooper transitions into mild understeer at the limit. Such handling has its advantages in the city - not only can the Cooper dart around obstacles and squeeze into tight parking spots, but its modest limits are so accessible that even the most mundane urban commute can suddenly become a personal road course.
It's not easy to create a car that's simultaneously cheap, economical, and amusing, but the original Mini proved that the formula is indeed possible.