Opinion : What happened to Issigonis’ Mini world? Part One


Forty-five years ago, all the talk in the car world was of miniaturisation. The industry buzz was all about making cars smaller, more compact and space efficient. We seemed to be living in a ‘Mini’ world, and the guru of this movement was Sir Alec Arnold Constantine Issigonis.

The original Mini of 1959 had demonstrated that small cars did not have to be gutless rear-engined buzzboxes. The transverse FWD installation of the Mini’s A-Series drivetrain liberated the small car from traditional restrictions, and the marvellous ADO16 1100 of 1962 showed that the Mini was not just a flash in the pan. With its impressive interior space, the 1100 embarrassed larger cars.

Soon BMC’s factories were producing 12,000 a week of these two designs.

Back then we seemed to be living in a Mini world, the car itself seemed omnipotent – both on the race track and in the sales chart. Autocar and Motor magazines both published an annual Mini special edition in which they detailed what the owner could buy to fit on their car from the booming accessory business. The Mini and its bigger 1100 brother was everywhere. The Mini type car seemed to be here to stay.

The 1800 and Maxi may have failed to set the world alight, but soon other manufacturers followed suit. Fiat, Renault, Volkswagen and – eventually – Ford joined in on the act. The oil crises of 1973 and ’79 further heightened the demand for small fuel efficient cars, with Fiesta and Polo becoming two of the very best options.

Fast forward to 2012 and we find that Issigonis’ ‘Mini’ world seems to have disappeared. In place of compact cars we have bloated versions of traditional small cars like the Volkswagen Golf and MINI; gargantuan 4x4s that never go off-road, and hearse-like MPVs complete with DVD screens on the back seat for the children who can’t be bothered to look out of the window. These leviathans of the road seem to be used to cart around children, dogs, shopping and the obligatory mobility scooter.

The only reason I can think for this change in the face of expensive fuel prices is the development of the diesel engine. Whether it is actually true or not, it is actually perceived that diesel is more economical than petrol. The diesel engine also offers more low down torque where it matters than its petrol equivalent.

By this logic it becomes as economical to run a used diesel Land Rover Discovery as a medium sized petrol car, and the Discovery is a much more flexible load lugging utility car. Diesel seems to offer the chance of more for the same outlay. The fuel of the future is here right now, it’s called diesel.

As for the small car, its main function seems to be as a used car for for young drivers who are confronted with stratospheric insurance premiums, and sometimes they can’t even get a quote for anything over 1100cc. So what did happen to Issigonis’ ‘Mini’ world ?

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Several things have helped to almost kill the small car off. High NCAP scores are physically not possible in a old school Mini small car, you need space for effective crumple zones and cars have grown taller to allow the engine to ride under the car in heavy frontal impacts as opposed to into the cabin. Weight has increased too as people demand more extras, space for air conditioning and power steering adds size. Also as cars have grown the need to make them larger to be safer has grown. Coupled with EU and US federal regulations it’s a surprise any small cars are avaliable for sale.

  2. I take the point about needing larger cars to accommodate crumple zones etc but surely that doesn’t mean that a car as large as a BMW Mini can’t provIde more interior space than the original.

  3. I hadnt realised how big small cars had become until I bought a 66 D reg Beetle as everyday transport..last had one 25 years ago but now feel like an ant in a shopping centre when I take it onto the motorway……

  4. NCAP and peoples demand’s. If you look at the Cortina, in the 60’s it was a 1.3 to 1.5 size car but by the end of the 70’s it had grown in size and engine to go with the growth of consumerism. This is most noticable in China where LWB versions of everyday cars we see appear as the Chinese see rear leg room as very important. Audi make A4 and A6 LWB versions just for the chinese markets. The funny thing I find is that although cars have grown eg Escort/Focus, the amount of room inside has not, and they are comparable to what was the car above ie Cortina/Sierra. So in relatity a Focus is a modern day Cortina! It is a shame ideas like the A Class and A2 were flawed in execution, as they showed how space could be provided in small packages, and if Rover Group had got their way the Mini would have been along these lines instead of a oversized small coupe for people with orange tan.

  5. One of my points I made is that consumers are choosing bigger cars anyway , 4X4’s , MPV’s and hybrids like the Nissan Quashkai. And diesel technology enables them to get good fuel economy.

  6. I was shocked recently to see how small a Triumph 2000 looked on the roads today, when I had my Dolly Sprint in the eighties the 2000/2500 looked like a big car. The current freelander is as big as the original Range Rover. Legislation has a lot to answer for on this, but it is true that consumers demand more comfort (bigger seats with integral airbags and heating/cooling) as well as dashboards and interior trim being massive by comparison to their forebears to accommodate the safety features and electronics.

    • Seeing the ADO16s in modern traffic made them look incredibly small. But it is still possible to build proper roomy and small cars that are safe and offer the comfort wanted today, just the buyers seem to prefer (cheaper) more conservative cars – think A-class, Audi A2, Smart…

  7. 1) Crash safety legislation. Wonder why the R56 MINI’s front end looks like a 4×4 compared to its direct predecessor? Look no further than pedestrian safety requirements.

    2) People are generally taller and er, bigger than they were 50 years ago.

    3) Demographics. Average age of the first world economies’ population has gone up, up and away since the post-WWII baby boom. And the average age of the new car buyer is higher still as they’re the only ones who can comfortably afford new cars. Hence the rise of high-rise vehicles that don’t require gymnastics to get in or out.

    4) Small, high rise vehicles tend to look like invalid carriages (apart from their questionable dynamic qualities) so only sell when dirt cheap, and then only to a tiny minority. The rest will settle for a ‘cool, adventurous’ 4×4 type vehicle or – if it needs be – a largeish MPV, even if their need for space could be accommodated by an A-Class/A2/Nissan Cube sort of car.

    5) In this day and age, no one accepts a driving position like in the original Mini anymore. The current MINI is not so much worse packaged as that it simply alots a greater proportion of its interior space to the front seat occupants at the detriment of rear seat passengers.

    5) People own – and want to tote – loads more cr*p than 50 years ago. And despite the demographics being as per above every manufacturer seems to think their car won’t sell if it doesn’t support the trendy ‘active, sporting’ lifestyle, i.e. it needs to accommodate surfboards, MTBs, skis, horsey stuff et al.

    But most importantly,

    6) In the 1950s, labour was cheap and materials were expensive. These days, with legislation and customer preferences dictating that there’s little content you can take out of a small car and still be able to sell it, there’s little incentive to make a car as small as possible. Far easier to offer a little more metal and (perceived?) usefulness, with no real cost penalty to the manufacturer.
    Strictening CO2 targets and the financial implications of not meeting them would counteract that tendency, were it not for the very low acceleration rates and speeds in the NEDC laboratory test being not especially punitive to vehicles that are a little bigger and heavier than they need to be. Pretty much all the ‘progress’ that’s been made so far has been drivetrain-related.

  8. I think one of the other factors, is all the major manufacturers are making sure the cars are now global cars. So the likes of Fords/GM/Vauxhalls etc are now big enough to be sold around the world. The Ford Mondeo is sold in the US, where they regard it as a medium sized car, yet it’s larger than the last Granada/Scorpio!! Meanwhile Golf/Focus/Astra, regarded as compacts in the US, are as big, if not bigger than Cavalier/Sierra. I think manufacturers have used NCAP as an excuse to cut the number of designs/platforms they use around the world. Kinda like changing Marathons to Snickers….

  9. Out of interest, I compared the dimensions of my Fathers 1966 Vaux VX4/90 with that of the current Astra Hatch… guess what? the Astra is bigger even though in its day the Victor series was perceived as a mid size car and Viva’s, Chevettes & Astra’s were smaller stablemates. How times and cars have changed. In particular those new MINI Countryman’s look bigger than my Focus or a Mondeo.

  10. I once did the maths, and the new FIAT 500 is similarly larger than its predecessor (20% I think) as the BMW MINI is to the proper Mini! It hides it better because it’s so much taller…

    The small city cars, e.g. the C1s and UPs are very much sold to a specialist market for urban runarounds, where the back seats are hardly used. It’s the next size up the superminis where cars have grown enormously so that the Clio 3 is the same length as the R14, while the Grande Punto is longer than the Tipo!

  11. Couple of weeks ago I was driving my little 80s ford up the a56 near dunham, when this huge black 4×4 type `thing` appeared in my mirror; It really was one of the most ugly pimp-mobile type of demonic tonka toy aesthetic; assumed it was some kind of Jeep perhaps?
    Anyway, it pulled up next to me at the lights and I (literally) peered up to see that it was in fact some form of mini !!! irony or what??
    How times change. Can`t help wondering, with all the massive improvements in engine efficiency over last decades, how economical cars COULD be IF they didn`t have to haul all the extra hardware round with them?

  12. It’s not only the mini or its ilk but all cars. As a proud owner of both a TR3 and a TR4A basically these cars are no larger or taller than they need to be. You get in and they finish roughly where the elbows, knees and head are. Then again no ac, no headrest, no airbags, no seat belts, etc…. but who cares does one really need more for some real fun. And to cap it all they don’t even use much petrol.

  13. Perhaps most of us are much more safety aware now…..no doubt there are many people alive today like this USA MINI driver below (see link for photos)who would not be if ‘small’ cars had not moved on from the original Mini……..I still love my 1960’s classic Mini but I feel much safer driving my modern MINI and have actively discouraged my own kids from owning a classic Mini as an everyday car for this reason.

    Lucky Escape For New MINI Driver In USA:
    “The vehicle that took off after this hit and run head-on crash with an R53 MINI Cooper S in West Seattle USA was a black Jeep Liberty likely to have serious front-end damage!
    Witnesses said the driver of the mangled MINI, hit head-on, was taken to the hospital, but did not seem seriously hurt; the scene, however, was aptly described as a “car-parts explosion.” The MINI’s engine wound up on the west sidewalk; other pieces and parts were in the planting strip and the street, the full width of 35th. The MINI driver was discharged from Hospital yesterday afternoon with a fractured strenum, torn ankle ligmanent, and several cuts and bruises. He is now resting comfortably at home in the care of his daughter.”

  14. Add in a huge rise in disposable incomes, and a desire to impress the neighbours by driving a 4×4 – the American term “conspicuous consumption” springs to mind.
    “If diesel is more economical than petrol” – for me, it saves £30 a week – hardly worth bothering with, really.

  15. In the UK we have tended to follow US trends more than European ones being an English speaking nation and generally being in awe of our cross Atlantic cousins (though this may now not be the case!).
    Before the banking crisis cars that used to be a novelty to see (Ferrari, Bentley etc) have become everyday sights and mundane and as for the likes of Range Rover, Audi and BMW, they are more abundant than Escorts used to be!
    This is all to do with affluence or more precisely the ‘appearance’ of affluence. Even in these cash strapped times people want to be able to keep up with the neighbours and if that means converted the garage into a dining room whilst having at least three cars, so be it. Houses in the US grew and grew from the eighties onwards to encourage families to buy more and that whole ‘MTV cribs’ mentality has spread over here too.
    Me, I would love to have a well built and reliable car as basic as it could be, like a Lotus Elise but with actual seats and a boot. Still it’s good to see the likes of the Toyota IQ and Smart still doing clever and small.

  16. Maybe, but the iQ and Smart achieve their compactness at the expense of motorway stability and I’m not sure I buy into the whole ‘city car’ thing. Most of the time, you’re better off walking or cycling.

  17. And what is with these ridiculous hill billy type trucks that are on the road ?
    Are we living in the mid west of the USA ?

  18. @ 20 Yep those good damn hicks r invading our county so we should get Sheriff Rosco to come and round them up. Lol.

    Why would you want a F150 on our roads?

  19. Car companies do NOT like small cars – margins are too small . Esp. in ‘first world” countries where wages are higher . The manufacturers have carefully nurtured “big car ” culture in these countries (eg – Aus , Canada , the US ) so that it is a man’s birthright to drive a big car . Elsewhere , you can’t really sell people Cadillacs and Chevs these days so instead we have the – wait for it – SUV !
    Re the safety issue . That is true . Big cars have an added crumple zone – small cars and their occupants !

  20. There are so many benefits to having a larger car, both personal and nowadays also environmental, but I can’t help but admire the smaller original Minis when I see them. There’s a certain sense of nostalgia in place when I come across an older Mini – the style of car is definitely not practical for myself, but I definitely appreciate the originals when I see other people drive them!

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