Short Story: The Mini

The following is an article from Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader.

1959 Mini (Image credit: Wikipedia user DeFacto)

For more than 40 years, the Mini was one of the most recognizable cars on Earth. But because it wasn't sold in the U.S. after 1969, few Americans were familiar with it. That changed in 2001, when BMW introduced a modern version to the U.S. market. Here's the story of the little car that started it all.


In July 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Though the canal is on Egyptian soil, in 1956 it was controlled by Britain and France. Four months later, Britain, France, and Israel tried to regain control of the canal by invading Egypt. But the invasion was opposed by both the United States and the U.S.S.R., and it failed. Even worse for Britain and France, Saudi Arabia cut off oil supplies to the two countries to punish them for the invasion. The resulting shortage sent the price of gasoline soaring in the United Kingdom, forcing the British government to ration supplies. Many drivers were limited to just 12 gallons, about a single tankful per month.


The Messerschmitt Kabinenroller and the BMW Isetta. (Image credit: Wikipedia user Stefan Kühn)

That sent the British auto industry into a slump, and consumers switched to tiny, gas-sipping vehicles, many of them imported, which were derisively called "bubble cars." The Messerschmitt Kabinroller  ("Cabin Scooter"), for example, was just that: A three-wheeled enclosed scooter with a one-cylinder, two-stroke engine like a lawn mower's. The BMW Isetta, described by one critic as resembling "an egg on roller skates," was built like a refrigerator: The entire front end served as the vehicle's only door -you opened it just like a refrigerator, and climbed in.

Bubble cars drove purists crazy. Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corporation -the parent company of Austin, Morris, MG, and other makes- was outraged that motorists should be forced to drive such cheap, uncomfortable vehicles. He told his engineers to drive those "bloody awful bubble cars" off the road by building "a proper miniature car" that motorists would be proud to drive.

Lord wanted the car, soon to be called the Mini, to be no more than 10 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet in height -the minimum amount of space he judged would be necessary to hold four passengers plus a small amount of luggage. He wanted it to have a "proper" four-stroke, four-cylinder engine, and the "proper" number of wheels -four. Adding to the challenge, he wanted it built entirely out of existing mechanical parts, since there was no money available to design new ones.


The man that Lord put in charge of the Mini, Alec Issigonis, may have been the only British auto executive who would even have a chance at pulling off such a feat. The son of Greek refugees from Turkey, in the late 1940s Issigonis led the design team that created the hugely successful Morris Minor, a car already well on its way to becoming the first British car to sell a million units.

1953 Morris Minor.

The Minor was a fairly small car by the standards of the day, but it was surprisingly roomy inside, which was Issigonis's trademark as a designer -he had a knack for squeezing the maximum amount of interior space out of any car he worked on.

Safety was another important part of the design philosophy: "I make my cars with such good brakes, such good steering, that if people get into a crash it's their own fault," he liked to say. Considering how tiny the Mini was expected to be, roominess and safety were going to be very high priorities indeed.


Working out of a special studio set apart from the rest of the company, Issigonis, an automotive engineer named Jack Daniels, and seven other staffers set to work. Issigonis and Daniels had worked together on the Minor, and as they developed the design for the new car, they drew heavily on the prototype they'd built a few years earlier. That car had a front-wheel drive and a "transverse" engine -the engine block was rotated 90° to give it a left-to-right orientation, instead of the standard front-to-back of the time.

Front-wheel drive improved the car's performance, and it also eliminated the need to run a driveshaft the length of the car from the engine (in front) to the rear wheels, which saved space, weight, and cost. The transverse engine also saved a lot of room- because the engine was installed sideways, it could be squeezed into just a few feet of space under the hood.

Back when Issigonis and Daniels first proposed their sideways-engined, front-wheel drive Minor, their superiors rejected such an unconventional and seemingly risky design. But now that reducing space, weight, and cost were so important in making the new car a success, suddenly the design didn't seem so risky after all.


Cross-section of a Mini. (Image credo: Wikipedia user geni)

The Mini team managed to squeeze the transverse engine and a 4-speed manual transmission into just 18 inches of space, which left 8.5 feet for the passenger compartment, if Lord's goal of keeping the car under 10 feet in length was to be met. (The Volkswagen Beetle, by comparison, was just under 13.5 feet long.)

Because interior space was at such a premium in so tiny a car, Issigonis gave it a very boxy shape to provide the driver and passengers with as much room as possible. To limit the wheel wells' intrusion into that space, he pushed the wheels out to the four corners of the car. And to keep those wells as small as possible, he used the tiniest wheels ever used in a production automobile: just 10 inches in diameter, smaller than a dinner plate. In such tight confines there was no room for a standard spring suspension, either, so rubber cones called "doughnuts" were used instead, which gave the car a very stiff ride.

The car windows did not roll up and down -you slid them open and closed by hand, which saved on the weight and expense of window hardware. No radio was installed, and neither were seat belts (very few cars of the era had them). But Issigonis, a chain-smoker, made sure the car had an ashtray.


Two Alabama girls show how small a classic Mini really is. (Image credit: Flickr user m_barje)

Issigonis wanted the Mini to have a 948cc engine that would have given the car a top speed of more than 90 mph. But he worried that it might be too powerful for ordinary drivers to handle, so he had a couple of engineers take the car for a test drive. They flipped the car. Issigonis replaced the engine with an 848cc engine. New top speed: 72 mph. That night not sound like much, but the Mini was faster than just about any other small car of the day, including the VW Beetle, which had a top speed of 68 mph. That, combined with the stiff suspension and the placement of the wheels at the four corners of the car, gave it go-kart-like handling that was absolutely thrilling. BMC head Leonard Lord realized it the first time he took the prototype out for a test drive in July 1958: He was gone only five minutes before he roared back to the plant at top speed, braked sharply, and jumped out of the car. "Build it!" he ordered. The first production Minis rolled off the assembly line in early 1959.


1963 Austin Mini Cooper. (Image credit: Wikipedia user Writegeist)

As fun as the Minis were to drive, it took them a while to catch on. They were, after all tiny. Compared to ordinary British cars, they looked pretty silly. They were also noisy, spartan, and underpowered by big car standards. Even the car's low price -£500, or about $1,400- may have put buyers off. How good could a car that small and that cheap really be?

But as more people experienced the thrill of driving one, word of mouth began to spread and demand surged. BMC sold 116,000 Minis in 1960, not bad for the car's first full model year, and sales climbed quickly from there, passing 157,000 in 1961. The introduction of the Mini Cooper, a super-up racing Mini designed by Formula One racing legend John Cooper in July 1961, followed by the even sportier Mini Cooper S in 1963, generated even greater interest, pushing sales past the 240,000 mark for 1964. (John Cooper was paid £2 -around $5.40- for every Mini Cooper sold, just for the use of his name.) Sales remained strong through the rest of the decade, finally peaking in 1971, when more than 318,000 Minis were sold.


Prince Charles as a young man.

Within just a year or two of its introduction, the Mini became the car to be seen in for British film stars, the London "in crowd," and celebrities around the world. Peter Sellers bought one, so did Mick Jagger, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Bridget Bardot, all four of the Beatles, and at least one of the Monkees. King Hussein of Jordan owned one, so did Princess Grace of Monaco. Prince Charles learned to drive in his, and he wasn't alone- in the years to come, more British subjects would learn to drive in a Mini than in any other car. In this most class-conscious of societies, here was Britain's first (and probably last) truly classless car -everybody wanted to own one, and almost anybody could afford to buy one.

No British car before or since has had the Mini's widespread appeal. Few cars have enjoyed the long life that it had: There were plenty of improvements over the years to be sure (roll-up windows were standard after 1969, heaters after 1974), but the same basic car stayed on the market from 1959 to the year 2000. In that time it sold more than 5.3 million cars -that's an average of nearly 2,500 cars a week, every week, for 41 years.

Chase scene from The Italian Job (1969)
(YouTube link)


The Mini was by far the most successful British car in history; no other model has ever come close to selling 5.3 million units. But the success of the tiny car also contributed to the decline of the British auto industry, as Issigonis tried to repeat the Mini's formulas in much larger cars and failed.

When customers pay $1,400 for a car, they're willing to settle for one that offers only the bare essentials, but when they pay full price, they want a little luxury. Issigonis understood this, but because he thought he understood car buyers better than they understood themselves, he would not budge. "I know there are such people, but I will not design cars for them," he said.


Mini-ature parking. (Image credit: Peter Trimming)

Later cars designed by Issigonis, including the full-sized Austin Maxi, were sales disappointments that helped force the flailing Britsh Motor Corporation into a shotgun merger with other troubled British automakers in 1968. The resulting conglomerate, British Leyland, lost so much money that the British government nationalized it in 1975, keeping it from going under.

The remnants of British Leyland were renamed the Rover Group in 1986. BMW bought Rover in 1994 and spent millions trying to make it profitable. But BMW finally gave up in 2000 and sold the company off in pieces -every piece, that is, except for the Mini division. BMW has since built Mini into a thriving company, one that owes much of its success to nostalgia for Issigonis' original tiny car of dreams. In April 2007, 11 years after they bought the company, BMW sold its one millionth Mini -about the same amount of time it took the British Motor Corporation to sell its millionth Mini. If sales remain strong, the new Mini should outsell the old Mini sometime in the late 2030s.  


The article above was reprinted with permission from the Bathroom Institute's book Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute has published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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My father's first car was a Morris Minor. He bought it, then taught himself to drive. Then he taught mom, with infant me in the backseat in a wicker laundry basket.

Years later, my first car was a '66 MG, which Dad referred to as being from British Leyland. Now I find that when the car was manufactured, that company didn't yet exist. But then, the car was 8 years old when I got it.
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