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 ?