On 26 August 1959, a vehicle that was to write automotive history made its debut in Great Britain. Under the leadership of the ingenious designer and engineer Alec Issigonis, a revolutionary small car was created at the British Motor Company (BMC) that deliberately deviated from the usual paths. Even back then, the English car manufacturer was already operating something that today is known as ‘badge engineering’, i.e. using the same vehicle concept under different brand logos. The new car made its debut as Morris Mini-Minor and Austin Seven (in some brochures written as Austin Se7en). Only the shape of the radiator grille, the hubcaps and the available choice of paint colors distinguished the two models. Alec Issigonis had been given four important design features for the development of this model: enough space for four people, low fuel consumption, great driving characteristics and a reasonable price. The Suez crisis in 1956 set the ball rolling for this project, questioning Europe’s good supply of Arab oil for the first time. A vehicle concept that was as economical as possible seemed to be the most sensible alternative.
Early in the development process, the so-called ‘A-engine’ from the Austin A30 of 1951 was chosen as the drivetrain. This four-cylinder engine was installed transversely in the engine compartment and the water cooler was mounted longitudinally between the engine block and the left front wheel. This saved valuable space in front of the passenger cabin. Rubber springs instead of steel springs and the cleverly designed interior ensured that with a total length of only 3,054 millimeters, four adults and 195 liters of luggage actually fitted into the Mini. Alec Issigonis had drawn this concept (depending on the source) either on a napkin or a tablecloth. The engine with its 848 cubic centimeters displacement produced 25 kW/34 hp and the base price in 1959 was 496 GBP. All required points had been fulfilled by the engineering team, but the car was far ahead of its time and therefore didn’t immediately meet with great customer interest.
Just one year after its market launch, BMC presented further variants of the Mini. There was now a delivery Van with closed rear side windows, a Pick-Up and a station wagon called Traveller or Countryman, depending on the brand and model. In 1961, the BMC brands Riley and Wolseley offered the sedan versions Elf (Riley) and Hornet (Wolseley) with a notchback and independent front design. In addition, racing car designer John Cooper had studied the small car in detail and discovered an extraordinary potential in this tiny car. Since he was a close friend of Alec Issigonis, he soon had the opportunity to convert his tuning efforts into a production model that became the world-famous as the Mini Cooper and still forms the car’s common name today. Initially, John Cooper produced a special limited edition model of 1,000 units with a one-liter 55 hp engine. This met with the highest praise among car testers and customers, who actually demanded only one thing: more power. So the engine capacity was further increased to 1,071 cubic centimeters, from which the technicians drew 70 hp. The Mini Cooper S was born. With such a vehicle Rauno Aaltonen achieved a class victory at the Rallye Monte Carlo in 1963, which was followed by overall victories in 1964, 1965 and 1967. Actually, Mini also won in 1966, but was disqualified because of allegedly illegally mounted auxiliary headlights.
The extremely open Mini Moke followed in 1964, another variant that had actually been developed for military purposes. Three years later the normal Mini received a 998 cubic centimeter engine with 38 hp and starting from 1969 they offered parallel to the well-known model also the Mini Clubman with newer, more angular and eleven centimeters longer front section. On this basis the Estate was developed as a successor of Countryman and Traveller. The Mini Cooper was also removed from the line-up for the time being and replaced by the Mini Clubman 1275 GT with 59 hp from 1.3 liters displacement. In addition, all Mini models were given a visual upgrade with crank windows instead of sliding windows and internally mounted door hinges. In the meantime, the Mini was regarded as a small status symbol, which was celebrated by the manufacturer in the 1970s with various special edition models ranging from luxurious to sporty. Between 1980 and 1983 the production of Van, Clubman and Estate ended. Only the classic Mini remained in the program, now with 40 hp from one liter of capacity. In 1986, the plant in Longbridge produced the five millionth Mini.
From 1989 Mini, meanwhile an independent susidiary of Rover, finally offered a Cooper variant again, first as a special edition with the 998 engine, from 1990 again in series production. The now 1.3 liter four-cylinder engine (more precisely: 1,275 cubic centimeters) produced 61 hp. With the Mini Cabriolet, a final new body variant debuted in 1991. But it wasn’t developed in Great Britain, but in Germany. Until 1993 the Autohaus Lamm in Achern/Baden produced the car on its own, then the factory took over production and sales. They built about 1,000 units until 1996. In 1994 BMW bought Rover and immediately fitted the Mini with an airbag steering wheel in order to keep it approved for important markets in Europe and Japan.
After more than 5.3 million units and four different variants of the Final Edition, the era of the classic Mini finally ended in 2000 after 41 years of production. Despite BMW’s withdrawal from the Rover Group at almost the same time, the Mini brand including the almost fully developed successor model remained with the Bavarian carmaker. This new model rolled off the assembly lines from 2001. In the meantime there is already the third generation of the ‘New Mini’, of which there are the variants 3-door, 5-door, Clubman, Countryman and Cabrio. From the second generation there were also the Paceman, the Roadster and the Coupé. Ten years after the launch of the original classic Mini, Alec Issigonis received the accolade by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the British automotive industry. In our first picture gallery in this article you can see Sir Alec together with the very first Mini built (license plate 621 AOK) and next to an open engine compartment of another Mini.
Images: Mini, BMW Group