Opinion : The social history of the Mini

Twiggy with Mini

The automotive media loves a major anniversary, it gives it an excuse to trot out special articles on the product in question and 2019 is no exception – the BMC Mini will be under the microscope.

So, the big one is the 60th Anniversary of our beloved Mini, the numerically most successful car to emerge from the British motor industry and arguably the one major contribution Britain made to the evolution of the automobile. Is it really 10 years since I went to the International Mini Meeting at Cofton Park, adjacent to Longbridge?

Once again the statistics will be trotted out, 5.5 million built, the motor sport success, the cars indelible association with the Swinging Sixties and whether it actually made money for its manufacturer. The Mini is indeed a British automotive icon but, amid all the facts and figures, no one has actually tried to document the social history of the Mini.

BMC Mini – truly classless

The Mini was a car that was driven by both the rich and the poor. While the well-heeled could afford a Mini Cooper S, the basic Mini became for many drivers their entry point into the exciting world of motoring. Because the basic Mini was initially available in 850 form and, from 1967, with an upgraded 1000 variant, the car was cheap to insure and easy to drive.

It was an ideal first car, even in dilapidated used car form, and for a pittance provided mobility for millions of drivers. In a Britain suffering from a drastic pruning of the rail network, a beaten up cheap Mini provided a viable alternative to the meandering bus services meant to replace the trains. What I am interested is the stories from these owners.

Why did they choose a Mini, what adventures did they have in the car and any other anecdotes relating to Mini ownership? My favourite story was of the man who used the large door bins of a sliding window Mini as a receptacle when he suffered an upset stomach, the consequence of a heavy drinking session!

Talk to us if you have a Mini story to tell…

If you have any anecdotes, please leave them in the comments section (below), post on Facebook or email us. If the response makes us chuckle or we learn something new, they’ll probably be used for a future article on the social history of the Mini.

Mary Quant Mini Designer

Ian Nicholls

Born in Bedfordshire but now residing in Norfolk, Ian Nicholls is an ardent BL enthusiast. Currently he owns a Jaguar and two classic Minis. A stalwart of the Norfolk Mini Owners Club for nearly a decade he is an enthusiast for all things Issigonis. A stickler for historical accuracy he has recently performed the marathon task of mining the online newspaper articles for all BMC>MG related stories. Ian is unable to help with technical queries – he pays other people to fix his cars!

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7 Comments

  1. A secondhand 1967 Mini 850 was my first car that I improved and tidied up in 10 months of ownership. It was reliable enough ,but – after standing outside in rain all day on a Saturday, I got ready to go out at night and the car refused to start, (the well documented wet distributor was to blame!). So I took the bus instead.

    Next day the weather was dry and bright and the car started first time!

  2. I had a university friend who had a 14 year old Mini Clubman in Leyland dark blue that had an interesting trait. Above 60 mph it started rattling so much the driver’s door would open, very interesting on the M62 to say the least. Her cure to this lethal problem was to never go above 55 mph, which she did diligently until the car had to be scrapped due to serious rust on its 15th birthday. However, she got her £ 80 worth as the car, apart from its party trick above 60 mph, managed to get her from Sheffield to Eccles every weekend.

  3. I used to have to partially take apart and rebuild the carburettor each morning to WD40 it to life, on the black Mini 1000 I owned in the early 90s when it was damp, and it was always damp when you owned a Mini. Sub frame collapsed on me when I was escorting some friends to a pub and the fuel line used to pop off at regular interval but somehow I still have fond memories of it. Heavy but precise steering, whining gearbox and a ride that kept you involved all saved my experience from bitter regret.

  4. Bette’s story

    In the summer of 1978 I bought my girlfriend Kath a tatty 850 red mini. It smelt of damp and had one headlamp out when we collected it from the front of an old caravan where the lady owner lived. The gearbox whined all the way home but it was a start for her, With the help of my brother, a couple of over sills and some welding we sorted the body work out. The light was an easy bad wiring fix and the ‘new’ carpet was courtesy of a shop with some off cuts. It was £17:50 well spent (about £100 now with inflation). The first nickname was ‘old one eye’, as it was already 14 years old.

    In 1982 we moved from Cornwall to Wales and the mini stayed behind. Within a year or so it had to be sold as the garage rent was silly to pay. In 1988 my then pregnant wife Kath gave me an earful for selling ‘Bette’ as she had become known, due to a number plate that it was impossible not to smile at when reading. ‘Why did I sell her’ I was asked, because of course it was all my fault. In our early years Bette had kept us together, because after every fall out or argument between us she would break down and my expertise was needed to get her going again, and the net result would be a kiss and make up reunion. She had simply been a part of our romance, and was sorely missed.

    For Christmas 1989 Kath got an unexpected present, Bette’s log book and details. The mini 30s were on sale and I recall pulling into a Cornish BL garage to put fuel in just after a quick repaint back to the original tartan red. Everyone was over the old mini and comparing it to the new one – I think they liked Bette better.

    Bette’s original engine was at the back of the house of the previous owner, who had painted her turquoise and put in an 1100 engine. I’d bought a racer that was rotten, but had the rare 970 Cooper S engine. Before too long that was in Bette, and the original 850 was put into storage. Bette came to Wales in 1990 and has stayed with us ever since. She still has her original wings and front panel, but the floor section under the driver had to be replaced about 7 years ago. She is a patched up and kept going survivor, so is no concours contestant, but more a proper mini to us.

    Over Christmas her Cooper S head gasket needed sorting and a few more jobs are in hand, but she’ll be back on the road for summer.

  5. Like so many others, my first car was a Mini. A 1980 Mini 1000 in Vermillion, the last year when the centre oval clocks were fitted (the single central speedo lasted until 1984 on the cheaper models). I loved that car. Huge fun to drive with the ability to make passengers wince at the cornering power with 5″ wide Weller wheels fitted. The standard drum brakes were hideous though and anyone who says they were adequate is not driving it properly. They always faded beyond belief and took an age to adjust and were still rubbish even after fitting quality Mintex shoes. I was offered a full set of new discs featuring new suspendion arms and drive shafts (from an unknown provenance!) for £100 but I simply didn’t have £100 to buy them. Wish I had.

  6. In the early 60’s I worked for a car hire firm in Liverpool and often met folk getting off the boats in Liverpool. On one occasion it was an American gentleman who had decided to hire a basic mini as his weekend transport. As he was used to LHD and a large auto transmission Buick barge he was a little bemused when he saw the car. His exact words are not printable. His “familiarisation” drive on the Dock Road was memorable if not to say frightening as he got to grips with the feel of the car–never mind nearly ripping the gear lever out of the floor.Plus his propensity to run on the wrong side of the road!! When I collected the car on the Monday I was amazed to find the car not only in one piece but the customer proclaiming he was going to order one when he got back to the States!!!

  7. Its 1976. Due to a death in family we are house hunting, and mother doesn’t drive. Auntie is pressed in to service as our driver in her brown Mini Clubman. That’s mother, auntie, 7 year old me, 5 year old brother an two cousins touring North Shropshire in a brown clubman. Thankfully when the time came to move from near Newcastle to Shropshire grandads 1800 was available for the journey.

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