10 April 2009

Mini Turns 50

Just how does a 50-year old legend celebrate its golden anniversary? With a worldwide birthday bash, of course. Although the biggest celebration will be Mini United in the United Kingdom, clubs and owners in the US, Australia, Mexico, Canada and other countries won't be left out.

In 1957, when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and threatened to close off shipments of oil from the Middle East, Britain struggled with the world's first oil crisis. The price of gasoline rose and thus the desire to conserve became both patriotic and a matter of necessity. Car makers looked at ways of getting more miles/kilometers out of a gallon/liter, and it was inevitable that someone would come up with a way of satisfying the growing demand for a stylish, frugal and entertaining mode of transport.

Alec Issigonis was a gifted engineer who had proven his worth to the British Motor Corporation with the astoundingly successful Morris Minor of 1948. Although the Minor provided sturdy and reliable transportation for tens of thousands, it was a fairly conventional car. That all changed with the Mini, which had a boxy but cheeky body with an incredible ability to accommodate people and things of all sizes. Light weight, front wheel-drive and a well-tuned suspension gave it the ability to stick to the road with remarkable tenacity.

 

Sir Alec - he was knighted for his achievements for BMC - and his team of inspired engineers and designers struggled through the two years it took to put the Mini into production. Some of the innovative concepts proved to be less than straight-forward, and required a bit of tinkering, most notably the front wheel-drive powertrain.

To power the new car, an 848 cc version of BMC's A-Series engine was re-engineered to be mounted transversely. The rubber-cushioned trumpets used in place of traditional springs were a novel touch to save space in a car 10 feet long by 4.6 feet wide. Separate sub-frames replaced the traditional one-piece frame and the unibody was tack-welded together! Tiny 10-inch diameter wheels and tires were developed to increase interior space. Literally everything was engineered to maximize the space devoted to people and baggage.

A bright white Mini 850 with the UK number plate 621 AOK was the first car off the assembly line. It survives to this day as a museum piece that is trotted out occasionally for the odd show. The first-and minimally equipped - Morris and Austin Mini Models sold for about £496 when first produced in 1959. When they were introduced in the United States, they were priced at approximately $1,300. Legend has it the seats were made purposefully uncomfortable to keep the driver alert in the tiny and vulnerable Mini and that there was no radio to avoid distractions.

In 1961, things became much more interesting when Formula 1 and sports car constructor John Cooper went over Sir Alec's head to the BMC Chairman to get permission to build the "Cooper" or performance version of the Mini, with a larger 997cc engine, better transaxle and front disc brakes. The "high-performance" version of the Mini really needed the upgraded brakes because power output had jumped 48 percent from 37 to 55 horsepower. Thanks to Cooper's ministrations, the resulting Mini Cooper evolved into one of the greatest giant killers of all time.

The Mini had a unique ability to transcend class and income lines - even in Cooper form, it was a relatively inexpensive car. Celebrities and socialites alike had to have one and it became the official staff car of swinging 1960s London. Owners included Twiggy - the de facto model for BMC - members of the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones and The Beatles, as well as Peter Sellers, Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret. Sir Alec was even said to have taken The Queen for a drive around Windsor Park in one of the first Minis!

BMC soon came up with a flock of derivatives. There was a panel van version, a station wagon - the "Countryman" with wood trim - a pickup, and the endearing "Moke," the golf cart-like version built for the British Army but more commonly seen as resort transport in places like The Bahamas and Bermuda.

The Mini had been increasingly successful in the hands of the superbly run BMC Competition Department since the car's competition debut in 1959 , with an ever-expanding tally of class wins and the occasional high overall placing. Although Pat Moss had won the relatively minor Baden-Baden German Rally in 1962, true glory didn't come along until the launch of the more powerful and even better braked Cooper S in early in 1963, The Mini broke into the big time with Rauno Aaltonen conquering the Alpine Rally in a Mini Cooper S in 1963. The next big win for the Cooper S went to Paddy Hopkirk and co-driver Henry Liddon in the all-important 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.

For the next several years, the Mini dominated international rally competition with a string of important wins. That streak came to an end in the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally when Minis finished in the first three places, but were disqualified for a violation of the "headlamp dipping" rules, even after a complete teardown of the winning Mini revealed no rules infraction. As a result of the disqualification of the Minis and Roger Clark's Ford, a French Citroën was declared the winner. Although the Mini proved to be a superb winter Rally success, it didn't hurt that BMC employed the very best rally drivers available at the time, including Rauno Aaltonen, Timo Makinen and Paddy Hopkirk, as well as Tony Fall and Pat Moss (sister of Stirling).

 

Film footage of Mini Coopers in 1965 Monte Carlo Rally

 

Long after the Mini ceased top level rallying, it continued to be built, not only in England, but in 11 other countries, including Australia and Italy. Today, these models are sought after for their unique features and rarity. By the 1980s, most of the specialty models - including the panel van, station wagon and pickup versions - died off. But the Moke continued to be built in Portugal and Australia well into the 1990s.

The Mini survived numerous changes in its parent company from BMC to British Leyland to Rover. Throughout, the Mini kept its inherent good looks and perky charm. Some would say the later models were the best of the breed - they had more plastic and electronics and were more refined. Strangely, throughout its 40-year production, the Mini was never a profit-maker for its builders.

In the new and ever-changing world of international car company buy-outs, modernization and obsolescence, it was inevitable the Mini would someday meet its maker. That day came in October 2000, when Mini number 5,387,862 rolled out of the Longbridge factory, the production lines fell silent, and the Classic Mini was no more. But while production of the Classic Mini may have come to an end, the marque and the memory is far from dead.

 

In 1994 German automaker BMW bought the Mini marque. As a result, the Mini lives on with a modern interpretation of the original concept. Although not as ubiquitous as its original namesake, the modern Mini is a small, fast and attractive car that has proven far more popular in the United States than the Issigonis-designed version.

And while only the neo-MINI survives in production, the Classic Mini is traded, rebuilt, cosseted, primped and guarded with a devotion that approaches religion. From a collector's standpoint, a well cared for Cooper S with a 1275cc engine is at the top of the heap. The Moke is irresistibly cute and the top goes down, thus, they always seem to bring enthusiastic bidding at auction. In support of the "Mini Fraternity," there are thousands of Mini clubs across the globe, dating back to 1961.

 

If you want to see the darling of the motoring world in all its glory, there will be no substitute for attending the Mini United celebration at Britain's famed Silverstone circuit from May 22-24, 2009, where thousands will pay homage to one of the motoring world's most unlikely icons.

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