Even if you aren't a car buff, you will have heard of the Mini, the most adorable car in the world. OK, we admit that Beetles are quite cute too, and if you were a fan of Herbie The Love Bug films, you might want to argue that no movie was ever made starring a Mini, proving that Beetles are cuter.
Well, we are sorry to say that you would be wrong as the Mini came second in the Award of the Car of the (20th) Century organised by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation in 1999 while the Beetle came, not third, but fourth! The Mini is also the unbeaten best-selling British car in history, with a production of 5.3 million units, so please tip your hat to this resilient model that has sailed through six decades of car fashions to remain a favourite.
Originally a two-door car, it was created by Sir Alec Issigonis for British Motor Corporation (BMC). The talented engineer was, at the time, working on three designs for the manufacturer: a large, comfortable car; a medium-sized one and a small, economical one. In 1956, following fuel shortages brought on by the Suez Crisis, Issigonis was told to prioritise the small model, which would become the Mini. Fast-tracked through testing and production, it was ready to be launched in 1959.
Issigonis’s design proved to be nothing less than a revolution in the automobile industry. Using a transverse-engine and a front-wheel-drive layout, it offered the most space for luggage and passengers that had ever been seen for a car this size, at an affordable price, and it would continue to influence car cabins' design for decades.
Although sales were a bit slow at first, they quickly gained momentum and the Mini became the commercial success we know it for. The Cooper S version was even used by some British police departments. It was, in fact, so successful that Ford purchased one for the sole purpose of dismantling it to see whether they could create a competing car!
Even the less desirable traits of the model didn't stop the love story between people and the car. The Mini was notorious for not being the most comfortable ride: its suspension used compact rubber cones built into the subframes rather than springs which made for a bumpy ride that was not softened by the woven-webbing seats. However, the rigidity of those cones and the wheels' positioning at the corners of the car also gave it a go-kart-like handling which ensured that its faults were overlooked by enamoured owners such as famous movie and music stars Steve McQueen or Mick Jagger.
In 1964, the original suspension was replaced by a hydrolastic system which made the Mini a softer ride, but also increased the weight of the car and its production costs. Seven years later, it was abandoned for good. The rubber suspension reappeared and would remain for the rest of the Mini's life.
In addition to the city car, a number of variations of the Mini were built in the 1960s. The Wolseley Hornet and the Riley Elf were luxury versions with finned rear wings and a larger boot. They also offered chrome accents, bumper overriders and wood-veneer dashboards.
A "countryside" version was also produced in the Morris Mini Traveller and the Austin Mini Countryman, with double "barn"-style rear doors which increased the length of the car by 10cms.
There was even a Mini created just for us, the Morris Mini K, manufactured in New South Wales between 1969 and 1971 and using 80% local content. It was distinctive in that it had wind-up windows and a small round sticker with a kangaroo logo - not because those marsupials are traditionally seen as typically Australian, but rather because they are said to be able to go all day without drinking, emphasising that Minis didn't use much fuel.
The 1960s also saw other variations such as the Mini Van. Marketed as a commercial vehicle with 1/4-ton load capacity, it didn't carry a sales tax, making it a great alternative to the car for those who needed a bit more space. It proved popular and half a million of them were produced over its life span.
The Mini Moke was launched in 1964. Originally a utility vehicle built for the British Army, the 4WD vehicle could climb a 1:2 gradient. Unfortunately, it lacked enough ground clearance to be suitable for the armed forces but it enjoyed some success in the civilian world. Between 1964 and 1989, 50,000 were sold.
Did you know there was even a Mini Pick-up? At 3.4-m long, it had an open-top rear area for cargo and a tailgate. However, although it was marketed as fully equipped, it has to be said that it was a pretty basic model, which didn't stop it form selling as around 58,000 of them were built.
We mentioned earlier the go-kart feel of the first Minis. Issigonis had a good friend, John Cooper, founder of the Cooper Car Company and designer of racing and rally cars, who saw the potential of the Mini in competition. Although initially reluctant, Issigonis agreed to a collaboration which would give us the Mini Cooper and its sports version, the Cooper S.
In 1969, the Mini was given a makeover under the its new owner, British Leyland, and named the Mini Clubman, but it retained its instantly recognisable "round-front" design.
In the decades to follow, the Mini underwent many changes to its name, its design, its engines, its owners and the factories where it was produced but, somehow, it retained the qualities that endeared it to the public and gave it its timeless appeal.
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