It was 60 years ago this week that the first Mini debuted, launching a small car revolution in the U.K. that managed to become one of the country’s calling cards when it came to automotive style. The brainchild of Sir Alec Issigonis, the creation of the Mini was prompted by necessity rather than a small-car fad: the Suez Crisis of the 1950s sparked fears of fuel insecurity in Europe, forcing British Motor Corporation (BMC) to start thinking about a new type of passenger car that would maximize passenger space and fuel economy while minimizing exterior proportions and footprint.
Issigonis, an engineer by profession, began his automotive career at Humber in the 1930s, but soon joined Morris Motors, one of the marques of BMC. Earlier responsible for the design of the Morris Minor that debuted in 1948, Issigonis headed up the urgent new project in 1956. Two and a half years later — a record gestation time for design and engineering of a new car — the Mini was ready and was green-lit for production by BMC.
Known internally within BMC as ADO15, the first Mini was powered by a transversely mounted 848-cc four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels and produced just 34 hp, paired with a four-speed manual transmission. An innovative subframe and suspension system were designed in order to reduce the size of the wheel wells: the body used two separate subframes instead of a single one, also saving weight in the process. Further weight was saved by not offering manually-operated windows for the doors — half of the glass window merely slid back and forth. A minimalist cabin featured a centrally-mounted instrument panel and a small bank of switches below it, and not much else. Doors were wafer thin, as was most of the bodywork, but the interior of the car itself was surprisingly roomy for most people. But unlike a lot of cars of the time, space was not wasted in the Mini — every cubic inch counted.
The Mini, as it is known today, debuted as the Morris Mini and the Austin Seven, for two BMC brands, but true to the model’s name the differences were minimal. Just a couple of years into production the Austin Seven became the Austin Mini and the two soon gained power (but not too much power) thanks to a larger 997-cc engine.
Variants like the Austin Mini Countryman expanded the model range.
Something else also happened during its early years: The Mini, almost improbably, began to dominate rally races in Europe, but sporty Minis were not confined to racing teams with budgets.
“Just two years after the introduction of the Mini, John Cooper of Cooper Car Company got involved with the brand in a big way. Cooper – a pioneer for developing rear-engine race cars – made modifications to the Mini and eventually created the Mini Cooper S, which was seen as a sportier version of the iconic original,” the automaker notes. “His modifications eventually lead to the Mini Cooper S winning numerous racing championships against more formidable competitors throughout the 1960s, including the well-known Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967. The image of Mini as a champion on the track helped it gain notoriety that propelled Mini to become a symbol of the growing youth culture.”
And very early on, the basic Mini model also spawned several variants: the Mini Van, Mini Pick-up, Morris Mini Traveller, Mini Moke, Austin Mini Countryman, as well as slightly more luxurious hatch models like the Riley Elf and the Wolseley Hornet.
The first “generation” of the Mini ran from 1959 till 1967 — these are now known as the Mark I Minis. In 1967, two years after the millionth Mini was produced, the car was given a mild update, gaining a few creature comforts, a larger rear window and tweaked grille design.
BMC marques like Wolseley also offered their own versions of the Mini, called Hornet.
“While this was all happening, the Mini was making its feature film debut on screens across the globe in ‘The Italian Job,’ a film starring Michael Caine,” the automaker notes. “Its appearance now legendary, at the time, the film helped to drive awareness of the Mini to new heights. Being seen in a Mini soon became a statement many wanted to make, especially those in Europe. And with celebrity owners such as George Harrison and Steve McQueen, who could blame them? Alas, 1967 was also the final year the classic Mini was sold in the U.S. after a seven-year run.”
Roll-up windows arrived with the third series, known internally as ADO20, which debuted in 1969 and stayed in production until 1976. But the Mini refused to become obsolete, even as British Leyland experimented with replacements. The model was updated several more times between 1976 and 2000 when the last original model, now in its seventh iteration, rolled off the assembly line.
Sir Alec Issgonis’ big idea is still alive today, even if it’s now a little bigger on the outside; the 10 millionth car rolled out of the Oxford, U.K. plant just last month.
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