Blog : Happy birthday Mini!

Issigonis and the Mini: happy birthday Mini!

Happy birthday Mini! On 26 August 1959, motoring history was made. Exactly 60 years ago, the first Mini was launched to the public and its creator, Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis (above), stood proudly alongside to show the world his – and the British Motor Corporation‘s – answer to the bubble cars. As we all know, the way we looked at small cars, and what they were capable of, changed in that one single moment.

The front-wheel-drive Mini could seat four passengers and their luggage and was capable of driving up what would become Britain’s motorway network (the Preston by-pass had been opened late in 1958, but most people will tell you that the motorway age really began with the opening of the M1 in November 1959) at its future speed limit of 70mph. It was clever, it was cheap and, in short, it was a revolution.

What fewer people will tell you is that the day of the Mini’s launch also marked the end of production of the line for the much-loved Austin A35. But then, the Mini represented the beginning of the modern era in UK car manufacturing, whereas the A35 was more like a very amiable evolution of an archaic (in comparison) concept. It might have been launched as the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini Minor, but most people soon began calling Britain’s new mini-car by its rightful name, Mini.

Even Issigonis couldn’t have guessed…

For a while, the Austin Newmarket name had been considered for the ADO15 but, according to Rover historians, it was Lord Nuffield who actually came up with the name, Mini. According to Thirty Mini Years, the 1989 official Rover souvenir booklet to mark the car’s 30th birthday, Lord Nuffield, (who allegedly always referred to Issigonis as ‘that foreign chap’) was quoted as saying, ‘I have a hunch that “Mini” may well prove to be the catchword of the next decade.’

How right he’d prove to be? Mind you, it’s probably quite likely that even he would have not grasped just how much it would shape automotive culture for years to come. Where do you think the term supermini comes from? That generation of small cars, so epitomised by the Fiat 127 and Renault 5 (and, later, the Austin Metro), became frontrunners in a market sector that was named in deference to the 1959 original. The term’s still used today.

I’ve maintained on many occasions that Fiat’s front-wheel-drive solution of the transverse in-line four-cylinder engine and end-on gearbox was the more significant advance in automotive development than Issigonis’ transmission-in-sump arrangement. However, it’s probably equally true that Fiat engineering genius Dante Giacosa may not have so readily come up with this arrangement without a little inspiration from Issigonis. And, lest we also forget, had Issigonis had his way, we may have ended up with a front-wheel-drive Morris Minor replacement with the transmission arrangement used by Fiat – and copied by everyone else – more than a decade earlier.

You can watch how that came about in this wonderful Pathe film – The Incredible Seven.

Happy birthday Mini: its impact on me…

There’s one other point worth raising at this point – if it wasn’t for the Mini, this website would never have come into being. The Mini and its subsequent front-wheel-drive offshoots just seemed so modern, and forward looking. They were flamboyant and interesting in a world of grey porridge, and proved that us Brits were capable of buying characterful cars in large numbers – and, although I was a child of the 1970s, they still had a huge impact on me. So much so, that when I set about creating this website to debunk all those BMC- and Leyland-related urban myths, I chose the Mini as its starting point. It’s also – to me – the starting point of the modern car as a whole. And now it’s 60 years old!

So let’s toast the Mini’s 60th birthday and remember what a great, influential and fun car it was when it was unleashed on to an unsuspecting public. And just as much – let’s also not forget just how brilliant the original Mini is today. Thankfully, its vibrant social scene and excellent community will allow us little opportunity to do that!

To celebrate the Mini’s birthday, I’ve turned over the AROnline homepage to this marvellous little car. Here are some important Mini links if you feel like reading deeper into its fascinating history. Happy birthday Mini!

MIni celebrating its 20th birthday (Picture: the Mini forum)
Mini celebrating its 20th birthday in 1979 at Donington (Picture: the Mini forum)

Keith Adams

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

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

26 Comments

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

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

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

    Worth a bomb now too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  9. In December 1966/January 1967 I was driving a Mini van around the lanes of Worcestershire, when working as a groom for the Olympic show-jumper Alison Westwood. At the time I had a Hillman Minx VII, and the difference was so great. The Mini would nip around the curves in the country roads, well exceeding the posted advisory speeds for the many bends. A year later, and the son of a later horse owner for whom I was his private groom took delight in skidding round a field, on the short dry summer grass, in his Mini. The father had a Ford Thunderbird, which he used to drive a mile or so from the house to Tonbridge railway station – before catching the daily train to London.

    Just who in the marketing department thought it clever to replace the ‘v’ with a ‘7’ in Austin Se7en. The same genius who said it was “4sale”?

  10. Those Pathe newsreels are good to watch again after all these years. Seeing the assembly process reminds me of my own Mini 850, the single speedo & flick switches etc. Great times – Great memories!

    I saw a couple of Mini ADO15’s at the weekend and it struck me as to how small they now look alongside current vehicles.

  11. Perhaps the handling of the Mini brand by British Leyland symbolises why the company failed. British Leyland saw it as a loss making millstone, BMW realised it was the biggest brand in the UK motor industry by far that had been unexploited by stupid, cost obsessed bean counters imported from big rivals Ford.

  12. Yes and the name lives on very successfully under BMW and is probably the most iconic British named car ever.
    Mind you I still like the Noddy car lookalike Austin A35 and its flying A badge, and one in black is still running locally.

    • My brother’s first car was a 1956 A35 in light blue. (bought in 66). A fair bit of filler was used on its sills and repainted but it looked quite tidy and was a reliable car in the time he had it. I remember the rounded switch for indicators in the centre of the top dash

  13. I have a question. Did anyone ever try a rear engine fwd setup? I can’t think of any and I can’t really think of any reason why not. REFWD would certainly help with the propensity for arse-first travel.
    And re the DX engine – if you have a 1275/6 then you have a 2.6 v12. Or an 1100/6 would give a 2.2 v12. I can think of a place for both of those. Wolseley Landlobster & landcrab… Not to mention XJ cars. A 3.8 litre W18 to replace the thirsty and execrable v12. You could even sell it on the “look at me I’ve got 18” egotesticle ticket. Along with a 3.3 version for the slightly less well heeled egotesticlist.
    Finally – a 900cc 4 cylinder version, as a v8, 1800. The Wolseley 110 landcrab, the MGB with about 125… And with a version of the 16v Dolomite Sprint heads….?

  14. Happily still driving our ’63 Mk1.
    What a car, I loved the Mini 30 when they were launched (would still lioke one) amazing that they are all 30 years old themselves now

  15. Another website recently asked ‘what was the best car you ever drove’. Cars such as E Types, Lotuses and such exotica were the general response. I had no hesitation in naming the Mini. I only owned two – a Countryman and a Clubman – and despite leaks, breakdowns and raging tinworm, I loved them both. Nothing else came close in those days (75-82) to a their kart-like handling. On a straight road they may have struggled to keep up with almost anything else, but on a twisty road, thanks to being able to straighten out all but the tightest of bends due to diminutive size and brilliant handling, even a basic Mini could knock spots off absolutely every other four-wheeled vehicle on the road at that time.
    Sadly, the Clubman had to be replaced when family came along and an almost new Allegro took over. What was I Thinking? From the best car to the worst in one fell swoop!

  16. Bang on! and let’s not forget BMC with effectively 0% of the company car market were the dominant manufacturers and sellers in the UK all the way through the 60s and into the 70s. They must have been doing a few things right and one of them was the Mini.

  17. The 1959 – 2000 Mini must be considered one of the most important cars of all time, along with the Ford Model T and the VW Beetle. All 3 had long and large production runs in their basic form, made and sold all over the world, influenced vehicle designs for generations, often the 1st car for many drivers and families as well as cultural icons. Today, almost all cars are FWD with transverse positioned engines as the Mini had and popularized. Since the original Mini, perhaps the Toyota Prius and Tesla are even close to the Mini in automotive influence and history. So yes, celebrate 60 years of the iconic Mini as it should be.

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