In 1974, Leyland’s Italian subsidiary Innocenti introduced a rebodied, three-door hatchback Mini, styled by Bertone. However, within a year of its launch, BLMC went bankrupt, the company was sold to de Tomaso and the opportunity to sell the Innocenti Mini 90/120 in the UK was lost forever.
Prior to the launch of the Austin Metro, the Innocenti was briefly available in the UK, and it continued to be sold as part of BL’s range in many mainland European countries even after the Metro’s appearance.
The full story: Innocenti Mini 90L/120L
Now regarded as one of British Leyland’s most stylish missed opportunities, the Bertone-bodied Innocenti 90/120 was several years in the making, even though it wasn’t until after the UK takeover of the Italian carmaker that it was able to build its supermini challenger. Launched in 1974, the Innocenti 90 and 120 were aimed at fighting the Fiat 127 and Autobianchi A112 in their home market, and the class-leading Renault 5 and abroad. This was a task beyond the original Innocenti Mini.
First thoughts on its replacement were in 1967, alongside the Innocenti family’s increasing desire to build its own small car, which didn’t need to rely on shipped-in components from the UK. By the following year the Innocenti 750 was beginning to take shape – powered by an all-new four-cylinder engine, and featuring all-independent suspension by McPherson struts up front and semi-trailing arms at the rear.
Styling came down to two proposals – one from Michelotti, and the other from Bertone (both pictured below). If Michelotti wasn’t aware of the BMC 9X project, then this was a remarkable piece of parallel thinking reflecting the then-current zeitgeist.
The Innocenti 750 takes shape in 1968
The 750 was certainly an ambitious project, especially considering Innocenti had yet to build a car on its own. It had, to this point, relied on the UK for its product and, even if it wrapped up a car in new clothes, they would be brought in from local carrozzeria – not that there was anything wrong with that. So, a car with a new drivetrain, suspension and body would be a big step up, a realisation of the Innocenti family’s dreams.
Following a long period of soul searching and no doubt a long, hard look at the accounts, Innocenti chose to shelve its 750 project and renew its seven-year contract with BLMC to continue building its cars under licence. As well as the financial strain of developing its all-new car, Innocenti was being crippled by ongoing industrial unrest during Italy’s disastrous hot autumn, the country’s equivalent of our Winter of Discontent during 1969.
The troubles were deep, and the inevitable happened. The Innocenti family sold the company in 1969 and, following a long period of intense negotiation, the car building division, Innocenti Autoveicoli, was sold to BLMC, to become Innocenti Leyland Spa in May 1972.
The new Mini project progresses under BLMC
So, it wasn’t until after the company was completely taken over by British Leyland that serious work on a new car began. The Turin-based company had previously approached Bertone and Michelotti asking them to submit design proposals for its new small car – but its poor financial performance, which led it to fall into the hands of BL, also meant that the promising programme had to be put on hold.
BLMC’s former Financial Controller Geoffrey Robinson was the bright young executive drafted in to run Innocenti Leyland SpA. He took little time in persuading Donald Stokes to sign off this stalled project when it became clear just how much effect the new Autobianchi A112 was having on the sales of the Innocenti Mini in Italy. He nurtured the project, which went by the codename P53, and did his best to keep cost information out of the prying eyes of British Leyland’s bean counters.
Of the two styling proposals previously mooted, Robinson preferred Bertone’s and, consequently, the Italian carrozzeria was commissioned to prepare the new design for production, while also devising a new interior. There was no budget for the 750cc engine that Innocenti wanted so, as well as using the Mini’s floopan and running gear, it also retained its engine and transmission-in-sump. A useful upgrade over the Mini was a front-mounted radiator with electric cooling fan – reason enough for the new Innocenti to be more refined than the car it was so heavily based upon.
New Innocenti Mini breaks cover in Turin
The new-style Mini was originally launched at October 1974’s Turin Motor Show. It was launched in two versions, the 90L and 120L – the former having the 998cc A-Series engine putting out 43bhp, and the latter the 1275cc unit, with an extra 20bhp on tap. These outputs were later uprated to 49bhp and 65bhp respectively.
Although it was pure Mini under the skin, the big changes were reserved for the new three-door body and interior, which boasted a new dashboard, seats and other fitments. In a booming supermini market, this was just the product to expand Innocenti’s business and, despite being a fully-owned BL subsidiary since 1972, the future looked bright for this car, and its maker.
At the 1975 Geneva Motor Show, Austin-Morris Managing Director Keith Hopkins talked about the Innocenti 90/120 hatchback Mini. He said: ‘This is another example of the versatility of the original Mini concept which was presented to the public at Earls Court 15 years ago. This new Innocenti will consolidate and improve our position in the highly competitive Italian market where, despite difficult economic conditions, sales of the current Mini range are running at 40,000 a year.’
The troubles soon become apparent
The main problem with the Innocenti 90/120 was that it was more expensive than its rivals on the Italian market. Also, its interior packaging was inferior to the original Mini, and it was not a genuine four seater, although it was good enough to carry children in the rear. Geoffrey Robinson was of the opinion that the car had needed an extra 9in in length, and that would have cost an extra £1 million, which Leyland Innocenti did not have.
When questioned why the P53 90/120 would not be sold in Britain, British Leyland said: ‘When a new Mini does arrive from BL it will be a completely new package not just a shell.’ With production of the P53 having begun in September 1974, Leyland-Innocenti began to run down production of the traditionally-shaped Mini, which finally ended in January 1975.
However, a combination of BL’s financial troubles and ultimate Government bailout, and its troubled disposal of Innocenti in an Italian Government-brokered deal to Alejandro de Tomaso, meant that meaningful development of the car wouldn’t take place until much later in its life. It also meant that this promising car was never officially imported into the UK.
Innocenti de Tomaso
Following the sale to de Tomaso in 1975, an uprated version of the 120L was launched in 1976, producing a useful 71bhp (74bhp from 1978 onwards); known simply as the Innocenti de Tomaso, this version featured moulded plastic bumpers (in place of the original chrome items), with integral front foglamps and a go-faster air intake mounted on the bonnet.
Towards the end of 1979, with the Metro’s launch still almost a year away, Islington-based dealer London Garages Limited offered the Innocenti range in limited numbers. The 998cc 90L cost £3515, the 1275cc 120L was £3675 and the range-topping De Tomaso version came in at £4040. For comparison, a basic 1.1-litre Allegro cost £3085 at the time, while £4100 would have bought you Triumph Dolomite 1500.
Once the Austin Metro had been launched, the Mini 120L was dropped in favour of the Mille, a restyled and up-specced version of the 998cc 90L. The Mille (Italian for 1000) featured rearward-slanted headlamps (contributing to a 5cm increase in overall length), smoother rear light clusters incorporating a foglamp and moulded plastic bumpers of a more conservative design than those fitted to the de Tomaso version. The interior trim was also uprated. The 90L and de Tomaso models remained on sale.
In 1982, after a couple of years on sale alongside the Austin Metro, the Innocenti models were dropped from BL’s continental range. However, production continued and, by 1985, De Tomaso had signed an engine deal with Daihatsu and relaunched the car in two distinct ranges.
The entry-level Innocenti 650 and 650SE models had a 617cc two-cylinder engine producing just over 30bhp, while the new ‘Mini 3’ range gained the three-cylinder, 993cc engine (which also powered the Daihatsu Charade), producing 51bhp. Both ranges now featured five-speed transmissions as standard, while the Mini 3 could also be had in automatic, turbocharged (72bhp) and diesel (37bhp) versions.
Before production ended in 1993, the Innocenti Mini would receive one further facelift, with the redesigned bumpers, grille and clear indicator lenses giving it a cleaner, more modern appearance. In this guise, it ended its days in the Italian market as the Innocenti 500.
Motor Road Test, August 1979: Innocenti Mini De Tomaso
INNI MINI MINY MO…
…catch a concept, let it go? Perhaps not, but whether or not BL is right to keep it off the UK market, one thing is for sure; it ain’t half fun! Jeremy Sinek has tested one.
Believe it or not, almost five years have already passed since Innocenti unveiled its pert little Mini-derived hatchback at the Turin Show and sparked off a chorus of pleas for BL to put it into production, or at least market the thing, in the UK. Sadly, that still hasn’t happened, and indeed, BL has in the meanwhile sold its Italian subsidiary to automotive entrepreneurial whizzkid Alejandro de Tomaso, who has continued to churn out Bertone’s butch babies to the extent that they are now commonplace in practically all of Western Europe’s major cities, except our own.
Much as de Tomaso would like to export them to Britain, he isn’t allowed to, but of course there’s nothing to prevent the individual bringing one in privately, provided you manage to cut, or at least disentangle, the relevant red tape. That was certainly no problem for Mario Condivi, who is the UK Concessionaire for Maserati and de Tomaso (the supercar variety), and whose daughter Loretta thereby took delivery last year of Willy, an Innocenti Mini of the de Tomaso variety, to give its full title.
Thus it is to Loretta that our gratitude is due for so generously, and bravely, allowing her personal transport to fall into our hands for a few days to be subjected to the rigours of a full Motor road test. It should be stressed, though, that this is not a formal road test of a car that is available through normal channels in this country; moreover, the car was a privately-run example that had been plucked straight out of its owner’s hands without any of the meticulous preparation normally lavished on press demonstrators.
What is a Mini de Tomaso?
Loretta’s car (which was swiftly and ever so neatly converted to right-hand-drive by one of Modena Concessionaires’ own mechanics) is the top model in a three-car range collectively known as Innocenti Minis, the individual models being the 90, the 120, and the de Tomaso. All three share the same Bertone-styled hatchback bodyshell, and are based mechanically on the basic box we all know and love so well, though with the front disc brakes and 12-inch diameter wheels of our top-of-the-UK-range 1275GT, and with a front-mounted radiator cooled by an electric fan.
Engine-wise it’s the familiar A-Series in 998cc form in the 90, and 1275cc form in the 120 and the de Tomaso, but performance-wise they’re like nothing that’s been seen in this country since the days of the Coopers. The 998, for example, is rated at 49bhp (DIN), 10bhp more than the UK version, while our own 1275GT’s 55bhp looks distinctly weedy compared to the 65bhp (DIN) of the 120, or the 71bhp (74 on 1978 models) of the de Tomaso.
In fact, the latter is to all intents and purposes in Cooper ‘S’ tune, though it uses a single 1.25in SU in place of the S’s twin 1.25s, and has an ordinary 1275 camshaft, advanced by 4 degrees, rather than the old S’s wider-overlap grind. What’s more, these pokey units are not specially breathed upon by some Italian tuning wizard, but are actually produced in the UK and then shipped out to the Italian manufacturer, which makes you wonder what’s to stop BL from slotting them into the 1275GT; excuses about ‘rationalisation’ begin to sound a bit hollow…
Mini de Tomaso performance
Should the skeptics among you be inclined to suspect the worth of Italian horses, we can only suggest you direct your attention to the performance figures, remembering as you do so that the Inni Mini is almost 2cwt heftier than the home-grown variety, that the car we tested had been plucked straight out of the commuter routine in Central London, and that out of deference to its ‘civilian’ status we didn’t try too hard to shave every last tenth of a second off the standing start times.
In spite of all of which, Loretta’s Mini turned in a set of figures not far off those of the original ‘S’, and comfortably quicker than practically any modern alternatives. The 0-60 mph sprint, for example, took 12.0 sec, compared to 10.9 sec for the ‘S’, 12.9 sec for the 1275GT, 13.0 sec for the Fiesta 1300S, 13.9 sec for the Peugeot 104ZS and 12.3 sec for Fiat’s 127 Sport. Its maximum speed lap (in windy conditions) round MIRA’s banking of 94.7mph wasn’t quite so impressive, but still good; the Cooper S (96.8) and Fiesta 1300S (96.6) are faster, but the Peugeot (94.3), the Fiat (92.5), and the 1275GT (88.7) were all slower.
In top gear the BMC cars are clear leaders, the Inni taking 9.4 sec for the 30-50mph increment compared to 9.0 sec for the 1275GT and the S’s astonishing 7.3 sec; the Ford (11.0 sec), Peugeot (13.2 sec) and Fiat (11.9 sec) are a long way adrift, and for the 50-70mph speed increment the story is much the same except that the Inni Mini has overtaken its modern British counterpart.
What’s the Mini de Tomaso like to drive?
So it’s certainly got the urge to go with its cheeky charm, and from the driver’s seat you don’t half know it. The engine has that raring-to-go eagerness that’s the hallmark of any nicely tuned A-Series, zipping up through the rev range at the merest tickle of the throttle and making you want to keep blipping the pedal just for the sheer fun of it. Even if it’s not quite as flexible as the 1275GT, it’s still got the same quickly-without-trying punch in the low and middle rev ranges, yet revs much more freely and smoothly at the top end.
The absence of the British car’s engine-driven cooling fan eliminates at a stroke one major Mini noise source, and although the Inni substitutes another for it, the negligible silencing of the Italian car’s intake and exhaust is hard to dislike, except for a rather nasty mid-range boom period. At the bottom end the carburation growls, developing a rasping snarl at about 70mph, then smooths out to a remarkable degree at 80mph, at which speed it’ll cruise quite happily without drowning out the radio and is quite capable of creeping up to 90mph without you even noticing it.
Good ratios and a snappy, quick gearchange nicely complement the bubbling-over-with-enthusiasm engine, and although the clutch action is a little sharp and juddery on take-off, it’s easy to make smooth gearchanges on the move. Larger tyres compensate for a lower final drive ratio to give identical gearing to the 1275GT, at 16.5mph per 1000rpm, but the steady speed fuel consumption is nonetheless a long way down on the (exceptionally good) figures we recorded with the 1275GT, resulting in a touring consumption down from 39.6mpg to 33.5mpg (34.6 on the ‘S’). Similarly, our usual enthusiastic driving gobbled fuel at the rate of 28.2mpg overall, compared to the GT’s outstanding 33.4mpg and the S’s 29.9mpg. Even so, it’s not a bad figure on a fun-per-gallon basis.
Handling and ride
The fun continues with the handling, which is much the same as the British car’s except that the quick steering is a little heavier — which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing as it provides a shade more feel — and with the fatter tyres the roadholding is even better. The handling is chuckable and safe and the attitude understeer or tuck-in, can be controlled at will with your right foot. The only flaw is the easily-provoked steering tug and wheelspin when powering out of a 2nd or 3rd gear corner.
Braking effort is a little on the heavy side, but the system is nonetheless powerful and progressive. With its heavier body and lighter (alloy) wheels we expected the Inni Mini to behave better on bumps than the British car, but that proved not to be the case.
It is similar, i.e. just about acceptable, over small bumps and most sharp edges, but the jerks and sheer bounciness over large bumps and humps were, if anything even worse — to the extent that on country lanes we sometimes had to slow down just to keep from hitting the roof; perhaps the heavier body has the effect of using up some of the already very limited spring travel, a theory supported by the fact that the ride deteriorates further with a load aboard.
Mini de Tomaso interior room
Accommodation-wise, what you gain on the roundabout compared to the normal Mini you lose on the swings. What you gain is a lifting tailgate providing access to a boot slightly larger than normal, and the facility to tip the rear seat forward to obtain a flat and usefully shaped cargo deck. What you lose is some legroom, not because the interior is any shorter than the British car’s, but as a consequence of valuable fractions of inches stolen by the more plushly upholstered front seats. On the other hand, said seats really are quite comfy, and help you make the most of the strange driving position forced on you by the curiously angled steering wheel.
Switchgear follows Italian rather than British practice, with the light master switch on the fascia, and one left-hand column stalk that alternatively selects side, dipped or headlights, and also operates the horn; a smaller left-hand stalk operates the indicators, while that on the right of the column caters for the wash/wipe systems.
The heating system has proper slide controls for both distribution and temperature, the effectiveness of which could not properly be determined during the warm weather of our test; ventilation is by ram effect only, through face-level penny-flap vents, and didn’t seem quite as effective as in the British version. Highly reflective glasses in individual round housings cover the numerous instruments, which comprise of speedometer and tachometer with needles rotating clockwise and anti-clockwise respectively, and smaller gauges covering battery voltage, water temperature, oil pressure and fuel level. The whole instrument pack is set into a neat, symmetrical fascia moulding which must have greatly facilitated the right-hand-drive conversion, with a useful open compartment on the opposite side where the instruments used to be.
There are bins on the doors — the latter trimmed in vinyl and a denim-like cloth that matches the seat upholstery — with further bins either side of the rear seat, and the floor is covered by a tidy one-piece carpet. The fairly plush overall effect is somewhat let down, though, by large areas of bare painted metal. As for the exterior appearance, the pictures speak for themselves.
We found it irresistible; an engaging little car with an on-the-road performance as chirpy as its appearance; but it isn’t, as has sometimes been suggested, the car that BL should have produced as the successor to the Mini. For all its charm, the Inni Mini still has all the old failings of the original article — turbulent ride and high noise levels especially — with even less passenger space. Nonetheless, there would surely be a market for it as a cult-car appealing both to chic-about-town Chelsea-ites, and ‘bring-back the Cooper S’ enthusiasts.