The car that sparked a thousand imitators…
…but none was as much fun, nor as cute.
Simply the best
SO where does one begin with the Mini? Created in response to a fuel crisis, the Mini was the result of the creative flow of a genius at the height of his powers. Issigonis wanted to create a car to mobilize the working class man, but little did he know that his ten-foot long box would end up being so much more.
The story of how the Mini was created has been repeated so often that it needs not be told here, needless to say that it was borne out of a demand from Leonard Lord: BMC needed a small car to banish the bubble-car back to where it came from. The resulting car used a mixture of existing components radically re-shuffled in order to fit within a strictly defined envelope. Issigonis thought outside of the box to reach such decisions as housing the engine transversally, on top of the gearbox.
The resultant small car was light and beautifully-packaged. Further than that, it revolutionized the baby car market forever. Basic car rivals of the time were a mixed bunch: in Germany, there were the bubble cars and the rear-engined air-cooled Beetle. In Italy, there was the rear-engined Fiat 500. In France, the interconnected front wheel drive, flat-twin 2CV. A disparate bunch, and not one that was not suffused with character. However, each design seemed to be riddled with compromises, and it almost seemed as though each manufacturer was still looking for that magic ingredient.
As soon as Issigonis found the key and unlocked the door to baby car perfection, rival manufacturers, tore up their own form books and began again.
BMC, however, were slow to see the Mini’s potential. The car was seriously underpriced, in order to compete with cars that – frankly – were so much worse they should not even be mentioned in the same sentence. Because it was so cheap, customers did not grasp that even though it was so small, it had the same interior space as much larger cars, and that it handled so well, it amounted to a fun car to own. Sales were slow to take off, and it was not until John Cooper got hold of it, that it really seemed to take off. A string of celebrity owners helped a great deal too. Once the Mini became cool, there was no turning back.
At the time the Mini was at the height of its powers in the mid-1960s, rival manufacturers were well on their way to producing their own super-minis. The approach taken by the competition was to take the Mini’s mechanical layout, and iron out its inadequacies. As a result, companies such as Fiat and Renault (early adopters of the supermini format) went for larger cars (for a better driving position), end on gearboxes (for superior mechanical refinement), and hatchback rear ends (to counter the Mini’s small boot).
So, the formula seemed to be – take the Mini and build on it. Fifteen years after the Mini’s launch, its effects on the industry were remarkable. From the eclectic mix of technical configurations of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a march towards Mini-like conformity. There were a few stragglers (notably Ford and GM), but on the whole, all of BL’s rivals were building their own bigger, better Minis.
Another ten years hence, and every small family car was powered by a transverse engine, driving the front wheels.
In other words, the Mini’s influence upon the industry was enormous. Beyond that, because of the Mini, drivers eventually cottoned-on to the idea that a small family car could be a fun steer. On-the-rails and handling and go kart-like steering gave the driver great confidence, and around town, nothing could beat a Mini. On the open road, what it lost in straightline performance, it more than made up for in its ability to go around corner at inconceivable speeds. The day of the 60mph average B-road jaunt was well and truly with us…
Had the Mini been a “normal” car, it would have been replaced before 1970. But because its mixture of qualities was so unique, it survived. As the nation became richer, it was not left behind, because it was perfectly able to take on the role of a fun second car. Issigonis was on to something when he devised the Mini’s look. It cannot be described as “styled” as such, because it wasn’t. However, because it was so small, there were no excesses, no fat, and this allowed it to be timeless. Fashion applied to car styling eventually allows it to become dated – just look at the Hillman Imp or Triumph Herald to see what I mean.
So, the Mini changed the face of motoring forever, whilst defying the ravages of time.
Not a bad achievement for something created in such a hurry. To sum-up in the time-honoured GBU style:
For: A genius of our time; cute, driveable, space efficient, and fun.
Against: A little noisy.
Sum-up: The greatest BMC>Rover of all.
The Mini looked as good in 1990 as it did in 1960. A tribute to Alec Issigonis, if ever one were needed.
An instant classic, straight from the packet, and still an amazingly clean bit of design. By the standards of 1959 it was off-the-scale amazing.