Blog : Happy birthday Mini!

Keith Adams

Issigonis and the Mini

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!

MIni celebrating its 20th birthday (Picture: the Mini forum)
Mini celebrating its 20th birthday at Donington (Picture: the Mini forum)

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

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.
Keith Adams


  1. Yes indeed… Hail the Mini. My first car (1975) was a ’67 Austin Mini 850 in white. I only kept it for 10 months but looked after it and smartened it up in that period. Always will have happy memories of those days.

  2. Had a few of these, and to be honest,were the best fun i had in a car, forever scrubbing tyres off the rims taking corners and junctions at full speed to a all day road race with a XR3i that i completely whupped its arse.

    A car for the heart, when all my head ever did was tell me it was utter rubbish.

    Worth a bomb now too.

  3. I’ve had three mini’s, all of them needed rear subframes, but what fantastic cars. So easy to work on and brill to drive. My son is learning to drive and I wanted him to have one but they are now so rare and really expensive. They also look so small compared to modern cars. I would have another like a shot if I could find a half decent one, at the right price, to restore.

  4. I have posted some old b&w photos from the Mini 20th Birthday Extravaganza in Aug 1979 on the ARO Forum. It was the first major Mini Event I attended….not that there were many Mini events back then! 🙂

  5. My late father, when he was Wolseley sales manager, often used to have lunch with Issigonis at the Longbridge senior management canteen. Wish I could ask him what they talked about!

  6. In addition to comment no. 2, didn’t Sir Alex want the Minor to have a flat four engine as well?
    Just look at how long the Boris stayed in production, as a thoroughly “conventional” car. Just think at that time – what impact, and influence, would it have had as a flat four engined, front wheel drive car?

  7. The Mini was a revolution and part of the 60’s revolution! They were integral – from Lords to Pop Stars – none would have been keen to drive a conventional small car (like the A35) yet many would be happy to be photographed in a Mini – including Twiggy in a mini(skirt)!
    For us motorists of the time, driving a mini for the first time was a revolution in itself. Taking a roundabout at a speed which would send your cross-plied Anglia flying off into the undergrowth, the Mini gave an enormous confidence to the driver. Anyone born into the front drive era and growing up with front drive Peugeots, Renaults and Montegos may not appreciate just what cars – pre Mini – were really like. There were Citroens and some other foreign fwd cars but not enough of them over here to influence the general public.
    Throughout the 70’s I had a saloon, van and a pick-up and we still have a 1964 chopped and lowered, de-seamed, vying roofed saloon with a full roll-cage and a 1440cc engine with crg. It sits awaiting restoration but there is a 64 Beach Buggy and several other cars including a 20’s Lancia ahead of the queu. Happy days.

  8. My first car was a Mini 1000 , JBR 318N , bought as an MOT fail and done up with help from my then boss at lunchtimes and when the garage was quiet , less than £300 spent (in late 1986 money) to go from MOT failure to fully resprayed with new panels and fresh MOT. I think everyone should own at least one Mini in their life , definately one of the best cars ever made.

Add to the debate: leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.