In the mid-1950s, the British Motor Corporation planned a new line of models that included a small city car, a medium-size family car, and a larger car meant for longer distances. For this project, Sir Leonard Lord of BMC enlisted automotive designer Alex Issigonis, who had previously worked at Morris Motors Limited before moving on to Alvis Cars. Upon his return to BMC, Issigonis wasted no time and produced several prototypes of the two larger vehicles, making them the focus of his testing.
By late 1956, the Suez Crisis led to the rationing of fuel and as a result, Issigonis received orders to immediately refocus his efforts on the smaller model. The Morris Mini Minor (also sold as the Austin Seven and later Austin Mini) debuted in 1959, quickly becoming universally referred to simply as the “Mini.” Needless to say, it was an instant success.
Compared to other larger passenger vehicles of the 1960s, the Mini was affordable, quick, and had impressive fuel economy. Despite its size, it could accommodate four passengers, their luggage, and even more stuff on the rooftop. Issigonis decided on a transverse engine placement—rare at the time—and to push the wheels all the way to the corners, significant innovations that resulted in greater stability when turning into tight corners, improved balance, stronger grip, and more room inside.
With the successful launch of the Mini, Issigonis teamed up with British racing legend John Cooper to build a more agile version that could compete in rally racing. In 1961, their collaboration produced a Mini with a more powerful engine, a tuned suspension, twin HS2 carburetors, and bigger brakes. Labeled the Mini Cooper 997 (the Cooper S road car followed in 1963), this more powerful model competed in the Monte Carlo Rally, winning in 1964, 1965, and 1967. Interestingly, Minis did enter the 1966 race and one finished in first place but was disqualified (along with several other British cars) for the relatively frivolous reason that its headlights weren’t of the type used in the road car.
Today, the Mini Cooper continues to be a popular choice among car buyers and enthusiasts alike (such as the fanbase I encountered at a Mini meet up last year). And even though it’s now owned by German automaker BMW, nearly all modern Mini vehicles still display the British charm and spirit that makes the brand such an icon.
I recently got behind the wheel of a souped-up 2019 Mini John Cooper Works Knights Edition, a major upgrade from the Mini Cooper Oxford Edition I drove just prior. Comparing the two would be unfair, however—the Oxford is an affordable model powered by the entry-level three-cylinder engine—so the rest of this article won’t attempt to do that. With its sportier suspension, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder producing 228 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, and nicer seats, the JCW strikes a sportier chord, and is altogether more enjoyable for it, provided you can stomach the starting price of $32,750 for such a small thing. (Larger—though by no means large—JCW variants ratchet the price up further.)
But putting price out of mind, and speaking more specifically, here are some features and design elements that I really liked about the limited-production Mini JCW Knights Edition I drove:
JCW Sport Suspension
The car’s sportier suspension and more buttoned-down chassis seemed to, paradoxically, make the ride quality smoother. I noticed imperfections on the same roads far less than in the other Mini. They also impart a more direct, confident feel, provoking drivers to push the JCW a lot harder.
Piano-Black Sport Trim
There’s a red checkered-flag pattern used on the door sills, speedometer, and piano-black trim that wraps around the 8.8-inch touchscreen. I thought the piano-black trim made the pattern pop best, plus it looks like a tachometer—it was my favorite interior detail.
Union Jack Taillight Design
As on all Minis, the JCW’s taillights feature a British Union Jack flag motif. Frankly, it’s one of the coolest designs I’ve seen, and makes me wish more companies would incorporate fun nods to their heritage in their vehicles.
Shifting gears for yourself is more exciting than letting some slushbox do it for you. And while it isn’t as good as, say, one you’d find in a Honda Civic Si, the Mini’s six-speed shifter has good action and offers positive engagements in its gates. Need I say more?
Technology in Action Sport Displays
I discovered this feature when I was trying to change the color of the cabin’s ambient lighting. It’s the cutest technology feature, and informs you of the fuel range, weather, drive mode, and engine temperature with animated graphics.
Dinamica Cloth Sport Seats
With additional lateral support, the sportier, cloth-covered bucket seats covered in cloth are quite comfortable and are a blessing to any driver who spends a lot of time on the road. They also hold you in place well during spirited driving. And even though they lack power adjustability, it’s easy to find the right driving position.
Pro Exhaust with Bluetooth Controlled Flap
Instructions: Buckle up, start the engine, roll the windows down, engage Sport mode, and double-click the cylindrical Bluetooth controller. (That’s it tucked into a foam protector above.) When the tiny red light on the controller comes on, shift into first gear and accelerate. While working your way up into sixth, listen to the exhaust express how it really feels about life. Enjoy the ride, and don’t forget to double-click the controller again to enter the exhaust’s Sport+ mode, which is, um, intended for track use only.
The halo-shaped LED headlight accents are razor-sharp, helping the crisp-looking Knights Edition stripes and other exterior enhancements look even cooler.