Wednesday 26th August 1959
British Motor Corporation (BMC) launched its newest car, the small affordable Mark I Mini. The diminutive Mini went on to become one of the best-selling British cars in history. Ford reportedly purchased a Mini and, after dismantling it, determined that BMC must have been losing around £30 per car, so decided to produce a larger car – the Cortina, launched in 1962 – as the Mini’s competitor in the budget market. The story behind the Mini began in August 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in response to the American and British decision to withdraw funding for a new dam’s construction due to Egypt’s Communist ties. The international crisis that followed led to fuel shortages and gasoline rationing across Europe. Sir Leonard Lord, head of BMC–formed by the merger of automakers Austin and Morris in 1952–wanted to produce a British alternative to the tiny, fuel-efficient German cars that were cornering the market after the Suez Crisis. He turned to Alec Issigonis, a Turkish immigrant who as chief engineer at Morris Motors had produced the Morris Minor, a teapot-shaped cult favorite that had nonetheless never seriously competed with the Volkswagen “Beetle” or Fiat’s 500 or Cinquecento.
Mini development began in 1957 and took place under a veil of secrecy; the project was known only as ADO (for Austin Drawing Office) 15. After about two and a half years–a relatively short design period–the new car was ready for the approval of Lord, who immediately signed off on its production.
The new front-wheel-drive car was priced at around £600 and marketed under two names: Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor – one revived the famous Austin Se7en name and the other called on some Cowley plant history to be called the Morris Mini Minor. The two vehicles were the same except for each had a different radiator grille, and by 1962 both were known simply as the Mini. Issigonis’ design, including an engine mounted sideways to take up less space, had created a surprising amount of space for a small-bodied car:
The proposed engine size was originally 950 cc. However, Leonard Lord, chairman of BMC thought that the 90 mph (140 km/h) top speed was excessive and thus reduced the engine size to 848 cc to gain a more manageable speed (for the time) of 72 mph (116 km/h). Issigonis’ suspension featured the use of rubber cones as springs: the spring rate of rubber changes with compression, allowing the suspension to adapt to passenger load variations (a full passenger load could actually double the tiny vehicle’s gross weight). A conventional suspension would have required an increase in height to the design. This unique design was adapted from Issigonis’s home-built racer and built for the Mini by Alex Moulton.
Although only 10 feet long, the Mini was a genuine four seater. This was possible within such a small bodyshell because the engine was mounted transversely, driving the front wheels via a gearbox which was uniquely incorporated into the sump of the engine. Engine and gearbox thus shared the same oil, which was a significant piece of design in response to the 1956 Suez crisis and the fears of future oil shortages. The overall width of the vehicle was reduced, because there was no need to accommodate a separate gearbox across the width of the car and because there was no transmission tunnel in the floorplan of the Mini, there was more space that could be used to accommodate the passengers thus compensating for the reduced width. Overall length was minimized because of the Mini’s two-box design, comprising only a passenger compartment and the engine compartment. There was no third box providing a separate luggage compartment (i.e. a boot) and that inevitably compromised luggage space. To offset that problem, large bins beside each of the four seats provided some useful interior storage and a centrally located instrument binnacle allowed the dashboard to be opened up for storage too. The requirement for storage bins in the front doors effectively determined that the Mini should have sliding windows rather than wind-up windows. The tiny 10-inch (250 mm) wheels helped to reduce the intrusion of wheel arches into the interior of the vehicle and allowed a modest amount of additional luggage space in a “boot” area behind the rear seats. Overall the Mini represents some very clever packaging which has often been imitated but has never been bettered
An Austin de luxe saloon was tested by the British magazine The Motor in 1959. It had a top speed of 72.4 mph (116.5 km/h) and could accelerate from 0–60 mph (97 km/h) in 27.1 seconds. A fuel consumption of 43.5 miles per imperial gallon (6.49 L/100 km; 36.2 mpg-US) was recorded. The test car cost £537 including taxes of £158. With its low starting price, the Mini was truly a “people’s car,” but its popularity transcended class, and it was also used by affluent Londoners as a second car to easily maneuver in city traffic.
By the time production was halted in 2000, 5.3 million Minis had been produced. Around that same time, a panel of 130 international journalists voted the Mini “European Car of the Century.” A high-performance version of the Mini engineered by the race car builder John Cooper had first been released in 1961; known as the Mini Cooper, it became one of the favorites of Mini enthusiasts worldwide. In 2003, the Mini Cooper was updated for a new generation of buyers by the German automaker BMW.