Essay : Minis Kill!

In 1999, Channel 4 released a documentary about the Mini’s lack of safety.

JH Gillson reckons they missed the point…

Active or passive? The truth behind Mini’s safety…

I MISSED this documentary – part of a series of three programmes, I think, for Channel 4’s Mini Night made by Uden Associates. If I remember correctly the late Russell Bulgin presented one and Gordon Murray was featured smashing up a Mini in fit of South African rage – a demonstration of his hatred for them. I don’t know why Murray protested his dislike for the car because in the Autocar poll to find the “car of the century” I think the Mini appeared in his Top Ten, and quite near Number One…

I think the programme makers were a bit unfair to highlight the Mini’s crash protection – or lack of it – because according to Dr Moulton and others in various interviews in Mini Magazine and the like safety was uppermost in Issigonis’ mind when designing the car. But safety of the active rather than passive kind as the YouTube clip alludes to.

So he designed the car to have an excellent field of vision, a rigid bodyshell, a level of grip 80 per cent higher than most other cars of the day and quick steering – the point being that you would be able to see the accident approaching and then be in a position to take avoiding action.

Moreover, in a front end collision the Mini’s front-mounted transverse engine was believed to act as a kind of buffer to absorb the forces of the collision where a longitudinally mounted engine would have been propelled like a battering-ram into the passenger compartment. Issigonis was apparently satisfied that the transverse engine acted in this way a short while after the car was launched when none other than Stirling Moss crashed an early Mini and was able to walk away unscathed.

Furthermore, BMC also investigated a rear engined layout at the time when Issigonis schemed the Mini. This was not the much larger car designed by David Hodkin and Lawrence Pomeroy and I think it was called DO17. There is a picture of this car’s packaging layout in Rob Golding’s Mini book with four engineers sitting in it. Apparently, this car offered even better packaging than the Mini but the concept was canned as it was felt that the front passengers’ legs would be “too near the collision.”

Therefore, I think the stance taken by the chap in the interview is unfair given that BMC and Issigonis did take the issue of safety seriously and it is improbable that any other small car, or bubble car of the day was any better in a collision (but you were more likely to end up one in the first place given their comparative lack of agility and grip.)

Then the chap mentions that the car was withdrawn from sale in the US early on in its production run because it could not meet US safety legislation. But that took place in the early Seventies – 1972? – or thirteen years or so after the car’s launch.

The safety and emissions legislation jamboree in the US of the early 1970s came in the aftermath of the publication of Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed”, Nader’s witch-hunt against General Motors and the Chevrolet Corvair in particular. This line of thinking eventually led to the proposal where the convertible car should be banned. It’s the reason why the TR7 and XJ-S were only ever conceived as fixed head coupes and why the MGB was raised on its suspension (to meet US legislation governing the height of a car’s headlights) and given its ‘rubber’ bumpers.

If this was the beginning to today’s “nanny culture” I wonder if the US authorities also proposed bans on bicycles, motorcycles, skateboards and rollerskates?

Setright points out that the juggernaut of legislation imposed on the automotive industry in the early Seventies was some kind of response to the Vietnam war. From his book, Mini: The Design Icon of a Generation: “When the Mini was just five years old, the USA dropped its pretence of acting as expert advisers to the anti-communist faction in Vietnam, and the two sides rushed together into a combat calculated to prove, by attrition and slaughter, which was the finer ideology. The war would go on getting worse for years and years, and every evening it came home to America on television. While some of the young men out there grew more and more vicious and dissolute, the folks at home felt their anger change to guilt. Some turned their self-examination to a series of witch-hunts, the environmentalists and the safety campaigners joining forces to pillory the motor industry – while the government, relieved to see how this counter-irritant distracted the people from contemplation of more painful happenings on the other side of the Pacific did everything to encourage them.

“The American car industry was in effect taken out of the world scene, and the world was shut out of America, as emissions laws starting in California and culminating in the Clean Air Act of 1970 threatened to grow ever more stringent. Never mind that most of the ambient foulness in the air was not the fault of the car; society decreed that the car should put it right.”

Setright was always big on this: the safety and environmental concerns of the Seventies emasculated the car. They made the average car much worse and the search for quick fixes meant that investment was directed towards inadequate solutions when the motor industry, unfettered by legislation, could instead have concentrated its efforts on finding something better instead.

However, I’m not sure the whole idea of the US populace sublimating its collective guilt over Vietnam and then venting its grievances on US industry flies for me. It’s too subtle: I just can’t see the connection. Perhaps my vision is blurry because if Setright was anything, he was perceptive.

There are parallels today, of course. Honestly speaking, how many of us pay as much attention as we should do to the sacrifices of British service personnel serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, simply because we feel ashamed because we did nothing to prevent those wars? It is a democracy, isn’t it?

Perhaps Setright was right after all. Maybe it’s just that nowadays we direct our impotent rage for our own failings at bankers and bureaucrats rather than at the motor industry. Anyway, I suppose the inevitable result of Nader’s witch-hunt was the proliferation of 4x4s in recent times – the idea that you weren’t fully protected unless you were seated within a huge tonnage of metal. Or metal and walnut in the case of Range Rover drivers.

As the Mini was never a big seller in the US, it was perhaps more the case that the car – the larger Clubman, perhaps? – could have been engineered to meet US safety legislation – but it was not economic for BL to do so given the low volume of sales. It did remain on sale in Canada beyond 1972, with an unusual Heath Robinson style front bumper arrangement.

From Mini: The Design Icon of a Generation a quote from Rover 800 designer Roy Axe: “I had one of the first and this tiny, yet roomy car was a revelation for handling and driving pleasure. I did a huge mileage in two years and managed to have a spectacular accident, rolling sideways and end on. I escaped through the sliding window. My wife and I went on honeymoon in it three days later.”

And to finally dispel this notion that Issigonis was not interested in safety, this quote I have copied this from the Internet: “You probably have heard of Ralph Nader – the USA consumers advocate [ultimately, we have him to blame for Esther Bloody Rantzen – JHG.] He wrote this book Unsafe at Any Speed during the late 1960s and it was a ‘damning’ report on the then current US car production. In it he states that the Morris 1800 (Landcrab) built in the UK, was the safest car of the time with its suspension, brakes, and body construction. He stressed the fact that, if the 1800 was involved in a head on collision, the whole power unit goes under the car and not into the occupants.”

Perhaps the biggest Mini was the best of them all.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Safety was uppermost in Issigonis mind? I’m sure it was – but that was in 1959! 40 years on it would have been a death trap compared to an air-bag decked 90’s car – Just as that 90’s car would probably not get a single Euro ncap star now.

  2. Have come to appreciate the Mini’s excellent field of vision compared to cars over the past 2 decades or so. Always wondered whether the Clubman or the Innocenti Mini could have been engineered to meet US safety standards, even if it raises the prospect of the US Mini having its engine replaced as was the case with the MG Midget via the 1500.

    Do any pictures exist of this DO17 rear-engined car proposal outside of Rob Golding’s Mini book or it is connected to the Gogglemobil-inspired rear-engined car by Charles Griffin seen in Jon Pressnell’s Mini book?

    • Got Rob Golding’s Mini 50 years book though cannot find the rear-engined proposal in question or was it featured in an earlier edition?

      • Seem to have found some info on the above.

        Even though both the 2-cylinder Griffin Goggo and 4-cylinder DO17 rear-engined proposals were both blind alleys (that used A-Series units), with the length of the latter reputedly being the same as the Mini (which was unviable despite its 50-50 weight distribution). It would have nevertheless been fascinating to see a BMC-developed Hornet/Elf-sized (instead of Mini-sized) rear-engined car akin to the NSU Prinz 4 (the latter being some 5-inches longer despite being 4-inches wider), with improved packaging allowing it to feature 4-doors and inline-4 engines like on the larger Simca 1000 in spite of Issigonis’s distaste for the rear-engined layout.

        To put things into perspective one of the few if not only small rear-engined 4-cylinder 4-door car that comes immediately to mind would have to be the Mazda Carol 600 (the previous 4-cylinder 2-door Mazda Carol being more Mini-sized), though BMC could have afforded to lengthen its own theoretical rear-engined project to around 130-inches.

  3. Ralph Nader raised concerns into the minds of the American public over the air-cooled VW Beetle, the Beetle had many issues including the under-bonnet fuel tank which spilled fuel following frontal accident, VW reacted by hastily redesigning the car, do you recall the many variants of Beetle around that time,, 1302, 1303 etc, al seems to be a reponse to the justified criticisms by Nader

    • I think any European car that hit some of the huge American cars of the time would have come off worst. These were the sort of cars that would have suffered a damaged front fender, while totally destroying a Mini.
      It’s the way things were in America 50 years ago, gas was cheap, wages were high, so people mostly opted for cars that were big, powerful and luxurious. Even the compacts like the Plymouth Valiant were as big as a Ford Zephyr.

  4. I recall as a child being stopped in traffic at the Scilly Isles at Esher on a family day out. A mini drove in to the back of us. Whilst the driver was unhurt, the mini was undriveable. After my father exchanged whatever details were necessary, we drove on in a completely undamaged Triumph Herald.

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