Superminis : Why the Italians beat us by a decade

Keith Adams

BMC changed the world with the launch of the Mini in 1959. It was created in response to a crisis and was a genius piece of packaging which will forever be Sir Alec Issigonis’ legacy to the automotive world. However, as we all know, it was no profit-maker for BMC and, during its hyper-successful first decade on the market, its maker cruelly – and criminally – failed to develop the concept into something that the customers truly wanted – a hatchback.

The history of the supermini is an interesting one and, like that of the Golf-class hatchback, it was pioneered not by the British, but by the Italians – and we declared the Zastava 101 to be the first true family hatchback in the modern tradition back in 2009. The question of what a supermini is should be simple to answer – three- or five-doors in a package less than 12ft long (back in the early ’70s, this was all that was needed), and front-wheel drive was a must.

BMC had all the ingredients to build such a car, but due to one thing and another, never did. However, it could have been so different. Here, then, is our run down of the pioneering superminis and you’ll be intrigued to see which car we’re calling the original.

BMC’s first might-have been: 1964 BMC ‘Marples Mini’

1964 BMC 'Marples Mini'

1964 BMC 'Marples Mini'

There’s still some debate over who actually produced the  first hatchback Mini. Both Hooper and Radford are said to have produced three-door versions before BMC got into the act in 1964 although it was Longbridge-based Engineer Dick Gallimore’s version that certainly ticks the box and proved an inspiration to rival manufacturers thanks to the car’s high-profile owner, UK transport Minister, Ernest Marples. The car’s full-depth tailgate was added to Marples’ Mini at the factory and looked like a very neat conversion.

Despite that, Sir Alec Issigonis was ambivalent about the concept, stating that owners had all the practicality that they’d ever need with the standard car and its floor-hinged boot. He’d be proved wrong subsequently and would do an about-turn with his 9X prototype (below) at the end of the decade.

BMC/BL’s second might-have-been: 1969 BMC 9X

Issigonis' Mini replacement had all the ingredients...

Issigonis' Mini replacement had all the ingredients...

After 1968’s creation of British Leyland and, following the disastrous productionisation of the Maxi, Issigonis had been relieved of his duties as Austin-Morris Technical Director, being replaced by ex-Triumph man Harry Webster. He didn’t leave the company; instead he turned his attention to the development of his 9X supermini, a car that could well have revolutionised the baby car sector in the UK – had it been introduced in the early 1970s.

You can read the full story of the 9X elsewhere on this site but, needless to say, it would have been an expense that BL didn’t need in its formative years. That said, perhaps it was one that it shouldn’t have denied given the explosion of the supermini sector during the energy-crisis and recession of the 1970s. Instead, the French, Italians and Germans cleaned up while BL stagnated – that was a sure sign of lucklustre management hamstrung by a lack of budget and vision.

However, there was potential salvation in Italy.

Bertone’s Mini hatchback: 1974 Innocenti Mini 90/120

1974 Innocenti Mini 120

1974 Innocenti Mini 120

The story of the Innocenti marque and its status is told elsewhere on this site, but it was one of those partnerships that created some delicious Anglo-Italian variations which managed to be considerably more appealing than their UK produced brethren. The licensing agreement between Innocenti and BL permitted a certain amount of freedom to create individual versions such as the clever Combinata hatchback version of its Austin A40 and Ghia bodied Spridget rebody.

Hence, in the early 1970s and in response to the arrival of the Fiat 127 and Renault 5, Innocenti commissioned Bertone to produce a reskinned Mini sporting a hatchback and smart 1970s clothes. The Innocenti Mini 90/120 made quite a splash and, in late 1974, BL considered importing the cars into the UK to sell through its Jaguar-Rover Dealers, but the numbers wouldn’t add up so, with that, another major missed opportunity was enjoyed by BL – and perhaps another case of poor management and the not-invented-here syndrome.

Anyway, in the event, BL’s troubles post-Ryder Report were such that it off-loaded its Italian subsidiary to fend for itself until Alejandro De Tomaso picked up the company – with that any opportunity to bring the Innoncenti Mini into the company as a home product was lost…

BL’s first supermini therefore ended up being 1980’s Austin Metro – a fine car that arrived years too late to enjoy the fruits of the mini-car boom of the 1970s. What, then,were the pioneering superminis which beat BL to the market and which was the first?

The opposition: 1972 was the supermini’s big year?

Renault 5 of 1972 - the first modern supermini?

Renault 5 of 1972 - the first modern supermini?

It’s funny how many supermini false starts there actually were. The 1970 Datsun Cherry/Pulsar aped BMC’s A-Series engine/gearbox package, but agreeably upscaled the Mini concept. It would have been perfect, had it been for the lack of a hatchback. It was the same with the Peugeot 104 – it too had a BMC-inspired drivertrain and smart Pininfarina styling which we can’t help but feel was influenced by the BMC 9X though, again, that had no tailgate until 1976, unless you discount the pint-sized Shortcut version, unveiled in 1973.

Then there was the 1971 Fiat 127, which was great to drive, perfectly-sized and economical to boot – except that Fiat didn’t fit that with an opening tailgate, either.

Michel Boué’s amazing Renault 5 did have a hatchback (above) and proved a sensation when it was first unveiled in late-1971. Indeed, as soon as it went on sale in 1972, it became France’s best-selling car and instantly became a classless Parisian icon, adored by everyone from housewives to millionaires. However, as a supermini package, it was incredibly flawed – it shared the R4’s mechanical layout (although featured a new unibody) and was, as a consequence, saddled with that car’s longitudinally-mounted engine with gearbox mounted out front… hardly a space efficient layout.

Okay, so what was the first real supermini?

Dante Giacosa’s masterpiece: 1969 Autobianchi A112

Autobianchi A112

Autobianchi A112

We concluded, back in 2009, that the template for the Golf-class was defined by Dante Giacosa and his Fiat 128-based Zastava 101 in 1970 and it seems he did the same thing a year before with the Autobianchi A112 in the supermini sector. Fiat used its Milanese off-shoot to trial new front-wheel drive technology and, just as the Primula ended up underpinning the Fiat 128, the A112 formed the basis of 1971’s 127. Underneath its smart styling the A112 had a Fiat 850-based 903cc OHV engine and boasted an end-on gearbox, echoing the layout pioneered in the Fiat 128.

Interestingly, though, the cute A112 had something the 127 didn’t have from the start – a hatchback. The A112 came in a number of versions, but it was the 1971 Abarth version that really caught the imagination, boasting 57bhp, arguably creating the first sporting supermini over a decade before the MG Metro 1300 went on sale. The A112 eventually fell victim of Fiat’s starvation of Autobianchi during the 1970s and went unreplaced until the Lamcia Y10 was launched in 1986.

The A112 seems, as a result, to have been forgotten in motoring history, despite having sold 1.2 million. That’s a shame, as its role in automotive history is a huge one – as the first supermini, a car that out-Mini’d the original BMC Mini. It could have been so different had BL’s management had the courage of its convictions and not been in a state of perpetual chaos.

Posted in: Essays, Mini - Classic
Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

48 Comments on "Superminis : Why the Italians beat us by a decade"

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  1. Rrr says:

    How about the Simca 1100 from 1967?

  2. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    The Simca 1100 is too big to be a supermini – it’s referenced in the other story referred to in this piece. See Hatchbacks: the forgotten generation, AROnline, 27 November 2009.

  3. Ianto says:

    I guess that it’s not strictly a hatchback, but the Viva HB Estate is similar in size to Ford Escort Mk3. Alternatively, although again not really a hatchback, but what about the Hillman Imp?

  4. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    A supermini’s front-engined, front-wheel drive.

  5. Ajax Soixantedix says:

    What about the Honda N600? That was around about the time of the Autobianchi A112 and I would have thought that it was a bit small to have a bootlid instead of a hatch.

  6. Ian says:

    No, the Honda N600 had a Mini-type boot.

  7. Martin Guelich says:

    There, you said it yourself: Primula!

  8. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    @Martin Guelich
    Yes, see Hatchbacks: the forgotten generation, AROnline, 27 November 2009.

    The Autobianchi Primula was too large to be a supermini – and look at that rear suspension set-up. 🙂


  9. Peter Q says:

    What about the 1967 Mitsubishi Colt 1000F?

  10. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    @Peter Q
    Nice try, but the Colt 1000F was rear-wheel drive.


  11. Paul says:

    @Keith Adams
    I seem to remember that, back in the 1970s, both the Chrysler/Talbot Sunbeam and Vauxhall Chevette were referred to as being Superminis in Group Tests with the likes of Fiat 127s, Ford Fiestas and Renault 5s – and they both had rear-wheel drive.

  12. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    Superminis, perhaps, but not true ones. Both were cut ‘n’ shuts in order to compete with the true superminis. I know where you’re coming from, but they don’t really count, as much as I like both…


  13. Where does the Renault 4 fit into this? The Renault 6 is more ADO16 size, but is the 4 too large to be considered a supermini? I believe that the 4 is one of the milestones in the evolution of the modern small family car.

  14. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    @Alexander Boucke
    The Renault 4 is way too large to be a supermini. 🙂


  15. Simon Woodward says:

    Just for the hell of it, what about the Austin A40 Countryman?

  16. Simon Woodward says:

    Ha! I’ve got it, the Hillman Imp had a rear hatch and was front-wheel drive when driven in reverse!!!

  17. Simon Hodgetts says:

    I reckon that, to have a supermini, you need to have a mini to start with. Thus, it all leads back to the great originator of the modern FWD car: Issigonis’ 1959 masterpiece…

  18. Robert Leitch says:

    @Keith Adams
    The Renault 4 is hardly too long at 12 feet – that’s only two inches longer than a Fiat 127. Indeed, if Renault had made a three-door 4, it would be hard to argue against it being the first of the breed. Five doors came rather late to the “recognised” superminis. Remember the under-rated Peugeot 104 took four years to gain its fifth door.

    Is there such a thing as an RWD supermini? The Chrysler/Talbot Sunbeam was promoted as such but, if it scrapes through, then so should the A40 Countryman (1959), Innocenti A40 Combinata (1965, if a one piece hatch is considered essential) and the 1965 Glas 04 hatchback or, indeed, its rather disappointing 2004 replacement.

  19. didierz65 Didier Ziane says:

    @Keith Adams
    I agree, the Simca 1100 was in BMC 1100/1300 territory. Nevertheless, the Autobianchi A112 was the first alarm bell in late 1969 – happy 10th Birthday Mini.

    Innocenti showed how it’s meant to be in the mid-1970s. The Metro was already too small at launch to be a supermini… The Peugeot 104 and Renault 5 where already 3.55m long! 10 years later, the Rover 100 Series was a sub-mini… Size did start to matter, were BL thinktanks only relying on the porkys told by paid “girlfriends”?

  20. didierz65 Didier Ziane says:

    @Martin Guelich
    Yes, the Autobianchi Primula also known as the Fiat 128, as you may know. This was the “dip a toe” and see what’s happening exercise! The Primula not only lost the hatchback in 128 guise but also gained a few inches.

    Today’s so-called “superminis” are bigger than 1990’s family cars. “GOCOMPARE” a Peugeot 207 with a 309 or 306, today’s VW Polo with a Golf Mk2 or Mk3 and so on. That, in turn, led to the Ford Mondeo, Peugeot 406 and Vauxhall Cavalier increasing in size to and killing of their big sisters the Ford Scorpio, Peugeot 605 and Vauxhall Omega because they were now bigger than their grannies! The McDonald’s generation…

    Funny though, US cars are now small enough to prosper in the European market. Someone’s craving for big car status that German cars can’t provide anymore… Chrysler 300C anyone?

    The Metro/100 went sub-mini when it wasn’t fashionable, because the “real” Mini was still in the catalogue. The Metro was out of its depth before the Mini was, really, because the Mini was an ICON before it died.

  21. didierz65 Didier Ziane says:

    @Alexander Boucke
    The Citroen 2CV and Renault 4 are much bigger inside and out than the Mini. They were no “trend setters” although one can argue that Renault took 13 years to catch up in France so, once again, Citroen was ahead. The Renault 4 had a proper hatchback – Citroen was charging extra for the fifth door until the Dyane appeared in 1968. (Anyone else drawing parallels with the Citroen Berlingo and Renault Kangoo). Both cars were sold in France alongside R5 and Citroen LNA/Visa and Renault 5 at a similar price (the Renault 5 was a reskin of Renault 4, compacted) and were aimed at different markets.

    There’s never been a French “mini” – that’s just as well as, if there had been, we might not have any French car manufacturers now.

    Incidentally, if you go to Wikipedia, you will be very misled when they confirm that the 1983 Citroen BX replaced the Ami (RIP 1978). It’s false, I’ve tried to correct this inaccuracy upteen times, but that’s certainly because, according to Wikipedia, Citroen NEVER produced the GS/A… Wiki is not 100% accurate.

    I can remember L’Auto-Journal referring to the Visa as the new Ami 8, production schedules and prices proved me right. The BX clearly replaced the GS taking the medium-family segment upwards as every car manufacturer did – that is apart from ARG. Need I say more? Bigger is better…

  22. didierz65 Didier Ziane says:

    @Keith Adams
    Obviously, to be a “supermini” FWD is compulsory!

    Autobianchi’s French distributor, Andre Chardonnet, managed to get a one year production extension (c.8500 against c.10000 the previous year) for the A112 alongside the Y10. The Y10 went on to become a Lancia but never had the same success in France or anywhere else in Europe. France was, though, No.2 in the sales charts behind Italy but the Y10 never achieved as high volumes as the A112 did.

    I was resposible for two of those Y10 sales – a “Fire” and then an “EGO” in Metallic Black with Poltrona Frau leather and alloys…

    Anyhow, this demonstrates the trend: the Y10 was too big for a “Citycar” at 3.39m! That was a foot longer than the Mini and the A112 and far too short to be a supermini… The Y10’s replacement, the Y/Ypsilon, was a whole foot longer again but still too short on accommodation although that never reached the UK’s shores.

    Actually, at the time, the Y/Ypsilon was in Citroen Saxo, Fiat Panda and Ford Ka (Mk1) territory as 3.85m to 3.95m was already the norm for superminis. 4.0 metres+ is today’s norm – that’s bigger than Citroen ZX, Peugeot 306 and VW Golf Mks 2 and 3. What’s a mini now? Less than 4.0m/13ft…

  23. didierz65 Didier Ziane says:

    @Alexander Boucke
    The Renault 4 was a very late answer to the Citroen 2CV. Remember that Renault bet all its nuggets on rear-engined small-medium sized cars such as the Dauphine in the 1950s and then the Renault 8 and 10 up to the mid-1960s before doing a 180 degree turn around and launching the Renault 3/4 to fight the Citroen 2CV, Dyane and Ami6.

    Renault then launched the 16 with a hatchback (which was ,at the time, the Austin Maxi’s only competitor) followed by the Renault 6 (a reskin of the Renault 4 which was just bigger to counter the Dyane) and so on…

    The last Alpine still had its engine overhanging at the rear, like the Dauphine, in the 1990s…

  24. didierz65 Didier Ziane says:

    Incidentally, Fiat killed Autobianchi in order to give Lancia a bigger slice of market but that never happened. However, now Lancia will be back in UK with a Chrysler badge! I’m not buying that, does anyone else want to?

  25. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    Great stuff, this! You’re right, the Autobianchi is the winner.

    I’d argue that, in the context of its time, the R4 was an estate car without a saloon counterpart, whereas the A112 was clearly something new – a small fwd saloon with an opening rear door.

    The A40 Countryman comes close, but the rear door was split in two by some superstructure so its not quite there. The Italian version would count, unless you get into the fwd/rwd argument.

    Personally, I think that’s very debatable as there have been some rwd superminis which no one ever suggested were anything else – the most obvious being the original Toyota Starlet.

    However, the car that set the blueprint for the modern supermini was the Autobianchi.

  26. Dickie524 says:

    Just to put a cat among the pigeons: where does the humble Fiat 126 fit in? 🙂 Rear-wheel drive, rear-engined etc, but about 10’6″ long!!!

  27. Mark Pitchford says:

    @Didier Ziane
    Ah yes, the Lancia Y10. I had a Lancia Prisma (which was to the Delta what an Orion was to an Escort) many moons ago. It spent a predictable amount of time in the garage and so I spent a lot of time in a Y10 loan car. That must have had the worst ride of any car I’ve had the misfortune of riding in. A truly awful thing…

  28. Chris C says:

    What about the Suzuki Suzulight Fronte TL? See the photograph in this article from

    Okay, so it’s got a side-hinged rear door but this is 1963 and pointing the way to having a full-length rear door and a two-box supermini shape.

  29. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    @Chris C
    I should have remembered that as it’s referenced in this page on this very website. 🙂 See this article entitled Faking it.

    However, a two-stroke engine and Kei-dimensions mark it out more of a Mini than a Supermini…


  30. Robert Leitch says:

    Mark Pitchford :
    @Didier Ziane
    It spent a predictable amount of time in the garage and so I spent a lot of time in a Y10 loan car. That must have had the worst ride of any car I’ve had the misfortune of riding in. A truly awful thing…

    I can well believe it. I had tenure of a Panda 1000CL for rather longer than I’d have liked – the one on the White Hen platform with the FIRE engine. The chassis was shockingly bad, and put me off any notions of owning a White Hen as an exotic novelty.

  31. Edward Preiswerk says:

    The same goes for the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 – the best selling cars in Britain for years and also very successful on the Continent. The 1100 was launched in 1962 and it took Volkswagen 12 years to come out with a copy in 1974, albeit with a hatch. The 1100 would still exist today in some form if it had been designed as a hatchback.

  32. Sam Skelton says:

    Is a Morris Nomad too big to count?

  33. Keith Adams Keith Adams says:

    @Sam Skelton
    Mucho potential, but they didn’t feel the need to launch it in the European markets that so desperately needed a car like this. However, to the best of my recollection, it’s more of a Golf- (sorry, Zastava 101) class car. 🙂


  34. Hilton Davis says:

    Back in 1977, on a business trip to Tunisia with a colleague, we had to change travel plans and hired an Innocenti Mini (like that illustrated here) to drive from Tunis to a town called Sfax and back.

    I can’t remember the distance but it involved an overnight. The car was not big, but we managed to cram our cases and equipment into it and it did the job…

  35. Will says:

    I agree with Didier Ziane.

    Is there such a thing as a “supermini” anymore? The closest are probably the likes of the iQ and the C1/Aygo/107 (which sits in size length-wise between the 104 and the 106).

    The usual suspects are now huge – Polos are Golf-sized, Fiestas are Focus-sized, Clios are Megane Mk1-sized.

    That’s the equivalent of having a Rover 100 replacement which was the size of an HH-R 400 hatchback!

  36. Robert Leitch says:

    Going by dimensions, the A112 is more of a Mini-clone than a proto-127.

    The Autobianchi’s wheelbase is 2mm longer than the BMC Mini, overall length 180mm (7″) longer and height pretty much identical. The Italian is 50-60mm wider overall and in track and – impressively – weighs only 15kg more. The 127 gained 187mm in wheelbase over the A112 and was 366mm longer and 44mm wider.

    I recall that, when the Renault 5 was launched, the manufacturer made much of the fact that the car was small enough to be convenient in cities, but large enough for long journeys. Perhaps this should be the defining characteristic of a supermini – most of the breed still fulfil the requirement, whereas the smaller offerings would be unsatisfactory long distance companions.

  37. Olof says:

    I remember that, when the A112 finally made it to Sweden, in Abarth trim only, during the mid-1980s, there was a rumour that Issigonis was in some way involved in its creation. Could this be true?

  38. Paul says:

    Innocenti will have been developing the Mini 120 at the same time as the parent company was cobbling together the Allegro. Did it not occur to anybody that a bigger 120 with ADO16 mechanicals stuffed under it would have been an infinitely better car at the fraction of the cost? That would have given BL a true Golf rival and avoided conflict with the three-box Marina.

  39. Simon Woodward says:

    That’s a good point. I’ve read an article about the Board rejecting the Innocenti in the past and the arrogance and lack of vision shown by the BL management at the time was just mind blowing.

    The Innocenti Mini 90/120 still looks fresh today and, at the time of its launch, its youthful styling would have complemented other cars in the BL portfolio, like the Range Rover and the SD1. Your Golf suggestion is spot on – a bigger version would have been the perfect rival.

  40. Paul Spicer says:

    I greatly enjoyed this article. However, just to put a spanner in the works though, all cars were classed by wheelbase not overall length – only Robert Leitch has hinted at this so far. Furthermore, drivetrain layout doesn’t come into it – it comes down to best use of interior space. Anybody still playing???

  41. Paul Spicer says:

    Very early base models of the Golf were not hatches – they had very small boot lids. I always wondered why a company would go to the expense of engineering a different rear end for the cheapest car in the range.

    People look at early Golfs through rose-tinted glasses. I don’t think they were that pleasant to drive and they could give Lancia or Vauxhall a bloody nose when it comes to which would collect the most rust. The GTI saved the Golf.

  42. Simon Woodward says:

    @Paul Spicer
    A Golf with a small boot lid rather than a hatch? I don’t think it’s fair to assume that people look at the Golf with rose-tinted sunglasses though I agree about the rust issues on earlier MK1 Golfs.

    The car sold well because it was what the market wanted and not just because of the GTI. The base car is a great drive with tight handling, great steering and excellent build quality. The Golf has sold in the millions all over the world and was, until recently, still being made in South Africa.

    Lancia didn’t have a alternative until the Delta which didn’t arrive until the late 1970s. The Chevette/Kadett had a limited engine range despite many body variations. Both of these are great cars (I have, in fact, owned all three in the past) but the Golf raised the bar and caught everyone napping.

  43. Robert Leitch says:

    Paul Spicer :
    Very early base models of the Golf were not hatches – they had very small boot lids.

    Surely you’re thinking of the Astra/Kadett?

  44. Robert Leitch says:

    I suspect that this is probably of interest only to myself, but the A112 would fit comfortably into the current (from 1988) Japanese kei car class restrictions, with the exception of engine size.

    For reference these are:

    Length – 3400mm
    Width – 1480mm
    Height- 2000mm
    Engine size – 660cc
    Power – 63bhp

    Actually, even the widely acknowledged original superminis, the Renault 5 and Fiat 127, are not far off. Both are 44mm too wide and, respectively, 120mm and 194mm too long.

  45. Jonathan Carling Jonathan Carling says:

    @Robert Leitch
    …or the original Passat?

  46. Simon Woodward says:

    @Jonathan Carling
    Actually, thinking about the Passat, there were a lot of cars from that period which you assume were hatchbacks but turned out not to be. Take, for example, the Citroen GS and the CX or how about the early Alfasud not to mention BL’s Princess?

    Vauxhall’s decision to fit the Astra with a bootlid was strange thing to do – I could never work that one out, it just looked the same but with reduced visibility and two huge black hinges from B&Q nailed to the back!

  47. Ethel says:

    Aren’t you looking too far from home? The Mini Countryman would meet all the criteria mentioned so far.

    Putting a big hole in the rear end of your box on wheels will mess with its rigidity and folding rear seats will also add to the complexity and cost. You’d have to be brave to risk pricing yourself out of the market to give your customers something they haven’t yet showed they want.

    After all, saloons outsold estates by a good margin. You could argue the Moggy Traveller was the forerunner to the Golf in the UK.

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