The Mini development story tells the tale of how this small car changed the way we looked at economy cars almost overnight. It sent designers from rival carmakers scurrying back to the drawing boards.
In short, the Mini was little short of a major revolution. We take a look at the development and subsequent life story of Britain’s favourite small car…
Words: Keith Adams, Ian Nicholls
Mini: development and early production
The Mini was conceived in response to a crisis sparked by a shortage of oil in Europe. The situation blew up in September 1956 when Colonel Nasser decided to nationalise the Suez Canal, which had been constructed in the 19th century by the French and had been controlled by the British since 1882. The British and French tried to stop him, the Americans pulled the rug from beneath them and the Egyptians decided to close the oil pipeline across the Mediterranean.
In the ensuing war, the Egyptians blew up the Syrian pipeline that provided 20% of Britain’s oil supply. The upshot of this was that all oil supplies from the Middle East would need to be transported in giant tankers around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, as the Suez Canal was closed. This resulted in oil shortages and the renewed popularity of small cars in Europe.
Due to the Suez Crisis, petrol rationing returned to the UK in December 1956 and people began to clamour for more economical means of travel. The sales of 900-1000cc cars quadrupled in the period from 1956 to 1957, while car sales in the wider market slumped. German bubble cars began to appear on these shores and, although they may have been awful to drive, with questionable safety, they did achieve more than 40mpg.
BMC’s response to the Suez Crisis
The Suez Crisis came at a turbulent time in BMC’s history, when the company was grappling with the very real problem of trying to reinvent itself. Alec Issigonis had been working on a front-wheel-drive Morris Minor replacement, with transverse engine and end-on gearbox, before he was seduced away from the newly-formed BMC in 1952 on the promise of developing a supercar for Alvis Motors.
This did not work out for Issigonis, and a call from Leonard Lord at the end of 1955, inviting him back to BMC, could not have come at a better time. Newly back in the fold, Issigonis built a small team of engineers – most notably Jack Daniels, his old associate from the Minor days – and resumed his work for the company.
In a parallel response to Herbert Austin’s disgust at the proliferation of motorcycle/sidecar combinations on UK roads 35 years previously, Leonard Lord viewed the popularity of bubble cars with the same distaste. As Lord informed Issigonis in March 1957, ‘God damn these bloody awful bubble cars. We must drive them off the streets by designing a proper small car.’ At this point the emphasis of BMC’s new car development programme was changed from replacing the Minor to producing something new and smaller: a car designated XC9003 (below).
Mini development story: a talented team
Issigonis brought Chris Kingham over from Alvis to join Daniels, and these three men set about defining the Mini. Kingham and Daniels were both extremely gifted engineers who not only made many of Issigonis’ ideas happen, but also helped keep his feet on the ground, without tying him down.
The entire team comprised these three, four draftsmen and a pair of student engineers. For project ADO15 (the car’s code name was changed when development was moved to the Austin HQ at Longbridge), there was absolutely no question of this being a high budget affair – and yet the demands that Lord placed on these men were extraordinary.
For Issigonis, the car to emulate and ultimately beat in terms of size and packaging was Dante Giacosa’s Fiat 600 (a modernised version of the famous Cinquecento), for this was a practical four seater which was contained within a size envelope only slightly larger than that intended for the Mini. The packaging solution employed by Fiat was to place the in-line four-cylinder engine out beyond the back axle and the luggage up-front.
Kicking out the rear-engined red herring
At the time, BMC was working on an advanced transverse rear-engined saloon in conjunction with ERA, and it is not inconceivable that this idea was mooted, but this package was not the line of thought that Issigonis wanted to pursue. He saw front-wheel drive as the vehicle for his future cars, and the stringent disciplines involved in designing a small car had always fascinated and challenged him.
The ADO15 would be the first production car to make the point, because he had new ideas that he wished to put into metal.
John Cutler, one of the Mini design team, described how Issigonis arrived at the car’s packaging: ‘The designs originated from putting seats on the shopfloor. Then we got all sorts of people to sit on them – secretaries from the offices, 6ft manual workers – and we got them to indicate what space they needed in the car. We measured how much space would be needed to open a map, where a pocket would be needed to stow the map. It is a very ergonomic car.’
Front-wheel drive: pulling, not pushing
Issigonis had proved with his work on the original Minor replacement he was working on before his misadventure at Alvis that he could package an engine and gearbox into a space that occupied only two feet of the car’s entire length. He could achieve this by mounting the engine transversely, which would give massive benefits in terms of packaging efficiency, but it created the problem of how the engine and gearbox would be accommodated across the car’s width.
As the Mini was intended to be a narrow car, the engine with the gearbox mounted end-on would be very difficult to fit between the wheels, while maintaining useful steering lock. One way of shortening the engine/gearbox package was to chop off two cylinders from the A-Series engine, creating an in-line, two-cylinder engine of roughly 500cc displacement. The end result was a gutless and rough engine, which was certainly not man enough for the job required.
Just when Issigonis decided to mount the gearbox beneath the engine as part of an in-sump arrangement has now escaped into the mists of time, but this arrangement was incorporated as part of the first Mini mock-up. Not only did it have the now-famous in-sump gearbox, but it also included special Dunlop-developed 10-inch wheels and tyres, Alex Moulton’s rubber suspension and the familiar Mini shape in almost the form in which it was launched, the styling being a scaled-down version of the XC9000, a mid-sized Farina replacement that was in the early stages of development.
The making of the original Mini
These three innovations were certainly the making of the Mini, and it is all the more remarkable to note that the conception of the car was such a rapid process: Work on X9003, the original code name for the ADO15 Mini began in March 1957 and, by July 1957, the first prototype was running. Another one of the Mini’s design team was John Sheppard, who later described what it was like working for Alec Issigonis.
He said: ‘He knew what he wanted and he made sure he got it. He’d come round holding an ounce weight and say, “Have you saved that for me today?” Weight was very critical. The Mini had to be 10ft long – no more, no less. He was very pedantic like that and very domineering. When it went into production, it was a quarter of an inch over 10ft long. That really annoyed him.’
John Cutler again: ‘The principle was to come up with the bare basics for a car, without ostentation, whilst maximising the space available, and making it as fuel efficient as possible. One of Issigonis’ peeves about American cars was the thickness of their doors. He used to say that you could build a whole car out of the metal they used for one door. He was very insistent that the Mini should have thinner, and therefore lighter, doors.’
Significant weight savings achieved
Issigonis and his team were eventually able to make the Mini 100lb lighter than the existing Austin A35. The emphasis on weight saving probably helped to ensure the resulting car remained competitive in the fuel economy stakes for a long time to come and set a benchmark that proved difficult to beat, as later British Leyland engineers were to find out.
It was on 19 July 1957 that BMC Chairman Leonard Lord and his Deputy George Harriman first drove the prototype Mini around the Longbridge complex and the former told Alec Issigonis to ‘build the bloody thing.’ The long-accepted version of events, The Mini Story by Laurence Pomeroy published in 1964, dated this event as July 1958.
Documentary evidence has now emerged to reveal that the decision to push ahead with the ADO15 project was taken a whole year earlier. The first prototype was soon joined by a second car. The two cars, disguised with Austin A35 grilles (above), were known internally as the ‘Orange Boxes’ and were based at Cowley for these preliminary trials.
Testing the Mini to destruction
The engineers from Morris Motors, Cowley, were headed by Charles Griffin, who would play a significant part in the Mini story and all the later front-wheel-drive cars that would spring from it.
At night they were thrashed around a well-used test route that Morris test drivers relied on for new car development, taking in a circuitous route through the Cotswolds. During the day, they were driven at the local disused airfield at Chalgrove, circulating around the badly maintained perimeter taxiway. In 500 hours, the cars covered 30,000 miles and this process highlighted weaknesses in the design at that stage.
It was at motor show time in October 1957 that BMC’s Joint Managing Director George Harriman teased journalists, telling them that the corporation’s market researchers had discovered that consumers did not want bubble cars, but a low-priced, fully-engineered car. He was quoted as saying, ‘Obviously if the corporation can produce such a car which will sell more cheaply, they will do so.’
From the airing of the first prototype, to the car’s launch in August 1959, only a few major mechanical changes were made; a reduction in engine size from 948cc to 848cc was ordered as a direct result of the fact that early prototypes had been clocked at over 92mph, which was considered far too fast for the market the Mini was aimed at. The new capacity was arrived at by reducing the stroke from 73mm in the 948cc version to 68mm in the final 848cc incarnation.
Last minute changes: rotating the engine
At this time, the engine was rotated through 180 degrees to face the bulkhead, so that the carburettor was now to the rear of the engine, instead of at the front, where it tended to ice up in cold conditions. However, according to John Cooper, the real reason why the engine was reversed was that Mini prototypes kept destroying their synchromeshes after about 100 miles.
Issigonis was reportedly very upset that this change was required because the car was faster in its original form. Why the engine was rotated, rather than Austin designing a more durable synchomesh can be put down to two factors: time and money – or, more correctly, the lack of it. So, carburettor icing was cited as the reason for this reversal of the position of the engine, but the response of John Cooper to this suggestion was that it, ‘was a load of bull!’
Interestingly, the whole point of the re-orientation and the resultant introduction of the transfer gears was to allow for much smaller gears, which produced much less inertia, meaning that there would be less stress on the gearbox’s synchromesh. Testing had shown that, even with this fundamental alteration, the Austin A35 synchromesh would not be up to the job, but because the development of the Porsche baulk ring Synchro would not be complete by the planned launch date, they went ahead with the A35 system, anyway!
The Mini becomes two inches wider… or does it?
Another myth perpetuated by Laurence Pomeroy was that the width of the car was increased by two inches, in order to improve accommodation for passengers and engine. Two inches were taken out of the rear track for purely aesthetic reasons. It was also found as a result of all that flogging round Chalgrove that the bodyshell around the suspension mounting points was breaking.
This led to the suspension being changed so that the rubber units would be mounted on their own subframes, front and rear, in order to lessen stresses on the structure, at the expense of weight and cost.
Wheel size was an ongoing issue at the time and, when the Mini finally appeared, few critics saw the significance of this new, smaller design of road wheel – most were convinced that they could not work. Issigonis had furthered the development of the small car by working with Dunlop to produce a road tyre of record-breaking smallness, a process that he had begun with the Morris Minor.
The world’s smallest car wheels
At that time, the Minor had the smallest tyres of any volume production car – when Giacosa had conceived the Fiat 500, for example, he had asked Pirelli to produce special tyres to fit on 15in wheel rims. The industry average at the time was a much larger 16 or 17in rim size.
The question of wheel size was very important because the smaller the wheel, the smaller the wheel arch, meaning less intrusion into the passenger compartment. At the start of the Mini project, Issigonis had approached Dunlop, as he had done with the Minor, to develop a new type of tyre that would sit on a wheel that was 4.20 x 10in – almost wheelbarrow dimensions – and Dunlop managed to develop a suitable tyre for the car.
The tyres that finally appeared on the Mini were 5.20in in width, rather wider than the prototypes’ 4.80in tyres, and it was as a direct result of the car’s unexpectedly good performance that this change was made.
Developing all-new suspension for the Mini
As with all of the next two generations of the corporation’s cars, Alex Moulton was responsible for suspension system. In the Mini, he designed all-new rubber suspension units to replace the spring units that were employed in conventionally suspended cars.
Moulton made great use of the variable rate properties provided by using rubber as a springing medium – the advantage being that, in a small car, the weight difference between fully-laden and driver-only was proportionally greater than it would be in a larger, heavier car.
These rubber cones were smaller than conventional spring/damper units, which meant that Moulton’s system also had significant packaging advantages.
Testing continues towards launch
By March 1958 the first two X9003 prototypes had amassed 50,000 miles apiece and the decision was taken to build 10 pilot production cars, each differing in detail to the previous example as the design evolved. The Mini proved to be a difficult design to productionise and this was a cause of friction between the production engineers and Alec Issigonis. As early as October 1958 development engineers were having trouble with water leaks and persuading Issigonis to modify his design was proving problematical.
When BMC Managing Director George Harriman was shown the first pre-production Mini he was not impressed with its bland, plain and austere appearance. He is alleged to have said to Issigonis: ‘What a bloody mess! We’ll never sell that. Spend another few quid on it Alec, and jazz it up a bit. Put some chrome plate on it or something.’
The pre-production Minis had a plain metal front panel with slots stamped in it for a grille, as seen in BMC’s original 1959 promotional film. Dick Burzi’s styling department duly obliged their superiors by adding a grille and other chrome embellishments to the Mini. The original metal grille was later used on the commercial variants of the car.
So, was 621 AOK the first Mini?
The exact chronology of Mini production has been distorted through the passage of time which has resulted in a series of half-truths becoming the accepted story. For a long time it has been accepted that 621 AOK, now at the British Motor Museum, was the first production Mini.
The truth is as follows: the first production Mini with the chassis number 101 was an Austin Mini Seven built at Longbridge on 3 April 1959. 101 Has long since disappeared into the great scrapyard in the sky, but 102 built the same day amazingly survives. Registered 627 HUE, in 1965 this car was bought by Donald Healey and transformed into a convertible two seater, apparently with the blessing of Alec Issigonis.
Mini 627 HUE is now owned by a Mini collector. Both Minis 101 and 102/627 HUE were delivered to one Alec Issigonis. The initial Austin production was as follows. Austin chassis 103 also survives, registered KEG 77, it was exported to Japan in 1996.
- Austin 101 and 102 built 3 April
- Austin 103 and 104 built 4 May
- Austin 105 built 5 May
But it was the first Mini, yes?
However Jeff Ruggles of MINI magazine was told an alternative story. According to retired BMC engineer Peter Tothill, who was responsible for the design and supervision of the Mini production line at Cowley and performed rectification work on Mini prototypes, 621 AOK was the first production Mini. Peter Tothill’s story is that four employees – Bob Moore, Tony Monk, Bob Hollis and Peter Tothill himself – built 621 AOK over the weekend of Good Friday 27 March to Easter Monday 30 March 1959.
‘There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, because on the Wednesday of that week, Les Ford (Chief Planning Engineer) said to me, “We want you to build the first ADO15 over the Easter weekend when there will be n one in the factory, and I want you there.” I had recently got married and we had planned to go away for the weekend, so I had to tell my wife that the trip was off! The car was loaded onto a truck, sheeted up and delivered to Longbridge on the Tuesday, ready for the Directors to view on the Wednesday. Tuesday was a holiday in Birmingham because they always worked on Good Friday.’
This version of the Mini story has it that 621 AOK was used as the reference for Longbridge Foreman Albert Green to build the first Austin Minis. Peter Tothill reckoned it was impossible for Cowley to pilot build ten ADO15s in one day and that these cars were built in the preceding weeks with records commencing on 8 May 1959. Unfortunately, no evidence has emerged to support his story.
Mini production begins in Cowley
It was on 8 May 1959 that Mini production began at Cowley when Morris chassis numbers 101,102, 103, 105, 106, 107, 108, 110, 111, 112 were all built. Bizarrely 104 and 109 were built a few days later. Morris Mini Minor chassis 101 was registered as 621 AOK.
So why the confusion? One can only assume that in February 1965, when the millionth Mini was produced in the aftermath of the second Monte Carlo rally win, that BMC’s PR machine simply made the understandable mistake of assuming Morris 101/621 AOK was the first car of all (above) and it and Alec Issigonis posed outside Longbridge with a 1965 model for PR photographs that have appeared in the printed media ever since.
In fact, Morris 101/621 AOK was the sixth production Mini. By the time the error was realised it was too late to backtrack and Morris 101/621 AOK has now become the official first Mini.
Production of the Mini ramps up before launch
By June, 100 cars a day were being built, in order to build up dealer stocks in preparation for the launch in August. In total, the gestation of this car from the instigation of the ADO15 project to its launch was two years and five months. This achievement was all the more remarkable when one considers that the Mini did not follow any other car’s design concepts and was a totally new idea which was implemented in a totally new way.
The first public admission that something new was on the way came on the 17 June 1959, when BMC Chairman Sir Leonard Lord revealed some details of the forthcoming cars. He stated that these cars had been through extensive trials and had taken three years to develop.
New buildings had been erected and new plant and equipment using the most up-to-date methods installed at a total cost of well over £10m. At the same time it was also revealed that the Austin A40 and Morris Minor would remain in production.
‘The most up-to date production methods’
The Daily Express newspaper quoted Sir Leonard directly as saying: ‘The most up-to-date methods in the world are being used in the production of the new models which will come out at the end of August.’
Those who think that industrial action was something that resulted as a consequence of the formation of British Leyland will be surprised to read that the situation in the UK car industry in 1959 was as bad as anything that occurred in the 1970s. 1959 was a terrible year for strikes.
The launch of the Mini was endangered by industrial action at the Morris Motors plant at Cowley, where on 15 July 1959, BMC dismissed Mr Frank Horsman, Senior Shop Steward at the factory. Cowley was soon brought to a halt by strike action in a scenario similar to that of two decades later involving Derek Robinson and Longbridge, and it was 13 August before normal working resumed. With launch of the Mini only 13 days away, it was a close run thing.
August 1959: Mini is launched
When the press first got its hands on BMC’s new car on the 18-19 August 1959 at Chobham in Surrey, it was not shy to praise it; the Mini’s unique personality, exceptional space efficiency, relatively good performance and tenacious front-wheel-drive handling meant that it was a sure fire hit with the critics. It swept aside the conservatism that was rife in the corporation and the perception of BMC in the public’s eye was changed indelibly.
In a sense the press were driving the personalised car of its designer – because Issigonis didn’t wear a seatbelt or listen to the radio, they were not designed into the Mini, but as he was a chain smoker the car did have an ashtray. The seats were pushed as far forward as possible and set in an upright fashion resulting in the infamous ‘Bus driver’ position so beloved of motoring writers and found on later Issigonis cars and even the Austin Metro of 1980.
Launch day itself was the 26 August 1959. This was also the day that the car the Mini was replacing, the Austin A35, went out of production. This may explain why the launch day had been brought forward from 2 September at the last minute. According to Derek Robinson, more of whom later, whereas the A35 had been produced at a track speed of 20 cars per hour at Longbridge, the Mini was produced at a rate of 30 cars per hour. Moreover, as BMC had separate dealerships for its component companies, there were two different variants of the ADO15 at launch, the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini Minor.
Fast production, despite stoppages
At one stage during ADO15’s development, it was referred to as the Austin Newmarket, partly because it was aimed at a new market and because BMC had a track record of naming its cars after places: Oxford, Cambridge, Somerset and Westminster come to mind. The initial production target was 3000 vehicles a week, divided equally between the Longbridge and Cowley plants.
The Fisher and Ludlow plant was already geared to produce 4000 bodies a week. Preliminary plans had been made for the cars to be constructed by the Innocenti firm in Milan. Some 2000 of the new cars had already been sent abroad and they were displayed in dealer showrooms in nearly 100 countries.
And by 1 September 1959, the first stoppage had occurred; the first of many in the car,s lifetime. On 23 November 1959, BMC announced a £49m expansion plan and stated to shareholders that the planned output of 4000 Minis a week had already become insufficient. It was taking steps immediately to double this output to 8000 a week and, by the end of 1959, 19,749 Minis had been produced.
‘Mini may well prove to be the catchword of the 1960s’
The word ‘mini’ is now an everyday part of the English vocabulary, but was it in regular use before the ADO15 arrived on the scene, and who came up with the name ‘Mini’ for the car? One assumes ‘Mini’ is a shortened version of either ‘minimum’ or ‘miniature’? Between 1948 and 1966, Bond built the three-wheel Minicar with a motorcycle engine, so BMC were not the originators of the word ‘Mini’.
According to Thirty Mini Years, the 1989 official Rover souvenir booklet to mark the car’s 30th birthday, it was none other than Lord Nuffield, BMC’s Honourary President who pushed for the adoption of the name ‘Mini’. 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.’
Of course the other issue with the Mini that must be addressed is whether it made or lost money for its maker. The price for the base model of the world’s most advanced family car was £496.95 – astonishingly low. According to some historians, Austin had based the pricing of its cars in the pre-BMC era by mirroring what Morris charged.
Getting it on sale for less than £500
Austin supremo Leonard Lord believed that William Morris was the master in cost control and simply assumed that Longbridge’s cars cost a similar amount to manufacture. With the formation of BMC, the corporation now looked at Ford for its pricing policy. It appears that BMC simply decided to sell its new baby at a similar price to the sit-up-and-beg Ford Popular, which ceased production in 1959.
In an interview with Jonathan Wood for his book Alec Issigonis: The Man Who Made The Mini, former BMC executive Geoffrey Rose stated: ‘George Harriman (BMC Deputy Chairman in 1959) would have decided the Mini’s price and one of the key figures in the decision was Harry Williams, a cost accountant… Both Len Lord and George Harriman thought to some extent “volume will deal with it”.
‘It’s on the basis that you make cars all the week until Thursday afternoon and Friday is when all the overheads have been covered and you make the profit. Sad to say, it came down to the sheer arrogance of ‘we’re BMC, we know what we’re doing’. But Alec (Issigonis) would have been completely outside the pricing process. In some Board Meetings that I attended I used to have to help him through the balance sheet, through the figures.’
BMC goes head-to-head with Ford
The launch of the Mini had upstaged Ford’s own debutante, the Anglia 105E, and both cars were aimed at the same market sector. The base Mini compared with the £589 – the Dagenham product costing a whopping £93 more. How could BMC undercut the Anglia so handsomely?
One of the criticisms of BMC by armchair pundits is that it had too many plants spread out over the country. The production of the Mini perfectly illustrates this. The A-Series engines came from Morris Engines at Courthouse Green, Coventry, the front-wheel-drive transmission came from both Longbridge and Drews Lane, also in Birmingham. The components for Cowley had to be transported from the Coventry and Birmingham areas all the way to Oxford.
Body pressings came from the Fisher and Ludlow plant at Llanelli in Wales, one of many factories that the motor industry had been forced to build in areas of high unemployment by the Harold MacMillan Government, far away from the Midlands. These pressings were then taken to two locations in Birmingham for assembly into bodyshells, the Fisher and Ludlow plant at Castle Bromwich and the West Works at Longbridge.
Mini becomes BMC’s best-selling model
In its first year of production, the Mini overtook the Morris Minor as the corporation’s best-selling model, but it was not all plain sailing for the Issigonis box. The initial problem, as far as UK sales were concerned, was that the Mini was considered too clever and too small for the typical customer that Leonard Lord had designed the car for.
Many buyers were from the ‘blue collar’ end of the social spectrum and adjudged the Mini as not for them – how could a car so small have room for them and their families? This response reflects the age-old buyer’s attitude that size is equal to status, and many decided that for the same money they could buy the larger and simpler Ford 100E Popular or Austin A40. No matter that Ford’s runabout was no roomier, had far poorer roadholding and was slower – it was a known quantity to the man in the street.
The other setback for the Mini was that, as a car with an accelerated development programme, its reliability was somewhat questionable, and there were some design flaws that became apparent very quickly. The most famous of these early teething troubles was what was known back then as the ‘great floating carpet epic’.
Watch out for soggy carpets
If driven in the rain, the carpets would soon emit a musty odour, which coupled with the squelching sounds they made when one stood on them, meant only one thing: water ingress. The editor of Motor Sport magazine in the winter of 1959/60 wrote: ‘When driving the “World’s Most Exciting Car” I found it to live up to its reputation – part of the excitement being to see which foot got wet first!’
It didn’t help that Issigonis appeared to be in denial about the problem, despite getting his own feet wet on a test drive. The engineers grappled with this problem for some time before the cause was traced to the late addition of a reinforcing box sill to the outer edge of the body, through which water was trickling.
What made this all the more painful for BMC was that the only solution to the problem was an expensive re-design of the floorpan. In total BMC had to repair some 8000 leaking Minis under warranty.
BMC Mini landmarks
Other problems included internal oil leaks that sprayed the clutch plate; a mis-specified synchromesh that resulted in crunchy gear changes; exposed plugs and distributor at the front of the engine, which had Minis spluttering to a halt in the rain – water again! Not to mention a floor mounted starter switch that would also get a soaking, with predictable results.
So, the early customers were acting as unpaid development engineers for BMC, and it was lucky for the corporation that the Mini’s design was so intrinsically right that these early setbacks did not push the car under and result in BMC reverting to the production of stolid and uninspiring cars.
All these problems were eventually licked, but it did mean that sales were slower to pick up than Leonard Lord had first expected.
1960: expansion in the Mini universe
In January 1960, the Mini Van was launched – and on the 18th of that month, 800 workers began a night shift at Cowley to boost production of the Mini. On 16 September, BMC announced two new estate car versions of the Mini, the Morris Mini Traveller and the Austin Se7en Countryman.
Both these cars featured an external wooden frame but, unlike other BMC estates, these were for decoration and were not structural. The autumn of 1960 was blighted by a series of industrial disputes as BMC tried to ramp up Mini production. Then, due to a recession in the motor trade, BMC was forced to put 23,500 men on short-time working, but the Mini was unaffected as demand for the car increased. Weekly production at the time was 3000.
1960 was the year the Mini really took off, some 116,677 leaving the factories and already selling better than the Austin A35 at its peak. The success of the ADO15 soon brought it to the attention of Ford UK’s Senior Product Planner, a native of Walsall, Terry Beckett.
Ford frustrated by BMC’s success
Beckett later commented: ‘We were very frustrated from 1959 onwards with the advent of the Mini. This was in view of the fact that historically, since the mid-1930s and the Ford £100 car, we had pre-eminence in that sector of the market by offering the lowest priced car which we coupled with value for money service. I can remember in one month in 1960, the Mini achieved a 19% market penetration. That was just one model.’
One of the legends about the Mini is how Ford bought an example and took it apart down to the spot welds to see how BMC could sell it for such a low price. However, it has never been stated whether the car they took apart was the basic or De Luxe model. Terry Beckett recalled: ‘We then determined how much it would cost us to build it. On our cost analysis, which we thought was ahead of their’s, we really didn’t see how the car could be produced in this way to make a profit.’
According to Beckett, Ford calculated that BMC was losing £30 on every Mini it made. He added: ‘I could see ways in which we could take cost out of the Mini without in any way reducing its sales appeal… BMC could have priced it at £30 more, and not lost any sales at all. You can track the decline of BMC from that single product: it took up a huge amount of resources, it sterilised cash flow and it was a pretty disastrous venture.’
…and calculates that BMC is losing money
Strong words indeed, but Terry Beckett became one of British industry’s most outstanding executives, ultimately becoming the Chairman of Ford of Britain, and head of the CBI. Beckett revealed that Ford of Britain did come under pressure from dealers, customers, fleet owners and above all the parent company in Detroit to respond to the Mini. ‘The great thing was that the Mini was a fine piece of innovative engineering and there we were with very conventional motor cars. Just to ensure that Ford UK had got their sums right, another Mini was taken to the company’s product planning headquarters at Aveley in Essex and stripped down to the last nut and bolt.
‘…and we arrived at the same results we had achieved in the first place,’ added Beckett.
Ford could now relax, it had proved that if they tackled the Mini head on in the marketplace, it could only do so by making a loss. The major back-story of the car sales wars of the 1960s would be Beckett’s marketing brilliance versus Issigonis’ engineering genius – and, in 1976, Ford overtook British Leyland as Britain’s favourite vendor of automobiles. One of Terence Beckett’s team was the late Alex Trotman, who rose even higher, heading Ford worldwide and gaining a peerage in the process. In a television interview, he recalled that the Mini cost around the same as the Anglia to manufacture – and Ford was making a £50 profit per car. In Ford’s opinion, the Mini cost around £539 to build, a similar figure to the list price of the De Luxe. By September, 1960 BMC was claiming that weekly Mini production had now reached 3300.
1961: race on Sunday, sell on Monday…
In January 1961 the Mini Pick Up arrived on the market. However, the Mini’s immunity to the recession ended and production was now down to 2000 cars a week, although this was still higher than most British cars at the time. By February business had picked up and it was soon back to normal. BMC’s Australian subsidiary began producing Minis in March 1961, known locally as the Morris 850. The Antipodean Mini was produced at BMC Australia’s Zetland plant in a suburb of Sydney. In BMC’s annual report for 1960-61, the company stated that Mini production had risen by 62% in the period, despite an overall drop in production for all vehicles of 10%.
Be that as it may, while the average man in the street remained largely ignorant of the Mini’s strong points, other people began to notice them – most notably John Cooper. Cooper was aware of the car’s basic strengths, as both his Formula 1 drivers, Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren drove and raved about Minis, and Cooper himself knew all about the tuning potential of the A-Series engine following his experiences with it in his Formula Junior cars.
Cooper made tentative approaches to Issigonis in 1960, selling the idea of a high performance variation of the Mini, but Sir Alec was still harbouring a dream that his Mini was a car for everyman and as such was not that keen on it being seen as a performance car. Such was Cooper’s persistence that he ended up going over his colleague Issigonis’ head and straight to George Harriman, explaining the advantages of his idea. After a brief meeting, Harriman told John Cooper to go away and build the car, but as Cooper later recalled with one proviso: ‘Harriman said that we had to make 1000 – but we eventually made 150,000!’
The Mini-Cooper arrives
- Read the Mini Cooper development story
The Mini-Cooper, launched on 20 September 1961, eventually went on to become part of motoring folklore, amassing countless rally wins, particularly in the Monte Carlo, where the Cooper performed remarkable feats of giant killing. On the road, the Mini-Cooper was also a remarkable success, becoming the performance car for a generation.
However, considering the car was such a success, it seems all the more sad that the BMC-Cooper arrangement was never made official, and John Cooper only earned a £2 royalty payment (plus reasonably healthy retainer) for the use of his name on each one sold. Moreover, on the back of the success of the Cooper models, and the countless celebrity endorsements, the rest of the range received a shot in the arm in terms of sales success.
Curiously the Mini-Cooper received a new internal project code, ADO50, while other versions of the ADO15 platform which had more substantial differences, such as the commercial variants remained ADO15s. For a fuller description of events, see the separate development story at the link above.
The posh Minis from Riley and Wolseley arrive
The date of 12 October 1961 saw the announcement of two more variations on the Mini theme, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet. These were the posh Minis, with Riley the slightly more upmarket.
According to LJK Setright they were designed, ‘…to appeal to those small minded snobs who found the idea of a Mini intriguing but the name of Austin or Morris offensive and the evidence of austerity.’ Jeff Daniels wrote, in 1980, harshly of the cars. ‘The Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf are awful reminders of what happened when every BMC dealer and marque manager demanded his version of the Mini.’
The Elf/Hornet employed an extended boot and vertical fins. At the front they both had a vertical grille and wood trim in the interior as well as more chrome than the standard Mini’s. Of course when Jeff Daniels wrote his words, the Rover badge adorned the imposing five-door Rover SD1 executive car and the Austin Metro was about to launched. He couldn’t have possibly imagined a Rover-badged Metro…
‘Ugly, uncomfortable and undesirable’
Some journalists were just as harsh when the cars were current. Small Car magazine, soon to morph into CAR wrote: ‘We guess it’s no exaggeration to say that the first Issigonis Wolseley Hornet was among the ugliest, most uncomfortable and least desirable cars ever offered to the great British public. At any rate the one we tested in the winter of 1962 so disappointed us we couldn’t bring ourselves to write a word about it.’
Alec Issigonis seems to have distanced himself from these models and delegated development to the engineers working under him and BMC’s senior stylist, the Argentinean-born Dick Burzi.
The Elf/Hornets were shamelessly aimed at women drivers as a sort of miniaturized Jaguar or Rover and seemed to epitomise the kind of Britain that was fading away as the 1960s progressed. Also in the Autumn of 1961 BMC introduced stronger steel wheels on the Mini. This was in response the the racing fraternity’s experience of shattering wheels under extreme cornering.
Personnel changes at BMC
On 7 November 1961, the first of many corporate changes occurred in the Mini’s lifespan when Sir Leonard Lord retired to be replaced as Chairman of BMC by Sir George Harriman and, on 13 November, Alec Issigonis was appointed BMC Technical Director. This was followed by the appointment of Charles Griffin as Chief Engineer, Cars.
By now Alec Issigonis had divided BMC’s engineering staff into three cells. Cell A was responsible for the continuing development of the Mini, and was headed by Jack Daniels.
Cell B worked on the project known as the ADO17 and was led by Chris Kingham. Cell C worked on the forthcoming ADO16, and was led by the aforementioned Charles Griffin. From 1962, the Austin Se7en was renamed the Austin Mini. By now BMC was claiming that Mini production was running at 3800 per week.
1962: the Mini plays second fiddle
On 15 August 1962, the BMC 1100 was announced as the Morris 1100 (above), and later in every conceivable BMC guise. With a 1098cc A-Series engine, Pininfarina styling and Alex Moulton’s Hydrolastic suspension, the ADO16 was a more refined, larger, roomier supermini, before the term was coined. The ADO16 was an instant hit and would remain Britain’s best-selling car for a decade. The ADO16 would form a partnership with the Mini that would span the globe and attain the zenith of the British motor industry. Unfortunately, only 10% of parts were common to both vehicles.
On 21 September, the impeccably-costed Ford Cortina was launched. Even the steering wheel had been re-designed four times to bring it in under budget. Now the four cars that would define the 1960s in automotive terms, were all on the market, the Mini, the Jaguar E-type, the BMC 1100 and the Ford Cortina. A sign that perhaps the Mini was underpriced was printed by The Times on 23 November: ‘British Motor Corporation’s Mini range has certainly proved a success so far as sales are concerned, but the competitive pricing has bitten deeply into profit margins.
‘Mr George Harriman now reveals in his statement that the £5m plus fall in profits to £11.5m was based on a turnover of £311m, almost exactly the same level as in the previous year. Last year 60% of the group’s total output was represented by products of under 1000cc. This compares with 57% for the previous year, and only 43% five years ago. Clearly this trend, plus the narrow margins, makes it essential to maintain turnover by expanding output. In the last trading period the output of Minis reached 182,864 units, of which the home market absorbed 125,877. Exports are, however, increasing steadily and in the last three months of the financial year were averaging 1308 a week.’
During the life of the Mk1 Mini, BMC did make an effort to reduce manufacturing costs, although, no pun intended, the savings were miniscule. It can’t have helped that there were allegedly 48 different makes of carpet for the car. Fortunately, by now demand for the basic Mini had now dropped to 9% of production. In October 1962 the Mini-Cooper was also launched in Australia, while back in the UK, an all metal version of the Countryman and Traveller estates was launched which retailed at a lower price than the wood-framed models.
1963: the range expands across the globe
The winter of 1962/63 was cold and bitter, and in the snow outside Longbridge on 7 January 1963, Alec Issigonis and Charles Griffin demonstrated the prototype twin-engined Mini Moke to the media. Even Norman Wisdom, who was appearing in pantomime in Birmingham, was in attendance.
George Harriman told The Times: ‘This was originally conceived by Mr Issigonis and myself from the idea of an 0-8-0 locomotive, which has its wheels linked on either side. After producing some experimental versions we found that the traction of the two Mini engines balanced each other and that it was possible to run one in top gear and the other in bottom simultaneously.’
However, it would be another year before the Moke went into production and the twin-engined version proved to be a technical cul de sac. Also in January 1963 BMC announced Mk2 versions of the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet featuring a single carburettor 998cc engine, the first type of Mini to use what eventually became the mainstream unit.
On 2 April 1963, the Mini-Cooper 1071S was announced, followed by the news on 19 April that Alec Issigonis, the BMC Technical Director had been appointed to the main Board. On 7 May it was revealed that weekly Mini production had reached 5500. On 22 November 1963 BMC released a financial statement, with Chairman George Harriman outlining a rosy future.
Mini-cars are taking over the market
Frederick Ellis of the Daily Express wrote: ‘And it is a case of the Mini-cars making a giant-size impact on the market. For Mr Harriman also reveals that whereas in the previous year 60% of his sales were cars under 1000cc, last year the proportion rose to 73% of total output. The BMC chief makes the point that this makes the company more than ever dependent on a vast production in order to boost profits. With the profit on Minis far smaller than on the bigger cars, Mr Harriman says that a further lift in output is “the vital need”.’
On 30 August 1963 The Guardian reported: ‘The BMC Austin Mini and Morris Mini-Minor are four-years old today. A total of 662,337 Minis of all types have been produced, and 200,000 have been exported, 50% to Europe and 25% to Australia, where the Mini is second best-selling car after the locally-produced Holden. BMC is now producing 5750 cars of this type every week. There are 18 different models in four different marques, ranging from the basic saloons to the Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf, from plain vans to estate cars.’
In its 25 November 1963 edition The Times reported, ‘BMC’s net profit on each Mini has been little more than £5, and their market outside Europe has been negligible.’
BMC had become dependent on volume to pay its way in the world and attaining the desired production would prove problematical. The Mini’s most successful year as far as UK sales was early on in the car’s life span. 134,346 were sold in Britain in 1963, followed by 123,429 in 1964. It never came close to matching these figures again.
1964: the rallying baby becomes a giant
On 23 January 1964, things really started to come together for the Mini when Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon won the Monte Carlo Rally in Mini-Cooper 1071S 33 EJB. The returning car was given a hero’s welcome by the media. One of the world’s premier motorsport events had been won by a low-budget small car that looked like something a district nurse would drive, or so BMC’s PR men would have you believe. In reality the Cooper S Minis cost a bit more than the basic 850.
In the aftermath of the Monte Carlo win, Alec Issigonis said: ‘The amazing point is that I planned the ADO15 not as a competition car but as family transport. But I think that when exceptional drivers get hold of the car, they can exploit its steering, suspension and roadholding-all of which I felt were important for a family car.’
The motorsport success of the Mini created a whole go-faster and accessories industry, ranging from the likes of Downton Engineering to back street bodgers as owners of even 850 cars craved more get up and go. The car’s go-kart-like handling and low ride height made the driver feel like they were in a racing car, even if in reality there was a limitation to performance from the 848cc engine. Also in January 1964, production of the Mini Moke began, but it was not available in Britain until August of that year.
A million front-wheel-drive cars built by BMC
In February 1964, BMC announced it had built one million front-wheel-drive vehicles. BMC said that 1,002,129 had been produced, including 782,838 Austin and Morris Minis and 219,291 Morris, MG, and Austin 1100s. Of the total, 325,441 or 32.5% were exported. BMC was producing 11,350 Issigonis-designed front-wheel-drive models a week, with demand still exceeding production and being further increased.
In March, BMC announced they would be launching two more Mini variants at the forthcoming Geneva Motor Show. They were the Cooper 970S and 1275S. Although the Mini developed the image as a people’s car, the purchaser needed to be in a different income bracket to afford the 1275S. In September 1964, the basic Morris Mini Minor cost £449, which didn’t get you a heater. The Morris Mini-Cooper 1275S cost £757, a whopping 68% more.
By June, the US army was reported to be evaluating the Mini Moke, but the trials came to nothing. In September, BMC revealed details to the press about the new Hydrolastic Minis. Hydrolastic was to be fitted to the mainstream Minis to give that big car ride, or so BMC believed its potential customers thought.
Updating the Mini’s suspension to Hyrolastic
The fitment of Hydrolastic suspension to the Mini was and is controversial. Did it improve the car, or was it a costly diversion? Certainly, many BMC engineers felt it was not worth the effort on a car which had dubious profitability. Hydrolastic appeared to improve the ride of the Mini, but impaired the handling. Also BMC engineers allegedly altered Alex Moulton’s suspension settings.
Meanwhile, production at BMC’s Cowley factory, which was dominated by the Mini and ADO16, was not going well. In the year to September 1964, 254 unofficial strikes which caused 750,000 lost man-hours occurred, which was not good news for a company now dependent on high volume production to make a profit.
In October 1964, BMC announced the B-Series-engined Austin 1800, codenamed ADO17, which was intended to sell at a higher price than the 1100 and earn the corporation serious profits. This proved to be a step too far in expanding the Mini formula. Alec Issigonis’ ego, dogmatism and contempt for market research had produced a car that was too big and expensive for its intended market slot and plans for producing 4000 a week had to be hastily revised downwards – the car never remotely approached the sales success of the Mini and ADO16.
The front-wheel-drive strategy goes awry
To be fair to Issigonis, at the time the media felt he could do no wrong and most pundits felt the 1800 would be another triumph for BMC. Indeed, after the success of 1964 with both the Mini and 1100, Issigonis became seen as some sort of motoring guru by the media, the Albert Einstein of the auto industry, the man who could predict the future of the car. The ADO17, although incredibly spacious, exposed Issigonis’s flaws in expanding the Mini formula.
Whereas the 1100 had evolved from the Mini in being more styled and input from Charles Griffin’s team at Cowley had resulted in improved interior ergonomics, the 1800 reverted to the basic Mini’s stark interior, complete with Bus driver steering position and, in a bigger car, the switches were even harder to reach.
The ADO17 dispensed with subframes, but to compensate the body was over-engineered, suggesting some of the design discipline that had characterised the Mini’s development was lacking. Early cars were unreliable and consumers bought the Ford Cortina in droves instead, much to Terry Beckett’s delight. The upshot of all this was to strengthen Ford and weaken BMC and this was later to come to a head in 1967.
1965: more Monte Carlo Rally success
In January 1965 the Mini-Cooper 1275S AJB 44B of Timo Makinen and Paul Easter won the Monte Carlo Rally. Alec Issigonis, speaking after the event, said: ‘Racing, while valuable in spectacle and publicity, I am certain, does not improve the breed.’ He then added: ‘But rallying does, because it is so closely allied to road use. It forces development. It tends to exaggerate many mechanical features, to underline weaknesses. It is directly through rally experience that we have strengthened our gearboxes enormously.’
Had the Mini’s competition work directly influenced his designs? ‘I do not know. We used to think that if you had very good engine breathing it gave no low-speed torque. But this kind of rallying shows that you can have both. I would say the influence of rally work is quite subtle. But, given these conditions of ice and snow, we see the Mini could not be a more suitable engineering package, enabling us to take on the five- or seven-litre cars, which we cannot do on the race track. Even so, it was not designed as a competition car.’
On 3 February 1965, the millionth Mini was produced, which conveniently dovetailed with the second Monte Carlo win, and enabled BMC’s publicity machine to exploit the situation. It had become a mini world, where small was beautiful. No one could possibly have imagined that a decade later the Mini’s manufacturer would be effectively bankrupt.
Mini production peaks at 5000 per week
During May 1965, the UK production of the Mini attained its highest weekly production figure, when both Cowley and Longbridge produced 5000 cars. On 22 July, BMC announced it was taking over the Pressed Steel Company, the Oxford-based car body manufacturer, for £34m.
Then, on 6 August, BMC announced it would be producing some of its vehicles at a plant at Seneffe in southern Belgium. This enabled the company to circumvent tariffs on imported non-European Economic Community vehicles. In October 1965, the Italian firm of Innocenti began to licence-build its own version of the Mini, known as the Innocenti Mini Minor 850 at its factory in Milan. At 860,000 lire, the Innocenti Mini Minor 850 was quite a bit more expensive than the rival Fiat 850, but as the Milan firm was to be an extremely profitable operation, it is quite possible that, unlike BMC, the Italians had thoroughly costed the price of Mini manufacture.
In October, BMC announced the automatic transmission Mini and 1100. The all-British system was designed by the Automotive Products Group and developed with BMC over the previous 18 months, the joint investment amounting to £3m. It was the first marriage of an automatic transmission to a transverse engine – achieved by putting it in the sump – and the world’s smallest automatic with a torque converter replacing the clutch. By then, UK Mini and 1100 production was recorded as running at 11,000 to 12,000 a week.
1965 was a year of significant developments for the Australian Mini. In May 1965, the Mini Van was introduced down under and in June the Morris 850 was renamed the Morris Mini Minor, in line with the Cowley built cars. In September 1965 the 1275cc Cooper S joined the Antipodean range. The most interesting development was the introduction of wind-up windows to all Australian Minis; a luxury that European buyers would have to wait for.
1966: production changes
January 1966 arrived and the works Minis were disqualified from the Monte Carlo Rally for headlight infringements. Once again Timo Makinen and Paul Easter finished first on the road. BMC exploited the furore over the disqualification to its advantage. In February, Moke production began in Australia. There were more corporate changes in June 1966, when Joe Edwards, boss of the newly-absorbed Pressed Steel Company, was appointed Managing Director of BMC; while Sir George Harriman remained Chairman.
BMC had started to drift aimlessly with disappointing financial results; and it was Joe Edwards’ task to restore it to health. This was followed on 11 July 1966 by the merger of BMC and Sir William Lyons’ Jaguar group of companies to form British Motor Holdings (BMH). This was effectively a takeover of Jaguar by BMC, with Sir George Harriman remaining Chairman. At about the same time, the newly re-elected Labour Government imposed some deflationary measures on the economy, resulting in a slow down in the new car trade. By November 1966, BMC had announced plans to make 10,000 workers redundant, as part of Joe Edwards’ plan to reduce overmanning, and had put over 20,000 more on short-time working.
This sparked off protest strikes, but the most serious was a strike by delivery drivers, which resulted in BMC plants becoming overcrowded with new cars to such an extent that the company was forced to shut down all production. The media had a field day, publishing photographs of disused airfields overcrowded with cars that could not be delivered to dealers. Although the various disputes were resolved by December, the ramifications of what for BMC, was an embarrassing period, were far reaching.
While BMC was losing face in public, and market share, it also announced another revision to the Mini range in October 1966. The Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf went into Mk3 guise with wind-up windows and internal door hinges.
1967: officially a three-time Monte winner
Soon it was January 1967 and Monte Carlo Rally time. Rauno Aaltonen and Henry Liddon swept to victory in Cooper 1275S LBL 6D, and this time it was official. The Times quoted Alec Issigonis at the Geneva Motor Show in March saying of the Mini: ‘In a four-seater of that size there is no room for styling.’
However, on 13 April 1967, British Motor Holdings declared it had lost £7.5m in the six months to January 1967. This represented an adverse swing of £13m in pre-tax profit. Although there had been mitigating circumstances for this big loss – the problems of 1966 were a major factor – the Government became convinced that BMH, or at least the BMC component, was going to hit the rocks. From then, on the Wilson Government actively encouraged a merger between BMH and Sir Donald Stokes Leyland Motor Corporation.
The pundits in the media all had their say, denigrating BMC and exulting Ford and Vauxhall’s business methods. The Business Editor of The Observer newspaper, Anthony Bambridge, was one of them, although he did make an interesting point when he wrote: ‘Mini sales are slipping. In 1963 they held 15% of the home market. Last year this had slid to 10%, and is now under 7%.’
Failing to meet domestic demand
It appears the real reason for the Mini’s sales decline in the UK market was BMC’s inability to satisfy domestic demand and that a considerable portion of British production was earmarked for export regardless of home demand. The post-war Atlee Government’s exhortation to ‘export or die’ still had a powerful hold over manufacturing industry and the feeling that Britain had to earn its keep in the world still held sway. Back in 1963, the Mini had been just another small car, albeit an innovative one, with little appeal to overseas buyers, by 1967 it was a fashionable automotive sensation, and production had still not peaked.
Just to reinforce the seriousness with which BMC regarded exports, in June 1967 it announced the appointment of the improbably named 48-year-old Filmer (Phil) Paradise, the extrovert cigar-smoking American, who had headed Ford’s operation in Italy until a few months before. He became Managing Director of BMC International Services, BMC Europe and BMC Switzerland and he was based at the corporation’s European headquarters at Lausanne. By September 196,7 Paradise was extolling the Mini’s virtues to the press.
‘The Mini craze’, he told reporters at the Frankfurt Motor Show, ‘has brought much pleasure to a world that seems to enjoy expressing in a shorthand, diminutive way, and the Mini is a lot of automobile in a small package.’
The Mini Mk2 is launched
While all this was going on BMC began, rather late in the day, to investigate a facelift, which went on to become the Mini Mk2 (above). The Motor Show of October 1967 brought the arrival of the Mk2 Austin and Morris Mini, as announced on the 17 October; and from there on, there was no Mini Minor nomenclature. The revised car featured a larger rear window, near rear light clusters, and a restyled grille, which was probably intended to give the Mini a family resemblance to the other Issigonis front-wheel-drive cars.
In truth, the new grille was probably more time consuming to fit on the production line than the Mk1 moustache surround and grille. The Austin and Morris versions each had alternate grilles, although there does seem to have been more of an effort to commonise parts. The Mk2 models also offered the 998cc engine, previously found in the Elf/Hornet models. From now on the familiar Mini 850 and 1000 appeared in the BMC range.
However, because the design of the facelifted model had not been started until March 1967, BMC’s component suppliers could not supply the new grille and tail lamps in adequate numbers – if at all. BMC ended up storing 22,000 incomplete cars, again this was reported in the media. There was also a shortage of the 998cc A-Series engine, which now that it was fitted to the mainstream Mini was expected to prove the most popular power unit. And these shortages were to endure for at least four months. This apparent mismanagement and administrative chaos further played into the hands of the Wilson Government which saw the Leyland Motor Corporation as the saviours of the British-owned motor industry.
A new Director of Styling joins BMC
On 19 October, BMC announced that Roy Haynes, Ford of Britain’s Chief Stylist, who shaped the Mk2 Cortina and MkIV Zephyr/Zodiac, was to become BMC’s Director of Styling. Haynes was also trained as a product planner and was recruited as part of Joe Edwards’ plan to rejuvenate BMC. And the Mini would feature on Haynes’ list of things to do.
When Autocar got its hands on a MK2 Mini, KOV 247F, a Morris Mini 1000, it wrote: ‘We were expecting the new Mini to be announced with winding windows, like certain versions built in Australia. This must now be the only car without them, and they are sadly missed. It is also time such economies as cable release interior door handles were brought up to date; and some of the standards of fit and finish were disappointing. Carpets still do not lie snugly on the floor – a criticism we made in 1959.’
Overall the magazine felt the Mk2 was a ‘great improvement’, but while the press clamoured for wind-up windows, it was not something that BMC’s Technical Director was prepared to give them.
Loss-making Mini story gains traction
Sometime between 1965 and 1967, the concept that BMC was not making money on Mini began to seep into the minds of the company’s senior executives.
Production engineer Peter Tothill, quoted in Jonathan Wood’s book, Alec Issigonis: The Man Who Made The Mini, recalled a meeting at Longbridge: ‘They’d come to realise the massive cost penalty being incurred by the Mini. A cost comparison was done between it, the (Austin) A40 and the (Morris) Minor and all the bits were laid out to see if any parts could be commonised. If, for instance, we used the same sun visor we’d save half a penny a visor.
‘The trouble was the Mini was over-engineered, there was so much cost built into the car with, for example, a penalty of £20 to £25 on the subframes and suspension. Because it worked at a ratio of 5:1 you’ve got forged arms instead of pressings and ball and roller bearings for the pivots.’
1968: the big year
As part of Joe Edwards rationalisation plan, production of the Mini ceased at Cowley in January 1968, thus eliminating the transportation costs from Morris engines and Castle Bromwich. From now on all UK production of the Mini would be at Longbridge. Following the formation of British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC), the BMC Directors’ zones of responsibility were reshuffled – mainly because of Alec Issigonis’ decision to devote himself full-time to more creative and forward looking concepts of research and development. This was when Issigonis decided to design a new Mini, the project that became the 9X.
Tensions between BMH and Leyland executives resulted in Joe Edwards resigning from BLMC, leaving the old BMC effectively under Leyland’s control. The BLMC officially came into existence on the 14 May 1968 with Sir George Harriman as Chairman and Sir Donald Stokes as Chief Executive. Harriman had in reality agreed to stand down after a few months, while Stokes temporarily took over running the former BMC. He drafted in Harry Webster, Triumph’s Technical Director, to take over the equivalent post at Longbridge, usurping Issigonis, who was sidelined into research and development.
While these corporate moves were taking place and while Issigonis was working away on the 9X at his styling studio in Cowley, Roy Haynes and his team were beavering away on the Mk3 Mini and Clubman. On 30 May, a camera recorded for posterity a Mini Clubman hatchback. Sadly, money for development projects was now hard to come by, and money, or lack of it, would now dictate British Leyland’s small car policy.
Donald Stokes takes the helm
On 17 September, Sir Donald Stokes replaced Sir George Harriman as Chairman of BLMC. George Turnbull was imported from running Triumph to become the Managing Director of the Austin-Morris division. Also that month all the Mini models now received an all synchromesh gearbox. Graham Turner in his book The Leyland Papers claimed that in 1968 the Mini was making a profit of £15 per unit, although the method of calculating this was later disputed.
In October, the Authi factory at Pamplona in Spain produced its first Mini, a car known as the 1275C. During 1965 BMC had gone into partnership with the wholly Spanish owned AUTHI (Automoviles de Turismo Hispano Ingleses SA) in an attempt to circumvent government restrictions on cars imported into Spain.
Authi was already manufacturing ADO16 1100 models in an upmarket local version and hoped to perform the same trick with the Mini in what was Europe’s fastest growing car market, albeit one still presided over by dictator General Franco. Further models followed in 1969; the 1000E and 1000S models. In the same month, UK production of the Moke ceased. It was not a car suitable for the British climate, and production would now centre on sunnier climes.
Mini gains a new, larger, cousin
In May 1969, the final Alec Issigonis design (excepting the aborted 9X Mini replacement) was announced. The Austin Maxi was a further evolution of the original Mini theme, this time using a spacious five-door hatchback body and a new overhead cam engine mated to a transmission in sump five-speed gearbox. However, like the 1800, it had boxy styling and was plagued with reliability issues which deterred buyers. By 1969 consumers had become used to the Issigonis design philosophy and were no longer as prepared to put up with poor quality and unreliability in the name of innovation as they had been in 1959.
Like the 1800, the Maxi flopped, further reinforcing the view of some BLMC executives that Alec Issigonis was a liability, not an asset to the corporation. During 1968 Alec Issigonis calculated that an inline RWD 1275cc engine and gearbox cost just over £42, but the transverse equivalent cost around £54. And there were more expensive add-ons as a consequence of this. All this was not lost on Roy Haynes, who although was working on the Mini Clubman, was not a fan of Issigonis’ baby.
He and other Ford imports like product planner John Bacchus saw it as an expensive, unprofitable financial disaster. That may, perhaps have been a legacy of Terry Beckett’s dissection and costing of a Mini soon after its launch… Within days of the official formation of British Leyland in May 1968, Roy Haynes had written to the Company’s Finance Director, John Barber, another Ford import, advocating the development of a simple, profitable rear-wheel-drive car to appeal to the fleet market. This became the Morris Marina.
1969: Mini Mk3 and Clubman arrives
On 19 June 1969 the two millionth Mini rolled off the production line at Longbridge, the first British car to attain this mark. Sir Alec Issigonis, as he now was, was there posing with Austin-Morris Managing Director George Turnbull, who, in a advance press release stated: ‘The Mini will be the backbone of our production in the Longbridge plant, the biggest in the group, for many years to come. Harry Webster, our chief Engineer, and his team have many good ideas up their sleeves for keeping the Mini ever fresh in the future.’
The statement alludes to the fact that Issigonis no longer had any real influence on the development of his baby. On the day itself Turnbull added: ‘Alec is British Leyland’s secret weapon. No one else in the car industry has anyone quite in his class. He is essentially a man of vision, of long term thinking, but always with a revolutionary approach to design problems. We don’t care how way out his ideas are. We can soon put them through the commercial mincer.’
In July 1969 BLMC bought a 50% stake in Nueva Montana Quijano (NMQ), a heavy industrial group in the north of Spain and owners of Authi, and assumed responsibility for the management of Authi of Pamplona and the other NMQ automotive operations. Now British Leyland was taking direct control of Spanish Mini and ADO16 manufacture.
Mini becomes a marque in its own right
Lord Stokes and his new management team, which included Filmer Paradise, now promoted and brought back from Europe, were not fans of badge-engineering, and so began phasing out some of the multiplicity of marque and model types. In August 1969 the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet ceased production after 59,367 examples.
The booted Minis were only produced at a rate of 125 per week with a bodyshell subtlely different to the rest of the range and BLMC had a replacement on the way in the shape of the Clubman. In the Autumn of 1969, production of the Mk3 Mini and Clubman began, but production of the Mk2 range was to continue until the end of the year.
The new bodyshell was substantially re-jigged, and doors with wind-up windows and internal hinges were now standard across the range. And the separate marque badges were gone. No more Austin or Morris Mini; it was now Mini in its own right. With Alec Issigonis now sidelined, the introduction of wind-up windows was a formality, although they would prove to be something of a bête noire with the man himself and he would have his own Mk3 Minis converted to sliding door windows.
Mini Clubman and 1275GT launched
- Read the Mini Clubman development story
There was a new upmarket Mini, the Clubman, with a new nose designed by Roy Haynes and his team. The estate now came with a Clubman nose and the 1275GT arrived to replace the 998cc Mini-Cooper. The 1275GT was a parts bin special, using Cooper S brake discs and a single carburettor 59bhp 1275cc engine.
For the first five years of its life the 1275GT wore 10in Rostyle wheels manufactured by Rubery Owen, from which the wheels name was derived. This steel wheel design was very fashionable at the time and featured on several other top-selling cars of the era. The Owen family in fact owned the BRM Formula 1 team. Lord Stokes and Filmer Paradise’s loathing for badge engineering must have been justified in sales terms, because the Mini Clubman proved far more popular than the Elf/Hornet they replaced.
With the Mk3 Mini, there seems to have been a conscious effort to reduce the cost of manufacture. Out went Hydrolastic suspension, and a reversion to the rubber cones of 1959-1964. Also gone from the Mini was some of the chrome brightwork, such as upper door trims and the bumper overriders.
Mini production volumes increase further
Eliminating time-consuming activities such as this in the factory seems to have had some effect, as the Mk3s were produced in greater numbers – with the best year being 1971 when 318,475 left Longbridge and overseas plants. Although the Mk3 was announced in October 1969, the only cars to have escape Longbridge before 1970 were for press use only; for the last Austin and Morris Mini Mk2s weren’t manufactured until December 1969 – and the last Mk2 Cooper S was completed on 23 February 1970.
In late 1969, the Mini K was launched in Australia, fitted with a 51bhp 1098cc engine, the local content of the car was now up to 80%.
If the Mini became one of the iconic symbols of the 1960s, the company that made it came to symbolise the malaise in Britain during the 1970s. Strikes, picket lines and idle men warming their hands outside factory gates over braziers, thwarting the ambitions of the salesman who wanted to sell Britain and its products to the world. But the decision to group all of Britain’s independent motor manufacturers under the British Leyland banner was a disaster. The public came to associate British Leyland with strikes, to negative effect.
One of the priorities BLMC had to deal with was the abolition of piece-work and its replacement by measured day work. All its American-owned rivals were operating the measured day work system. Every time a model was modified in any way, piecework rates had to be re-negotiated with the shop stewards. This caused friction and led to many stoppages. The Mini was not immune to this and the change from the ADO15 to ADO20, resulted in production being restricted by disputes. However, on 21 January 1970, George Turnbull was confident enough to enough to announce that weekly production of the Mini was to increase by another 350 cars.
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.