Think of the Mini and chances are you’re not really thinking of the car itself but either enjoyable personal memories of driving one, or its iconic and fun reputation in general. You might be picturing it taking tight turns on the open road or with a union jack painted roof surrounded by fashionably dressed youths from the 1960s. Indeed, while the car would prove to be a great example of well-engineered micro design, the iconic Mini persona is really its most enduring legacy. The crowning glory came in 1999 when the classic Mini was voted the second most influential car of the 20th Century (behind the Ford Model T) by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation. Awarded merely a year before the final Mini would roll off the Longbridge production line, it was perhaps a fitting farewell to a car which had endured largely unchanged for over 4 decades, had sold nearly 5.4 million examples to every corner of the globe, and whose honest construction had entered the hearts of us all.
A brief history
Produced by the British Motor Company (BMC) and Rover between 1959-2000, the classic Mini (as opposed to BMW’s re-released version from 2000 onwards) was actually conceived out of austerity. The first half of the 1950s had been a time of economic prosperity in Britain with big heavy curvaceous gas-guzzling cars still very much in fashion. However, the Suez Crisis of 1956 changed all that and pushed the price of fuel right up. This led to the inevitable slump in car sales and the automobile manufacturers reassessing their approach. One such company feeling the squeeze was the British Motor Company who already owned the popular Morris and Austin ranges. These were mostly solid heavy-set cars for affluent middle-class families and so the fuel price jumps did not bode well with them. Looking around, BMC saw that vehicles below 700cc such as the unusually shaped German bubble cars as well as the Fiat 500 (of 1957) were growing in popularity. With more people than ever before able to take up driving there was also a rising need in the UK for basic starter cars for young drivers.
Sir Leonard Lord (Head of the Morris Company) commissioned his lead engineer Alec Issigonis to design a small fuel-efficient car capable of carrying four adults and yet be affordable to all. Since small was fashionable Issigonis was also told that the new vehicle had to fit into a box no larger than 10ft long x 4ft wide x 4ft high. It was from this challenge that the Mini was born. Amazingly despite a few minor modifications over the years, the overall concept and design for the vehicle remained largely true to Issigonis’s initial idea. By moving the wheels to the outside of the frame and changing the orientation of the 850cc engine, Issigonis was able to maximise the efficiency of the small engine while at the same time maximising the internal passenger space. Issigonis’ space-saving transverse engine and front-wheel drive arrangement allowed for 80% of the Mini’s floorplan to be used for occupants and their luggage, a layout that influenced a generation of car manufacturers. His new low and squat design could take corners beautifully and the paired back box-like interior was extremely flexible for everyday life.
While BMC had been good at designing larger more robust cars for the suitably affluent, the requirements for the Mini was radically different. To keep production costs (and thus sale price) to a minimum Issigonis standardized and borrowed lots of parts from the already existing Austin and Morris ranges. Speedos, steering wheels, and door cards were just a few of the parts which the Mini inherited, but it also did away with or modified other key components to be able to achieve their ultimate price tag. Fiddly internal door locking mechanisms were swapped for simple bolt on external ones and sliding windows replaced the common internal door winding mechanisms. Basic models offered merely a single sun visor for the driver and decorative details such as chrome trim around the instrument panel became an optional extra. Even a simple heater became an added extra when the car was first launched. The sheer range of ‘optional extras’ which Issigonis designed into his car was revolutionary at the time and would influence not only the vehicle industry but many other customer facing products for decades to come.
A slow boil
In August 1959 Alec Issigonis’ revolutionary little Mini was ready to be rolled off the production line. While the design, size, price and everyday practicality had ticked all the boxes asked of it, it is clear that BMC was still not sure how to really market their new vehicle to the conservative British public. They clearly couldn’t sell it on the merits of its luxury extras as the Mini didn’t really have any, and they were still a little unsure who their best target audience would be. Therefore, taking the safe and common approach of piggybacking off of their other well-established brands, the Mini was first released under the ‘Austin 7’ and ‘Morris Mini Minor’ names. Indeed, it would take another decade for the car’s name to be shortened to just ‘Mini’, by which time its unique identity and appeal was established.
Sales of the car in the early years was admittedly slow and a famous piece of research done by Ford at the time suggested that BMC were losing about 6% compared to their production cost for each Mini actually sold. This fact has become a part of Mini folklore and while it may have been true in part, it does not probably represent the full picture. Other writers have pointed out that production costs would have steadily dropped as production was ramped up and since the car used so many standardized parts there was little need for regular retooling. Also, while the most basic model may have run at a financial loss, the long list of ‘factory extras’ customers were encouraged to buy probably made up the shortfall on most occasions.
Of all complaints made today against the Mk1 Mini the lacklustre branding was probably the most valid. It is true that the car was sub-branded upon release so not allowing it an image of its own. Yet while the starter car market was not one BMC were naturally comfortable in, both they and the car dealerships were savvy enough to realise that the Mini was good for them overall as it drew in new young drivers who would (over time) return to trade up their Mini for the bigger and more profitable saloons.
The Mini brand is born
As is often the case the iconic Mini identity was not ultimately created by the maker, but by the user. By the mid-1960s drivers had realised just how versatile this little car was, not just for bringing home the groceries, but for more adventurous things like professional road racing as well. Soon the mini found itself winning competition after competition and this healthy front-page publicity helped change people’s perception of the Mini from being a cheap and basic work horse to being a zippy and fun plaything. This playful persona and its paired-back design mirrored nicely the modernist design and youth cultures which were emerging and overlapping during the 1960s. As diverse celebrities from the Beetles or Mary Quant to Lord Snowdon or Princess Margaret began publicly associating with the Mini, its affiliation with the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement was forever sealed.
One of the fascinating things about the Mini is just how little was really changed over its 41 years of production. While the car would go through seven main revisions from the Mk1 to Mk7, and get converted as an estate car, pick-up, moke and van, all of these never seemed to lose the fundamental essence of the 1959 original. Yes, the engine size would be enlarged to 1275cc, the back window expanded, the brakes updated to discs and the suspension changed several times, but anyone who watched the very last Mini roll off the production line in 2000 (which was ceremonially driven off the line by Lulu as a final salute) would still have only seen similarities to its 1959 ancestor rather than differences.
In 1994, BMW bought up part of the Rover group who had ownership of the classic Mini brand. While many of the Rover assets were subsequently stripped out and sold off, BMW instantly recognised and held on to the unique Mini identity. By 2000, as the Rover company was collapsing, BMW decided to move exclusive ownership of the Mini name to itself and to restart production on its own terms. While their new vehicle merely tipped its hat to the older Mini with many structural and design changes taking place, the brand loyalty which had been building up over 40 years made it an instant success in its own right as well.
For so many reasons Issigonis’ Mini was a seminal vehicle for the UK motor industry. While the physical design may not have been as outlandish as others at the time, its concept and well-engineered execution inverted the idea of what a car really stood for. Instead of standing for opulence and excess, the Mini was all about well-crafted austerity. There was honesty in its design and marketing so if you really wanted a bit more chrome or luxuries you could get them, but they didn’t come as standard. This honesty ended up appealing just as much to the affluent celebrity type as the cash-strapped young motorist, but both ended up driving basically the same car.
Of course, when all is said and done a car is only as good as the drive it offers. For anyone who has ever owned a Mini they will know the rush you get from driving it. Being so low to the ground you feel as though you are driving at 80 miles per hour when you are only doing 30, and the wide wheelbase means you traverse corners without the usual pang of fear you get from taller cars. It is perhaps a little disconcerting at first looking under the body of passing trucks on the road or getting used to the sliding windows in winter. But when you arrive at your destination it is usually with a childish grin on your face- and how many cars can really do that!
Notable special edition releases
In the final years of production, Rover released several special edition models in an attempt to enhance Mini sales, including the Cooper RSP, Paul Smith, 40 LE, John Cooper LE 40 and Cooper Sport 500.
Cooper RSP – First unveiled in September 1990, the Mini Cooper RSP (Rover Special Products) was the special edition launch model for the Rover Cooper. The RSP was the first Cooper in 21 years and only 1650 cars were manufactured, of which 1050 were earmarked for the home market. The model proved an instant success and sold out even before cars began to appear in showrooms, which prompted Rover to put a Cooper in full-time production. The RSP featured Rover’s 1275cc A-series engine with 1.5” SU carb, making it one of the last carburettor Minis released before the introduction of fuel injection. The specification included twin-spotlights, RSP Minilite alloy wheels, body-coloured door mirrors and wheel arches, Tudor Webasto sunroof, half leather interior, red leather-bound steering wheel and a three-clock binnacle with green faced dials. Learn more.
Mini Paul Smith – The special edition Mini Paul Smith was released in 1998 in a strictly limited production run of 1800 cars, of which only 300 were for the British market. All 300 UK Minis were solely available in the Paul Smith blue hue, a colour specially selected by the renowned fashion designer, and each car was built to a distinctive and instantly recognisable specification, to include charcoal grey 12” Minilite alloy wheels, twin spot lamps, 24ct gold enamelled “Paul Smith” bonnet badge, full black leather trim, colour-coded dash with “Paul Smith” scripted instrument graphics, citrus green glovebox interior, petrol tank and boot liner, and a special “Paul Smith” denim jack bag. The Mini Paul Smith featured the 1275cc engine from the fuel injection Cooper and was one of the few Mini variants to be fitted with the tall 2.76:1 final drive ratio, making it one of the most refined models to drive. As the most lavish Rover Mini ever produced up to that point, it also wore a premium price tag, becoming the first edition to retail at over £10,000. Learn more.
Mini 40 – The Mini 40 was launched in 1999 to mark the 40th anniversary of production of the classic Mini. Largely based on the Cooper S, only 800 examples were produced of which 250 were earmarked for the home market. The Mini 40 was one of the most expensive production Mini ever made with each car being built to a very high specification, to include Rallye-style spot lamps, Sports pack wheel arches and 13” alloy wheels, full leather interior, radio/CD stereo and an engine-turned dash with magnolia faced dials. Learn more.
John Cooper LE 40 – The Mini John Cooper LE 40 was launched in 1999 with a production run of 300 units as a tribute to 40 years of the Mini and to mark the 40th anniversary of the Cooper F1 World Championship. The LE 40 was only available in the striking combination of Brooklands Green with an Old English White roof, coupled with a contrasting Grenadine Red full-leather interior trim. The John Cooper LE 40 bared the same specification as the Mini 40 (as above). Learn more.
Cooper Sport 500 – The Mini Cooper Sport 500 was the final edition of the classic Mini, released in a strictly limited production run of 500 units. Each car was built to a very high specification, which included a Platinum Silver roof and body decals, Rallye-style fog and spot lamps, Sports pack wheel arches and 13” alloy wheels, full leather trim in black and grey, chrome bezel gauges and an engine-turned dash with magnolia faced dials. Every Cooper Sport 500 rolled off the production line with a “Last 500” certificate of authenticity signed by John Cooper and a unique dash plaque, reading “This Mini is one of the last 500 built to the original Sir Alec Issigonis design”. Learn more.
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So, if you’re thinking of selling your classic Mini, get in touch with Phil for a chat and a free, no obligation quotation. You can contact Phil on 01932 640113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.