Superminis : Why the Italians beat us by a decade
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’
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
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
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?
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
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.