On 26 August 1959, motoring history was made. Exactly 54 years ago, the first Mini was launched to the public and its creator, Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis, stood proudly alongside to show the world his – and the British Motor Corporation’s – answer to the bubble cars. As we all know, the way we looked at small cars, and what they were capable of, changed in that one single moment.
The front-wheel drive Mini could seat four passengers and their luggage and was capable of driving up what would become Britain’s motorway network (the Preston by-pass had been opened late in 1958, but most people will tell you that the motorway age really began with the opening of the M1 in November 1959) at its future speed limit of 70mph. It was clever, it was cheap and, in short, it was a revolution.
What fewer people will tell you is that the day of the Mini’s launch also marked the end of production of the line for the much-loved Austin A35. But then, the Mini represented the beginning of the modern era in UK car manufacturing, whereas the A35 was more like a very amiable evolution of an archaic (in comparison) concept. It might have been launched as the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini Minor, but most people soon began calling Britain’s new mini-car by its rightful name, Mini.
For a while, the Austin Newmarket name had been considered for the ADO15 but, according to Rover historians, it was Lord Nuffield who actually came up with the name, Mini. According to Thirty Mini Years, the 1989 official Rover souvenir booklet to mark the car’s 30th birthday, Lord Nuffield, (who allegedly always referred to Issigonis as ‘that foreign chap’) was quoted as saying, ‘I have a hunch that “Mini” may well prove to be the catchword of the next decade.’
How right he’d prove to be. Mind you, it’s probably quite likely that even he would have not grasped just how much it would shape automotive culture for years to come. Where do you think the term supermini comes from? That generation of small cars, so epitomised by the Fiat 127 and Renault 5 (and, later, the Austin Metro), became frontrunners in a market sector that was named in deference to the 1959 original. The term’s still used today.
I’ve maintained on many occasions that Fiat’s front-wheel drive solution of the transverse in-line four-cylinder engine and end-on gearbox was the more significant advance in automotive development than Issigonis’ transmission-in-sump arrangement. However, it’s probably equally true that Fiat engineering genius Dante Giacosa may not have so readily come up with this arrangement without a little inspiration from Issigonis. And lest we also forget, had Issigonis had his way, we may have ended up with a front-wheel drive Morris Minor replacement with the transmission arrangement used by Fiat – and copied by everyone else – more than a decade earlier.
So let’s toast the Mini’s birthday and remember what a great, influential and simply fun car it was when it was unleashed on to an unsuspecting public. And just as much – let’s also not forget just how brilliant the original Mini is today. Thankfully, its vibrant social scene and excellent community will allow us little opportunity to do that!
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.