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.
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.
848-cc OHV I-4, 34-37 hp, 44-45 lb-ft;
970-cc OHV I-4, 65 hp, 55-57 lb-ft;
997-cc OHV I-4, 52-55 hp, 53-54 lb-ft;
998-cc OHV I-4, 38-55 hp, 50-57 lb-ft;
1071-cc OHV I-4, 68-70 hp, 62 lb-ft;
1098-cc OHV I-4, 45 hp, 56 lb-ft;
1275-cc OHV I-4, 59-78 hp, 65-84 lb-ft
Transmissions: 4- or 5-speed manual
Suspension, front: Control arms, rubber springs
Suspension, rear: Trailing arms, rubber springs
Brakes F/R: Drums/drums or discs/drums
Weight: 1300 lb (U.S. models)
1960-1967 (U.S. models); 1959-2000 (worldwide)
About 10,000 (U.S. models); about 5.3 million (worldwide)
$1295 (U.S. market, 1960)
$6000-$20,000 ($12,000-$30,000 for a Cooper S)
It’s a street-legal go-kart with room for four. Original U.S.-spec cars are difficult to find, but a number of other Minis have already been imported. Parts are still common and relatively cheap. Cooper S models are deservedly the most treasured of the diverse bunch.