It’s the 50th Anniversary of the Mini Cooper’s first Monte Carlo victory. A good time, then, for Ian Nicholls to chart the origins and production history of this car in what is the most comprehensive online guide to the most iconic of all Minis.
Ian’s article is not, as he explains, ‘meant to be a rehash of the Mini Cooper story, but an attempt to show how the car fitted in with the BMC>MG story.’
AS is well known, when the 34bhp Mini 850 was launched in August 1959 BMC’s Publicity Department lent a car registered YOK 250 to racing car constructor John Cooper of the Cooper Car Company Limited, which operated out of premises in Surbiton in Surrey. At the time the Cooper team was on the verge of winning the Formula 1 World Championship with its revolutionary mid-engined cars, seeing off the challenges of Stirling Moss in the Rob Walker-entered Cooper and Tony Brooks in the powerful front-engined Ferrari. Jack Brabham became World Champion in 1959 and retained the title in 1960 when he and team-mate Bruce McLaren were omnipotent. Cooper were at the cutting edge of development and very soon rival teams moved the engine behind the driver to compete.
Cooper also competed in other formulae, one of them being Formula Junior or FJ. This formula was an Italian idea for a low-cost starter series in racing using mass-produced 1-litre engines. Italian FJ cars used Fiat engines but Cooper opted for the BMC 948cc A-Series. Cooper was also working on producing a performance version of the rear-engined Renault Dauphine using a Coventry Climax engine. The French tuner Amedee Gordini had already tuned the standard engined version and a Renault Dauphine Gordini won the 1958 Monte Carlo Rally. However, Cooper aborted this project once he’d driven the Mini. He was so enthralled by the handling of the Mini that he took it to the 1959 Italian Grand Prix held at Monza that September.
Cooper was fond of telling the story of how, during the race meeting, the Mini was spotted by one Aurelio Lampredi. Lampredi had formerly been the Chief Designer of Ferrari and had been responsible for the cars that Alberto Ascari had driven to the F1 World Championship in 1952 and 1953. Lampredi was now working for Fiat and asked John Cooper if he could try BMC’s new baby. According to Cooper, Lampredi was away for hours and when he came back he announced that the Mini was the car of the future, adding: ‘If it weren’t so ugly I’d shoot myself’!
Although this has become a well-known Mini chestnut, what is not generally appreciated is that Aurelio Lampredi improved on the Mini formula. The 1965 Autobianchi Primula and then the 1969 Fiat 128 used a transverse engine driving the front wheels but, instead of the engine being positioned on top of the gearbox using the same oil, the Fiat 128 employed an end-on transmission using a separate oil reservoir. This has become the universally adopted system for front-wheel-drive cars. Two years later Fiat introduced the Fiat 127 – the first true supermini – and Lampredi even appeared in a press advert for the car, along with an F1 car he had designed. BMC may have got there first, but it was Fiat who made it reliable and a commercial proposition.
Cooper builds his prototype
John Cooper then set about building a fast Mini, probably YOK 250. The work was overseen by long-time Cooper employee Ginger Devlin and featured many components from the FJ engine and allegedly had three times the power of the standard Mini 850 engine, which would be around 100bhp. By 1961 the FJ engine was a 994cc unit developed by Eddie Maher of Morris Engines in Coventry.
John Cooper approached his friend and Mini Designer Alec Issigonis with his idea for a hot Mini. Issigonis initially rejected the idea, seeing his baby as a people’s car. Undeterred, Cooper took his idea to BMC’s Managing Director George Harriman, who drove Cooper’s prototype and then gave the go ahead for production of 1000 cars for homologation purposes. Homologation is the key word.
Right from its introduction the Mini 850 had been used in competition and a Cooper Car Co-entered privately entered Mini 850 driven by Sir John Whitmore won the 1961 British Saloon Car Championship. George Harriman offered John Cooper a £2 royalty on each car, to be sold as an Austin or Morris Mini Cooper, and BMC took on the development of the production car under the codename ADO50 – it also seems that as part of the deal BMC would back the Cooper Car Company as the official BMC Mini team in saloon car racing.
Former BMC and Ford Competition Manager Stuart Turner has since commented that, if John Cooper had not come up with the idea of a hot Mini, then someone else would have. The Mini was already a successful competition car in the sub-1-litre category and an MG-badged variant would have been on the cards. However, in the event, the ADO50 was badged Mini Cooper after the reigning Formula 1 World Champions. In 1960 the Cooper Car Company dominated Grand Prix racing leaving the likes of Ferrari and BRM trailing in their wake, so the decision was entirely logical.
BMC therefore set about developing the production Mini Cooper, using a Mini registered as KEL 236 as development car.The standard 850’s 34bhp gave it a top speed of 73mph using a final drive of 3.765 to 1. Morris Engines calculated that to propel a Mini to 85mph would need 55bhp, so company head Eddie Maher developed a 997cc engine with a longer stroke than the existing 848cc unit, yet bizarrely a smaller bore. Quite why BMC didn’t use the existing 948cc block as found in other BMC small cars is unknown but, over the next five years, BMC was to develop a bewildering range of different capacity A-Series engines. To stop the car Lockheed provided 7in disc brakes, which as it turned out were not that good!
Since this article was originally written, Simon Wheatcroft of the Mini Cooper Register has provided an alternative view as to the identity of the prototype Mini Cooper. According to Simon, ‘the development car was not registered as and only bore the registration KEL 236 in the photographic sequence at Goodwood and was actually 126 LWL. 126 LWL was registered on 20 April 1961 as a Morris despite never being seen with a Morris badge, the car was Farina Grey with a Black roof. ‘126 LWL was present at the Mini Cooper launch (badged as an Austin) and was subsequently tested by Sports Car Graphic magazine complete with all its non-standard parts such as Morris Minor style 100 mph speedometer and unique interior trim.’
Production of the Mini Cooper began at Longbridge on 11 July 1963.
The Mini Cooper was launched on 20 September 1961 and was acclaimed by the motoring press. The car had a maximum speed of around 85mph and a 0-60mph time of 17 to 18 seconds, not fast today but impressive back in 1961. Most of the hike in engine power came from the camshaft, part number C-AEG567, which was the hottest cam fitted to a production A-Series until the arrival of the MG Metro in 1982. Other gains in power were realised with a cylinder head with larger inlet valves and twin 1¼ SU carburettors. Tuning guru David Vizard later tested the BMC twin-carburettor inlet manifold on a flowbench and found it to be an appallingly inefficient design…
What this writer finds interesting about the 997cc Mini Cooper is that it previewed two components that were to be found on the ADO16 Morris 1100 launched eleven months later: the remote gearchange which replaced the 850’s magic wand and the 12G202 cylinder head which was standard equipment on the 1098cc engine found in Austin/Morris 1100s. John Cooper’s desire for a hot Mini was somewhat compromised by the need to productionise the concept and use standard BMC components. However, help was soon at hand in deepest Wiltshire.
Daniel Richmond ran a tuning business called Downton Engineering in the village from which it took its name. He specialised in conversions that provided smooth running at low revs and yet impressive top-end gains. Word got around that he had created a 100mph Mini Cooper and several magazines tested the car. The Downton Mini Cooper featured all the usual tuning modifications and had its capacity increased to 1088cc.
With this extra power it could do 0-60mph in 8 seconds and speed on to 108mph, a fantastic performance even today. In its 8 December 1961 issue, Autocar magazine tested the Downton-tuned car under the headline ‘Mini Ton Bomb’. Impressed by the performance of the vehicle, Autocar magazine journalist Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker rang up Alec Issigonis and told him about the car. Issigonis asked to see the Downton Mini Cooper and Barker drove it up to Longbridge where its creator tested it. Issigonis was impressed and sent for Daniel Richmond who was then made a consultant to BMC.
The first fruits of Daniel Richmond’s relationship with BMC was the performance version of the ADO16 saloon, the MG 1100. Like the 997cc Mini Cooper, the MG 1100 had a 55bhp engine, the difference being how this was achieved. The MG 1100 retained the standard mild camshaft (12G726) that was fitted to its Austin and Morris cousins. The extra power was achieved by a new design of cylinder head, the 12G206 and later 12G295, which featured larger valves, more open combustion chambers and better flowing ports.
The original Mini Cooper had sold well and was again a successful competition car in the 1-litre category. Indeed, the South African driver, John Love, won the 1962 British Saloon Car Championship in one for the works-backed Cooper team. In 1963 the works Coopers were not so lucky on the circuits as Sir John Whitmore, although winning his class, narrowly lost out to Jack Sears in his enormous Ford Galaxie in the British Saloon Car Championship. That year also saw the emergence of a potent rival to the Cooper Car Company in the shape of the Birmingham-based Broadspeed team which ran a Mini Cooper for John Fitzpatrick and then expanded to a four car team featuring, in addition, John Handley, Jeff May and Peter Tempest. Ralph Broad’s outfit gave Cooper a run for their money and soon BMC began to unofficially back them too. This was to be the start of an on/off relationship with BMC/BL that would last well into the 1970s. Meanwhile, Downton Engineering-backed Dutchman Rob Slotemaker won the 1963 European Touring Car Championship.
John Cooper again pestered BMC for a more potent version. For the 1962 FJ season the Cooper Car Company had used a 98bhp 1100cc version of the A-Series engine and it was suggested that a road version be developed for the Mini Cooper. BMC boss George Harriman was very reluctant to give the go-ahead, citing the extra investment in the required block boring machines as prohibitive. However, in the end Harriman relented, giving in to the pressure from John Cooper and BMC’s brilliant Competitions Manager Stuart Turner. Between them the new engine was developed by Downton Engineering and Morris Engines. The engine capacity was 1071cc and the Downton-developed cylinder head (12A185, and later AFG163) featured nimonic valves. The engine also featured a nitrided crankshaft and all these performance goodies resulted in peak power of 70bhp.
The car was stopped with 7.5in disc brakes, which were far superior than the 7in discs fitted to the standard Mini Cooper. In typical BMC fashion the new brakes were not fitted to the ordinary Mini Cooper, even though it would have been a logical step. Production of the new car began on 16 January 1963. The new ADO50 variant known as the Mini Cooper S was unveiled in April 1963 and was discontinued in August 1964.
The 95mph 1071S was an immediate hit and, as every Mini fan knows, was driven to victory in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally by Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon. The returning car and crew were hailed as conquering heroes and BMC’s publicity machine made the most of it, the winning combination even appearing on ITV’s top-rated show Sunday Night At The London Palladium. This is where the Mini’s reputation as a giant killer began.
The giant-killing begins
Whilst this was happening the 997cc Mini Cooper was discontinued. Since 1962 the ‘posh’ Minis, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet had used a new A-Series engine, the 998cc, which was a short-stroke version of the 1098cc unit used in the ADO16 1100 saloon. In early 1964 the Mini Cooper received a 998cc version of the MG 1100’s engine, also rated at 55bhp, which it retained until the cars demise in 1969.
In March 1964 two more Cooper S variants appeared. The 970S was a homologation special, using a shorter block than the 1071S. It was designed to compete in the 1-litre category and used a shorter stroke than the 1071S to attain 65bhp – because it had a larger bore than the 997 and 998cc Mini Coopers, the 970S could use larger valves. Just under 1000 were made in a year.
The other variant was the legendary Mini Cooper 1275S. The 1275S used a longer stroke than the 1071S. Peak power was 76bhp. Stuart Turner had pushed for a wilder camshaft but was told that the 1275S had to be a car that was capable of being driven by the district nurse! With this potent engine the 1275S could attain 97mph and 0-60mph in 11 seconds. Whole books have been written on this car, and this writer is not going to indulge in a detailed dissection of this car’s development or competition success.
The Mini again had another good year on the race track in 1964. Cooper poached John Fitzpatrick off Broadspeed for the British Saloon Car Championship and he went on to win the 1300cc class and finish second overall. Cooper’s effort in the European Touring Car Championship was managed by one Ken Tyrrell who also ran the company’s FJ team that year. In both cases Tyrrell succeeded. Warwick Banks running the new 970S won the ETCC while the FJ series was won by Tyrrell’s protégé Jackie Stewart. After the highs of 1959 and 1960 these were fallow times for Cooper in Formula 1 and the success of the Mini on the racing circuit offered a welcome diversion.
1965 was a big year for BMC. It started with the Mini’s second Monte Carlo Rally win. The brilliant driving of Timo Mäkinen and Paul Easter in a 1275S, combined with Stuart Turner’s astute tyre choices, thrashed the opposition with a victory margin measured in minutes. Rally win after rally win came the Mini Cooper 1275S’s way, culminating in Rauno Aaltonen being crowned European Rally Champion. The halo effect of the Mini Cooper 1275S seemed to bless the rest of the BMC range as the company carved out a 35 per cent share of the UK car market, with the ADO16 firmly ensconced as Britain’s best selling car. If the Mini was too small for a family, why not buy a bigger version? However, despite its huge sales, BMC’s profits were disappointing.
That year Warwick Banks won the 1 litre class in the British Saloon Championship for Cooper, while Broadspeed received works backing in the European Touring Car Championship to run John Fitzpatrick and John Handley. Alongside Warwick Banks, Cooper had a newcomer, 38 year old John Rhodes, whose tyre smoking antics would become part of Mini legend. In his debut season for Cooper, Rhodes managed to win the 1300cc class, a feat he was to repeat in 1966, 1967 and 1968. At end of the season Warwick Banks decided to retire from tin tops. However, on several occasions, Cooper found themselves racing against the Broadspeed cars when the latter team found racing in Europe stretched its budget and opted to compete in some UK events.
In Australia the Mini Cooper had been available in 997cc and then 998cc forms since October 1962. In May 1965 the Cooper S was launched down under.
1966 began with controversy. Despite finishing first on the road again, the Mäkinen/Easter 1275S was among several other BMC entries disqualified from the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally for alleged headlight infringements. Many people believe this was because the organisers couldn’t accept than a 10-foot long car could defeat more potent opposition. BMC made the most of the furore it caused and another appearance on Sunday Night At The London Palladium followed.
In March the Innocenti Mini Cooper was launched in Italy. This was a 998cc engined car as it was thought that, due to Italy’s taxation structure, there would be little demand for a 1275cc engined car. 1966 also saw the introduction of the 1275cc A-Series engine in the MG Midget and then the ADO16 in 1967. Although the bore and stroke were the same as in the 1275S, this variant used a different block and cheaper materials. Both blocks must have used the same boring machines and it was the 1275cc engine that was perhaps Sir George Harriman’s most enduring legacy, powering cars ranging from the 1966 MG Midget to the 1984 Austin Montego.
For the 1966 racing season Cooper were the only works-backed team in the British Saloon Car Championship as Broadspeed had now defected to the Ford camp to run Anglias. The works Cooper drivers were now the two Johns, Messrs. Handley and Rhodes, whilst in the ETCC Don Moore ran a car driven by Paddy Hopkirk.
1967 arrived and BMC took its revenge in the Monte Carlo Rally. Rauno Aaltonen and Henry Liddon drove to triumph in the rally of their lives and the mighty Mini again received a hero’s welcome on its return to the UK. Meanwhile, John Cooper was recovering from a serious crash on the Kingston bypass when driving his twin-engined, 4X4 ‘twini-Mini’ Cooper. During his convalescence he received an offer from Jonathan Sieff, head of the Chipstead Group of car dealers, to buy the Cooper Car Company. John Cooper decided to sell, although he remained in day-to-day charge of things. Cooper were by now a fading force in Grand Prix racing, using a Maserati engine. At the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort the Lotus 49 powered by the Ford-Cosworth DFV dominated and won on its debut.
This engine was the future of Formula 1 and, although Lotus had exclusive use of the engine for 1967, it would be available to all-comers the following year. The problem for Cooper was that the Cosworth DFV was Ford-financed, so because of their link with BMC, Cooper could not use it. Some within Cooper argued for terminating the BMC royalty agreement but to no avail. 1968 saw the last works Cooper Grand Prix season on a stage they had once been able to call their own. It could be said that Cooper created the hot Mini, but the Mini Cooper ultimately killed the Cooper Car Company.
Around 1967/1968 BMC introduced a new cylinder head, the 12G940, designed by Daniel Richmond. This new casting was fitted to all 1275cc engines, only differing in inlet valve sizes. The version fitted to the 1275S was similar to that fitted to the ADO16 MG 1300 and 1300GT and the later MG Metro. The original 1275S cylinder head (the AFG163) was prone to cracking between the valves, so the 12G940 employed smaller exhaust valves which cost around 2-3 bhp, although BMC continued to claim 76bhp in their publicity brochures. The 12G940 was an open chamber design like the 12G295 fitted to the 998cc Cooper/MG1100.
Daniel Richmond was an enthusiastic fisherman and bought a stretch of riverbank with the fee he earned from developing the 12G940. Downton Engineering was the BMC-approved tuner, and cars came straight from the factory to be modified. Peter Sellers and The Beatles all had Downton-tuned Minis and the firm also built the engines that Cooper used in saloon car races and modified the cylinder heads for the works rally cars. At the end of 1967 the MK2 Mini was introduced with a larger rear window. BMC were starting to rationalise the car and many external trim parts were now common to both Austin and Morris versions. However, the good times were about to come to an end.
1968 came and the Mini Cooper’s winning streak ended as more sporting cars gained the ascendancy. The best the works rally cars could manage was third and fourth on the Monte Carlo Rally that January as Porsche triumphed, having been thwarted by Aaltonen the previous year. In reality the Mini Coopers reign as a front-running rally car should have already been over. It had continued to win against more powerful opposition in 1967 thanks to the sheer professionalism of the BMC Competitions Department at Abingdon. It must be remembered that all the Mini Cooper 1275S had to propel it was a mere 1275cc and the men at Abingdon had worked wonders to achieve what they did.
Another factor was that the British Leyland merger brought with it new management determined to cut costs: BLMC had no need for consultants. John Cooper later recalled Sir Donald Stokes saying: ‘We employ 150,000 people here, what do we want consultants for?’
The end of an era
On another occasion, Stokes asked Cooper: ‘What do you do’? Cooper replied: ‘I come here once a fortnight and wind Issigonis up…’! According to Cooper, ‘I don’t think he liked that very much.’
New Chief Engineer Harry Webster (who had replaced Alec Issigonis in this post following the formation of BLMC) is reputed to have told Daniel Richmond that he believed him (Richmond) to be the person responsible for all the Cooper S warranty claims and that his services were no longer required. Before Richmond departed the scene he developed the 1800S engine and worked on both the stillborn 9X project and the E-Series engine for the forthcoming Austin Maxi.
BLMC’s dismissal of Daniel Richmond was a shoddy reward for someone who had increased the efficiency of the company’s engines and whose legacy to the organisation would still be considered competitive in the early 1980s when the 1.3-litre A-Series was fitted to the Metro, Maestro and Montego. Richmond died in 1974 aged only 50 and Downton Engineering closed down soon after. The first engine British Leyland developed without Daniel Richmond’s input was the 1978 O-Series and that was considered disappointing…
A bright spot in the summer of 1968 was that filming began of a motion picture which would cement the Mini Cooper’s iconic status: Paramount’s 1969 release ‘The Italian Job‘.
By the time filming began, the merger that formed BLMC had already taken place and Longbridge was full of ex-Triumph men, including the aforementioned Harry Webster. Webster later commented that those first few months were spent ‘rushing round, turning off all the expenditure taps. Money was rushing out of Longbridge, and we had nothing to show for it – it was quite terrifying’. This might explain what happened when producer Michael Deeley approached BLMC for help in what was to prove the Mini’s best ever advert. In Mathew Field’s book ‘The Making Of The Italian Job’, Michael Deeley commented: ‘They [BLMC] were completely uninterested.’
Eventually BLMC sold the production company six Minis at trade price and another thirty cars at retail price. Michael Deeley also remembers: ‘My association with BMC was sadly very limited. There was a very nice man who was head of PR who was blind. He had been blinded dismantling a bomb on Brighton pier at the end of the war. Very sweet and nice but he didn’t seem to have much clout’. Star Michael Caine (who didn’t actually hold a driving licence at the time of filming) was more caustic: ‘That’s why the company no longer exists and that’s the problem with British industry: no foresight, you know? We hated British Leyland.’ This contrasts with Ford, who bent over backwards to lend the producers of the low budget and mediocre ‘Carry On Cabby’ a fleet of Cortina Mk1s.
The stunts in The Italian Job were performed by the Frenchman Rémy Julienne’s (pictured, right) team and involved the famous car chase through the subways, shopping arcades and sewers of Turin. Some sources claim BLMC did help to a certain degree. It has been claimed that BLMC built a Mini fitted with an ADO17 Landcrab 1798cc engine and gearbox. This was to enable the car to have enough torque to climb steps. The Mini Cooper 1275S engines were prepared by Broadspeed in Birmingham by a former Downton Engineering employee known to this writer.
The formation of British Leyland also affected the BMC Competitions Department. Sir Donald Stokes personally took over the running of the rump of the former BMC, now known as the Austin Morris division of British Leyland, in May 1968 before handing over to George Turnbull that September when he took over from Sir George Harriman as BLMC Chairman.
To Stokes, a salesman, motorsport was only worth spending money on if there was a chance of winning and the failure of the Mini to win a major rally in 1968 must have been frustrating for him. Paddy Hopkirk nearly won the TAP Rally in Portugal, the works teams last event that year, only to be overhauled near the end by a Lancia. Deadly rivals Ford now had the Escort in the showrooms and it was also proving to be a winner in competition. The BLMC Competitions Department badly needed a new winning car to replace the Mini, but sadly one was not forthcoming. At the end of 1968 BLMC released its star foreign rally drivers from their contracts, but retained Paddy Hopkirk as he was both British and PR friendly.
There was better news for BLMC on the racing circuits. John Rhodes won the 1300cc class in the British Saloon Car Championship and ETCC. His team mate in the Cooper team that year was Steve Neal, for John Handley had signed up to drive for Harry Ratcliffe’s British Vita team in the European Touring Car Championship. Driving a Mini Cooper 970S in the 1 litre class, a model out of production since 1965, Handley amassed enough points to become overall ETCC Champion. A 970S also featured in the British Saloon Car Championship where Jim Whitehouse’s Arden team took future Ford Capri ace Gordon Spice to victory in the 1000cc class.
An announcement which was made on 28 June 1968 meant that the future of the Mini Cooper under the new British Leyland Motor Corporation regime was ensured by virtue of an agreement which British Leyland had concluded with the Cooper Car Company for a further three years’ collaboration on production and sale of BMC Mini cars. Sir Donald Stokes, Chief Executive and Managing Director of British Leyland, said that the development of the Mini Cooper saloons and their numerous successes in international racing and rallying had played a major part in promoting world-wide sales of BMC cars.
Overseas there was more Mini Cooper activity. Innocenti of Milan announced a MK2 Mini Cooper 998cc in September 1968. This car used the Cooper S camshaft, AEG510 to boost power to 60bhp, compared to 55bhp for the UK built car. In October 1968, British Leyland’s Spanish partner Authi produced its first Mini, christened the 1275C. Featuring a single carburettor 1275cc engine, it was a Cooper in all but name and was treated as one by the media. After all, what did the ‘C’ stand for?
It was in the motorsport arena that BLMC revealed its true attitude to the Cooper Car Company. BLMC ordered its Competitions department to compete in the 1969 British Saloon Car Championship, employing John Handley and John Rhodes to drive red and white Mini Cooper 1275Ss. The erstwhile works-backed team, Cooper, its F1 team now shut down was cast out into the cold. Undeterred, John Cooper teamed up with fellow BLMC rejects Downton Engineering and, with backing from Britax, ran two yellow and black 1275Ss for Steve Neal and Gordon Spice.
However, the opposition had now caught up with the once mighty Mini. The Mini’s small 10in tyres wore out much quicker than the larger tyres on cars like the Ford Escort and even a move up to 12in wheels was not enough to stop the rot. 1969 was the year the Ford Escort 1300GT matured as a saloon car racer and overcame the Mini, despite the efforts of its drivers. It was not all doom and gloom, though. The Arden team once again played the 1-litre card and Alec Poole won both the 1000cc class and the 1969 British Saloon Car Championship in a blue 970S.
1969 also brought big changes for the entire Mini range, with the announcement of the ADO20 Mini in October that year. This redesign encompassed the introduction of wind-up windows and concealed door-hinges, along with a new variant: the Mini Clubman. The Clubman-based 1275GT replaced the 998cc Mini Cooper, which was the first victim of BLMC’s cull of cars linked with out-of-favour BMC consultants. Austin-Healey would be next. Quite frankly the 1275GT was a better car: it was better equipped, had the superior 7.5in disc brakes from the 1275S and the single-carburettor, 59bhp 1275cc engine from the ADO16 1300 saloon which gave more torque and improved acceleration. The only surprise was why BMC had not fitted this power unit to the Mini Cooper earlier in the interests of rationalisation.
The last Mk2 Mini Cooper 998 emerged from Longbridge on 12 November 1969.
The Cooper 1275S continued in production and, from March 1970, it made the transition to Mk3 ADO20 form, although sales of this variant were down on the car’s 1960s heyday. It’s difficult to ascertain whether this was due to lack of promotion on BLMC’s part or the fact that the Cooper 1275S had simply gone out of fashion. There was certainly no attempt to differentiate the car from the bog-standard Mini 850 and 1000 apart from the wider steel wheels. Despite the higher price and performance the 1275S lacked the Clubman-fronted GT’s equipment, go-faster stripes and general up-to-date image. It’s as if the 1275S remained available for those buyers who wanted one for competition use.
The marketing focus was now definitely on the 1275GT and not the Cooper S. The car was no longer competitive in motorsport, an arena that was to be dominated by the Ford Escort with Escorts winning the RAC Rally every year from 1972 to 1979! BLMC had closed down its Competitions Department in October 1970 and Stuart Turner was now plying his trade as Competitions Manager with Ford. Lord Stokes may not have believed that competition sold cars, but Ford most certainly did and, as the 1970s wore on, British Leyland gradually shed any sporting image it had, a mantle inherited by Ford. In January 1971 the Authi Mini 1275C ceased production to be replaced by the Spanish version of the 1275GT, which differed from the UK car in that it retained the round nosed bodyshell.
The last Mini Cooper 1275S came off the Longbridge production line in June 1971, when the three year agreement with the Cooper Car Company concluded in June 1968 expired. In 2001 Lord Stokes stated why the Mini Cooper was axed: ‘…It was an expensive car to make – there were so many different body pressings. We lost about £20 per Mini. Then people wonder why I scrapped the Cooper. We were giving more money to Mr Cooper than we were making in profit.’
In Australia the Mini Cooper S lasted until August 1971 when the Clubman was launched, supplanting the round-nosed models, and the last Mini Cooper S Mk3 was built at Longbridge on 28 June 1971.
However, that was not the end of the Mini Cooper story because production continued in Innocenti’s Milan factory. In March 1972 the Italian firm announced the Mini Cooper 1300, the first Innocenti Mini to use the 1275cc engine. Innocenti had, as is documented in the Innocenti section of this site, already entered a period of decline following the death in 1966 of founder Ferdinando Innocenti and, in 1972, his family decided to sell the business to British Leyland. BLMC sent out future politician and millionaire Geoffrey Robinson to run their new acquisition.
Robinson decided to expand Innocenti’s sales throughout continental Europe and one of the cars he sold was the Mini Cooper 1300 Export, an improved version of the car launched in March 1972. This was basically a disc-braked Mini fitted with a UK-built engine from the ADO16 1300GT saloon, developing some 71bhp. Instead of the UK cars plain steel wheels the Italian car had smart Rostyle wheels. It was also the best-equipped and best-built Mini Cooper. The reputation of Italians as great car stylists was well justified with this car, particularly in terms of the interior. The Mini Cooper 1300 Export, was announced in March 1973 and in October that year an identical version was launched by Authi in Spain. The model was also built at Seneffe in Belgium.
However, BLMC’s financial collapse at the end of 1974 resulted in the termination of car production in both Italy and Spain. Innocenti was sold to Alejandro de Tomaso and, while production of the Bertone-styled Mini 90 and 120 hatchback continued for many years, the last Mini Cooper rolled off the Innocenti production line in 1976. The Mini Cooper was dead. For now…
In 1980 the Metro was launched with great fanfare and it wasted little time in usurping the Mini as Britain’s favourite small car. Many specialists jumped on the bandwagon, applying knowledge gained from tuning Minis to the new car. One of them was John Cooper Garages of Ferring in Sussex. Following the Chipstead Group’s decision to close the Cooper Car Company in 1969, John Cooper had opened a British Leyland dealership in Ferring in 1970.
The Chipstead Group retained the rights to the Cooper name and for many years it adorned their chain of BMW dealerships. How ironic! When announced, John Cooper Garages’ hot version of BL’s new supermini was called the Metro Cooper and featured a Janspeed-modified 80bhp twin-carburettor engine. Autocar magazine tested the car and achieved a top speed of 101mph and a 0 to 60mph time of 11.6 seconds. However, BL declined to honour the warranty on this modified car, while legal wrangling over the use of the Cooper name resulted in the car being marketed as the Metro Monaco.
Meanwhile, BL – or the Austin Rover Group, as the car division was known – pressed ahead with their own plans for a fast Metro. In the spring of 1982 ARG unveiled the 100mph MG Metro. ARG’s Engineers wanted to find the power to propel a Metro to 100mph without having to resort to the extra expense of twin carburettors, which were more likely to go out of tune and cause warranty problems.
This was achieved by using the big-valve version of the 12G940 cylinder head as used on the last Cooper 1275S cars and the ADO16 1300GT. The MG Metro additionally employed separate inlet and exhaust manifolds and the wildest camshaft ever seen in an A-Series engine, part number CAM6648. Some sources have suggested this was originally a Downton Engineering-developed camshaft profile. The clever part about the MG Metro engine was the carburetion.
The BMC twin-carburettor manifold was, as related earlier, woefully inefficient. By 1982 the latest version of the SU 1¾in carburettor was the HIF44 which actually flowed better than the two 1¼ SU carburettors fitted to the 1960s Mini Coopers. By using an SU HIF44 mated to an alloy inlet manifold ARG were able to get the required performance on a budget. When all added up the MG Metro engine pushed out an impressive 72bhp. Many a decrepit MG Metro has since donated its engine to an underpowered Mini! Although the MG Metro Turbo came later, concerns about how much power the basically 1959-designed transmission could take resulted in the blown Metro having the standard car’s camshaft and valve sizes.
This writer’s first car was a Mini and I remember asking a salesman on the ARG stand at the 1983 Motorfair if it would be a good idea to re-introduce the Mini Cooper. I was told that the Mini Cooper belonged to yesteryear. One person who disagreed was John Cooper himself and he never gave up on the idea of resurrecting the Mini Cooper. In Japan in the 1980s the Mini became a cult car, particularly the Cooper version and many 1960s examples were imported into the country. Austin Rover Japan were selling around 3000 Minis a year and its head Cedric Talbot approached John Cooper to ask whether it was possible to put an MG Metro engine into a Mini.
Technically this was no problem but the men at Austin Rover were not interested, citing problems with getting type approval in the UK and Japan. Type approval for a 1275cc Mini, a combination that won the 1965 European Rally Championship? Undaunted John Cooper fitted a Mini Mayfair with an MG Metro engine and sent it to the Land of the Rising Sun, where according to Cooper, ‘they loved it’.
Austin Rover Japan asked ARG to make 1000 new-generation Mini Coopers, but Chairman Harold Musgrove refused. To be fair, Musgrove had a point. The Mini was a product of a bygone era and there had been a strong commercial case for killing the car on the Metro’s launch in 1980. For the time being the Mini had been kept in production as a budget economy car to compete with cars as the Citroën 2CV, Fiat 126 and Renault 4. The Metro was the small car of the moment and a new generation Mini Cooper may well have detracted from the MG Metro’s sales.
The Japanese were not to be defeated and the Editor of a major Japanese car magazine suggested to John Cooper that if they couldn’t get the car, they could at least have a tuning kit. John Cooper obliged and was soon exporting a Janspeed-designed kit comprising a modified cylinder head, twin carburettors, performance air filters and exhaust system.This boosted the 998cc Mini from 40bhp to a more impressive 64bhp. Incidentally, Janspeed was founded by Hungarian refugee Jan Odor after he left Downton Engineering in 1962.
In 1986 John Cooper Garages (JCG) switched from being an Austin Rover dealership to a Honda one. Officially it was because of ARG dealer rationalisation, but it’s also possible that ARG thought they were ridding themselves of a troublesome pest…
Also in 1986 Harold Musgrove was ousted, to be replaced by Graham Day who was out to sell all the cars he could. If people wanted to pay good money to drive around in a 1959 design then he would satisfy the demand. In 1989 the newly renamed Rover Group and John Cooper Garages began talking to each other and soon the JCG conversion kits were available for fitment to 998cc Minis from Rover dealers with full factory warranty. While this was happening Rover gave semi-approval to the ERA Mini, a conversion using the 93bhp MG Metro turbo engine. John Cooper and his son Michael met with Rover management to discuss the next step.
John Cooper suggested putting the 1275cc engine in the Mini. There were again mutterings about type approval, but these problems were soon resolved. Rover Special Projects (RSP) handled the development of the new car with input from the Coopers. The new-generation Mini Cooper RSP was launched in July 1990 to mixed reviews. One staunch defender of the car was veteran scribe LJK Setright who praised ‘the staunch independence that makes the Mini as refreshing as it always was,and makes it impossible for the others to bear comparison with it.’
The engine of the RSP Mini Cooper was a detuned MG Metro engine. In 1989 the A-Series engine had been converted to run on unleaded petrol and all the 1275cc engines now used the same sized inlet valves, which in the MG Metro probably cost around 4-5bhp. When this engine was fitted to the Mini it used a catalytic converter. Whereas the factory quoted the 1982 MG Metro as having 72bhp, the Mini Cooper RSP now only had 61bhp, but it was still good for 90mph. The RSP Cooper was a limited edition and soon sold out.
One could, of course, be cynical and suggest that perhaps it started as a marketing exercise to offload 1650 surplus MG Metro engines now that the Metro was powered by the K-Series engine. However, from September 1990 the Mini Cooper became a mainstream production car and soon around a third of all Minis were Coopers. Who was buying them? The standard Mini had been aimed at female drivers; perhaps the Cooper was bought by men who would otherwise have bought motorcycles to relive their youth?
For those who thought the standard Rover Mini Cooper with its 61bhp a little gutless, help was at hand. In March 1991, with Rover’s approval, John Cooper Garages began selling the first of several Janspeed ‘S’ packs: tuning kits to turn one’s Mini into something more potent. At first any Rover dealership could fit the kits, but later this task would be entrusted solely to JCG in Ferring (and later at their new Mini-only facility at East Preston). The first JCG ‘S’ pack boosted power to 78bhp and when tested by Autocar & Motor magazine in May 1991 it achieved uncannily similar results to the 1275S Autocar had tested back in 1964. The magazine pasted the car for all its usual faults: noise, lack of refinement, etc. and then added:
‘But in one respect at least the Mini succeeds brilliantly. It’s a magnificent car to drive, responsive in a way that nothing for a comparable price can equal, never mind surpass. You don’t take the Cooper S to work, you drive it, and if you’ve forgotten the fun that can be had from driving then you need a car like this to remind you.’
As the 1990s progressed, the JCG packs would eventually offer 90bhp. In late 1991 the Mini Cooper said goodbye to the SU carburettor as it adopted single-point fuel injection and then in 1997 it went over to twin-point fuel injection to meet ever-tightening EU emission regulations. In 1994 BMW took over the Rover Group and soon made it clear that they wanted a new-generation Mini and that the Cooper name would be an integral part of the new project, with John and Michael Cooper acting as consultants to the new project. BMW invested heavily to keep the old Mini in production to tide it over until the new project came on stream.
Also in 1994 the Mini Cooper returned to the Monte Carlo Rally with the 1960s pairing of Paddy Hopkirk and Ron Crellin, who performed valiantly, cheered on by the crowds, until a broken fanbelt forced their retirement. It was a brilliant PR exercise. In May 2000 BMW sold off Rover at Longbridge and took the new MINI to Cowley. MG Rover were allowed to continue building the old Mini until 4 October 2000. On that day an era ended as production line supervisor Geoff Powell drove the last of 5,378,776 Minis, a Cooper Sport 500, off the production line with singer Lulu in the passenger seat. Many Mini personalities were there that day, but John Cooper was too ill to attend – he died not long after, in December 2000.
The Mini Cooper only formed a small percentage of all the five million plus Minis produced but the desire for a faster Mini galvanised BMC into developing components that were later used on more mundane cars. It had such a halo effect on the rest of the Mini range that BMW viewed it as a desirable brand and that contributed significantly to the Bavarian firm’s decision to buy Rover in 1994. The Mini Cooper was a product of a bygone era even in the 1970s and 1980s as more modern cars took the limelight and especially in the hot hatch era when motoring writers drooled over a never-ending series of fuel-injected Euroboxes. Once the Rover R8 200 came on to the marketplace with its 16-valve technology, Rover’s marketing machine gave up all pretence that the Mini was a budget economy car and exploited the nostalgic brand values of the vehicle – the re-appearance of the Mini Cooper was part of this. The public associated Mini and Cooper more closely in the 1990s than in the car’s Sixties heyday, even if most people had no idea who John Cooper was.
The Mini Cooper’s legacy is one which has been brilliantly exploited by BMW as Mini or MINI and Cooper have become intertwined.
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.