British arrogance allowed Volkswagen to build back from the ashes to become a post-war automotive powerhouse and led to the Suez Crisis of the 1950s, and propelled the need on the British Isles for a small, fuel-efficient yet practical vehicle. But British arrogance, which disdained the micro cars that were popular on the European continent, met that need with a unique vehicle that celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2019, the Mini.
The history of the Mini is the subject of Mini: 60 Years, a new book by British automotive author, commentator and former Classic & Sports Car magazine editor Giles Chapman.
To start development of the U.K.’s own people’s car, British Motor Corporation head Leonard Lord drafted a list of 10 requirements to be met by what was known within BMC as the ADO15 project. Lord handed that list to Alec Issigonis, who was arrogant enough to create a vehicle that revolutionized personal transportation around the world.
Issigonis’ blueprint is well-known and still often copied: transversely mounted engine, wheels pushed to the corners, maximizing interior room for people and their stuff, maximized in part, Chapman notes, by the Mini’s original exterior body welds and door hinges and minimal suspension hardware.
The Mini was unveiled on August 26, 1959, as the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini-Minor with a base price of £497. The car wasn’t an immediate sales success, but after some teething issues, it not only sold well, its format was copied by other companies and BMC spun off a van, countryman, Traveler, pickup truck and even a military Jeep-styled Moke, which became popular as beach cars and hotel taxis in foreign tourist destinations.
Chapman also notes that the company worked on ADO34, ADO 35 and ADO70, which were proposals for an all-out Mini-based sports car.
There were (and are) very sporting versions of the Mini, in part because before Issigonis went to work for BMC, he had built and raced his single-seater Lightweight Special. In 1946, he lost in a race, the Brighton Speed Trails, to a fellow named John Cooper.
In 1961, Cooper modified Issigonis’ Mini and turned it into a racing and rally winner. Chapman notes that at one point, Issigonis and Cooper each constructed Minis that drew their power from a pair of engines.
Chapman also writes about the impact of The Italian Job movie, and of celebrity owners (and some of the luxurious Mini modifications) and of Mary Quant fashions, on sales of the original Mini, and of the movie’s remake with the new Mini that emerged after BMW bought the Rover Group.
BMW, led at the time by Bernd Pischetsrieder, a distant cousin of Issigonis, bought the British automaker in 1994 and soon set out to develop a new and more modern Mini. BMW was delighted to see that Rover’s British design studio already was working on such a project, but also invited proposals from its own studios in Germany and California, where American Frank Stephenson’s proposal ultimately went into production as the new MINI (all caps).
Chapman brings the Mini through that process, writes about the car’s impact on the rebirth of British automotive manufacturing and right up to its 60th anniversary.
What I didn’t find, however, was a short anecdote that Stephenson shared just before a Mini press conference at, as I recall, the Los Angeles auto show a few years ago. He pointed out that the new Mini’s tail pipe looked a lot like the end of a beer can and told the story of the day the BMW board was to see the clay model of the car at a work-and-social gathering to approve it for production.
Just before the board arrived, a design intern noticed the full-scale clay lacked a tail pipe.
Designers came up with a quick solution. They grabbed a nearby beer can, smudged it with clay and stuck it onto the car. When the board approved the model, the beer-can tailpipe became part of the production specification.
Sharing that tale does not diminish from Chapman’s book, which provides all sorts of wonderful detail, photos and sketches that will be enjoyed by Mini owners.
Mini: 60 Years
By Giles Chapman
Hardcover, 240 pages
View Minis for sale on ClassicCar.com.