British automotive icon Mini celebrating 50 years

Sir Alec Issigonis had already been successful with his own sports cars and he had been commissioned on a number of occasions to develop large saloons. But his favorite project, as he made it quite clear, was the construction of a simple, extremely functional and very affordable small car.

So when Issigonis, the Deputy Technical Director of the Austin Plant in Longbridge, was requested early in 1957 by Leonard Lord, the chairman of British Motor Corporation (BMC), to develop a brand-new and truly innovative car, he was absolutely thrilled and knew exactly what he wanted.

The little car was deemed necessary as a result of the 1956 Suez Crisis, which reduced oil supplies and forced the UK government saw to introduce petrol rationing. Obviously, the sales of large cars, with high fuel consumption dropped and the market for so called “bubble cars” boomed. BMC realized that they had to produce a small vehicle fast.

Prototype Mini project drawing by Alec Issigonis, 1958

The new car was to be smaller than all models built by BMC so far, but nevertheless offer sufficient space for four occupants and their luggage. A four-cylinder already built by the company was to provide the necessary power, while the driving characteristics and the all-round economy of the new small car were to set new standards.

Considering this brief and the demanding requirements to be fulfilled, what Issigonis needed was no more and no less than an absolutely revolutionary new design – exactly the right job for him and his team.

Opting for front-wheel drive and the engine fitted crosswise at the front with the gearbox directly below, Issigonis right from the start created ideal conditions for excellent efficiency in the use of space. No less than 80 percent of the space taken up by the Mini, what one might call the car’s “footprint” on the road, was exclusively for the passengers and their luggage.

Overall length of the new car was 3.05 meters or 120 inches, and the Mini might indeed have been even shorter. But Issigonis had exact ideas and intentions, which he presented to his team in a rather unusual manner: He had them cut through a model of the Mini right down the middle, then moving the two halves apart centimeter by centimeter. And when he finally cried out “stop!” the Mini had reached its ideal length.

Just seven months after the official go-ahead, two prototypes of the new small car were ready to go.

The distinctive two-door car was manufactured at the Longbridge and Cowley plants in England, the Victoria Park / Zetland British Motor Corporation factory in Sydney, Australia, and later also in Spain, Belgium, Chile, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Uruguay, Venezuela and Yugoslavia.

When it completed its run in 2000, a total of 5,387,862 classic Minis had been manufactured.

Production begins in 1959 at the Longbridge plant, left. Alec Issigonis with an Austin Seven at Mini's press launch program in 1959.

The Mini began life as the Morris Mini-Minor and the Austin Seven, differing solely through their radiator grille, wheel caps and body color. They were both powered by a four-cylinder engine fitted crosswise at the front and delivering maximum output of 34 horsepower from 848 cubic centimeters.

The performance of both models was identical, as was their luggage capacity of 6.83 cubic feet at the rear.

As early as in 1960, BMC added a Mini Van to the classic Mini. Then, proceeding from this van structure with its closed side panels, BMC introduced an estate version with glass windows all round as well as two rear doors, like the van.

Mini Morris Traveller 

Austin 850

Like the saloons, this body variant was also marketed as the Morris Mini-Traveller and the Austin Seven Countryman with exactly the same technical features. And in 1961 the potential of the classic Mini really became clear starting with the introduction of the smallest of all transporters, the Mini Pick-Up.

Just half a year later two other Minis, this time at the high end of the scale, saw the light of day: the Wolseley Hornet and the Riley Elf.

A very special variant destined more than any other to create the legend of the classic Mini made its appearance in the second half of 1961 — the
Mini Cooper.

John Cooper's contribution

John Cooper, the famous engineer and manufacturer of sports cars already a close friend of Alec Issigonis, had recognized the sporting potential of this new small car right from the start, when the first prototypes appeared on the track. So he received the go-ahead from BMC’s top managers to develop a small series of 1,000 units of the Mini Cooper featuring a modified power unit enlarged in size to 1.0 liters and offering maximum output of 55 horsepower.

The response to this car entering the market in September 1961 was quite simply euphoric, with only one further request from enthusiasts everywhere: even more power! So Issigonis and Cooper enlarged engine capacity to 1,071 cc, raising engine output to 70 horsepower.

Paddy Hopkirk wins the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally     Mini Cooper S at Monte Carlo Rally

This made the Mini Cooper S a truly exceptional performer not only on the road, with Finnish driver’s Rauno Aaltonen’s class win in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally marking the starting point for a truly unparalleled series of outstanding success in motorsport.The highlight, of course, was three overall wins in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967.

Mini Moke brings open air

In August 1964 BMC presented yet another version of the classic Mini originally conceived for military use: the Mini Moke, a four-seater open all round and destined to remain in the price list for four years.

A 1965 Mini Moke

The “bodyshell” of this unique car was made up, for all practical purposes, of the floorpan with wide, box-shaped side-sills, together with the engine compartment and windscreen. To the event of rainfall, a folding soft top appropriately referred to as a “ragtop” at least tried to provide certain protection.

Using the drivetrain and technical features of the “regular” Mini, the Mini Moke became a genuine success particularly in sun-drenched parts of the USA and in Australia.

Mini gets update in 1967

By 1967 the time had come for a thorough update of the classic Mini, the car receiving a more powerful engine offering 38 horsepower from a larger capacity of 998 cc.
Two years later the Mini Clubman joined the range as a slightly larger model with a somewhat different front end compared to the classic Mini. Indeed, this sister car was 4.33 inches longer than the original, the Estate version replacing the Morris Mini-Traveller and the Austin Seven Countryman measuring exactly 133.9 inches in length, while width, height, and wheelbase remained unchanged.

At the same time the Mini Cooper was taken out of production, being replaced by the top model in the Clubman range, the Mini 1275 GT developing 59 horsepower from its 1.3-liter power unit.

A German Mini advertisement in 1977 

A Mini Van decked out in yellow

Numerous special versions of the classic Mini with all kinds of highlights — from sporting to trendy, from distinguished to fresh — entered the market as of mid-1970.
Between 1980 and 1983 the model range was streamlined appropriately, with the Clubman, Estate and Van leaving production.

The “only” car left over, therefore, was the classic Mini with its 1.0-liter power unit now delivering 40 horsepower. And customers, simply loving the car, remained faithful to this little performer for years to come, the five-millionth classic Mini coming off the production line at Plant Longbridge in 1986.

1990 comeback

In 1990 fans the world over were delighted to celebrate the comeback of the Mini Cooper once again entering the model range. Now this special model was powered in all cases by a 1.3-liter, production of the 1.0-liter in the Mini ending in 1992 on account of growing requirements in terms of emission management. So from now on all models came with the 1,275-cc power unit and fuel injection.

Yet another new variant of the classic Mini made its appearance in 1991 as the last new model in the range. And this was indeed the only Mini to originate not in Britain, but in Germany.

A Mini convertible from the mid-90s

Like some tuners before him, a dedicated Mini dealer in the German region of Baden had cut the roof off the classic Mini, turning the car into an extremely attractive convertible. And contrary to earlier attempts, the result was so good this time in its quality that Rover Group, now responsible for the classic Mini, decided to buy the construction tools and production equipment for the Mini Convertible, which from 1993 to 1996 accounted for sales of approximately 1,000 units.

Production of the classic Mini finally ceased in 2000. In the course of time more than 5.3 million units of the world’s most successful compact car had left the production plants in numerous different versions, among them some 600,000 cars built at Plant Oxford between 1959 and 1968.

Example of the final edition of the classic Mini.

But even after 41 years, there was still a long way to go. For after a break of not quite one year, a new chapter in the history of this world-famous British brand opened up in 2001.

A new start in 2001

Taking over Rover Group in early 1994, BMW also opened up new perspectives for the Mini brand. The first step was to present a concept version of the MINI Cooper at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show offering an outlook at the new interpretation of this unique small car from Great Britain.

As a modern rendition of the Mini’s concept so rich in tradition, the new version for the first time combined the classic values of its predecessor with the demands made of a modern car set to enter the 21st  century.

The series production version of the MINI Cooper made its first official appearance in November 2000 at the Berlin Motor Show, the future-oriented interpretation of the original entering showrooms just a year later in the guise of the 115 horsepower MINI Cooper.

A 2002 Mini sold in the United States

Featuring front-wheel drive, four-cylinder power units fitted crosswise at the front, short body overhangs and ample space for four, the new models successfully took up elementary features of the classic Mini. And while the exterior dimensions of the car were now larger, meeting modern requirements in terms of interior space, the design of the new model clearly retained the proportions so typical of the brand, as well as the unmistakable design icons at the front, the rear and at the side, thus boasting a clearly recognizable link between the MINI and its classical predecessors

At left, modern Oxford assembly plant

At the same time the MINI built in Oxford stood out clearly as the first premium car in the compact segment, achieving a status strongly reflected by a level of safety uniquely high for a car of this class as well as the uncompromising standard of quality so typical of BMW.

The new MINI also set new standards through its surprisingly agile handling, immediately moving right up to the top in terms of driving pleasure. So here, too, the new model followed in the footsteps of the classic Mini, but now with a lot more power and performance thanks to the most advanced and sophisticated drivetrain and suspension technology.

Worldwide success story

Almost overnight, the new interpretation of this classic small car developed into a worldwide story of success continuing to this very day. The introduction of new engine variants, to mention such one significant highlight, served to offer additional momentum, the MINI Cooper S with its 163 horsepower supercharged engine entering the market as an exclusive driving machine in June 2002.

The desire to drive a MINI in the open air, finally, also came true much faster than in the classic model, with the MINI Convertible making its debut in spring 2004.
Showing tremendous success in the market, the MINIoutperformed even the wildest expectations. Indeed, it quickly motivated the consistent continuation of this concept, taking up and fulfilling additional potentials in many areas.

2009 Mini convertible and the modern Mini Clubman

Further enhanced in an evolutionary design process and thoroughly renewed in technical terms, the second generation of the MINI entered the market in November 2006. Following the motto “From the Original to the Original,” the design of the MINI already receiving the greatest praise everywhere was further refined in numerous details giving even greater emphasis in particular to the sporting virtues of this compact and agile performer. So that now the looks of the car really conveyed a clear signal confirmed from the start by the driving experience.

New Clubman joins the lineup

Almost exactly one year to the day after the launch of the new model generation the MINI model range was further enhanced by an innovative new concept in autumn 2007: With its wheelbase 3.15 inches longer, the MINI Clubman offers the driver and passengers many new ways and opportunities to enjoy the driving pleasure so typical of the brand.

On the MINI Clubman the driver’s and passenger’s doors are supplemented by an additional entry on the right-hand side of the car as well as the two wings of the Splitdoor at the rear hinged on the outside. Thanks to the additional door on the right-hand side of the car, the Clubdoor opening against the direction of travel, the MINI Clubman offers also the rear-seat passengers comfortable access to the rear seat bench.

The two-piece Splitdoor, in turn, takes up an authentic detail from the car’s classic predecessors — the Morris Mini-Traveller and the Austin Mini Countryman — back in the 1960s.