The Mini is a small car that was produced by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) and its successors from 1959 to 2000. The most popular British-made car, it has since been replaced by the New MINI which was launched in 2001. The original is considered an icon of the 1960s, and its space-saving front-wheel-drive layout influenced a generation of car-makers. In the international poll for the award of the world's most influential car of the twentieth century the Mini came second only to the Ford Model T.
This revolutionary and distinctive two-door car was designed for BMC by Sir Alec Issigonis (1906-88). It was manufactured at the Longbridge and Cowley plants in the United Kingdom, and later also in Australia, Belgium, Chile, Italy, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela and Yugoslavia. The Mini Mk I had three major updates: the Mk II, the Clubman and the Mk III. Within these was a series of variations including an estate car, a pickup truck, a van and the Mini Moke - a jeep-like buggy. The Mini Cooper and Cooper "S" were sportier versions that were successful as rally cars, winning the Monte Carlo Rally three times.
Designed as project ADO15 (Austin Drawing Office project number 15), the Mini came about because of a fuel shortage. In 1956 as a result of the Suez Crisis, which reduced oil supplies, the United Kingdom saw the re-introduction of petrol rationing. Sales of large cars slumped, and there was a boom in the market for so called Bubble cars, which were mainly German in origin. Leonard Lord, the somewhat autocratic head of BMC, decreed that something had to be done and quickly. He laid down some basic design requirements: the car should be contained within a box that measured 10 × 4 × 4 feet (3 × 1.2 × 1.2 m); and the passenger accommodation should occupy six feet (1.8 m) of the 10 foot (3 m) length; and the engine, for reasons of cost, should be an existing unit. Issigonis, who had been working for Alvis, had been recruited back to BMC in 1955 and, with his skills in designing small cars, was a natural for the task. The team that designed the Mini was remarkably small: as well as Issigonis, there was Jack Daniels, who had worked with him on the Morris Minor, Chris Kingham, who had been with him at Alvis, two engineering students and four draughtsmen. Together, by October 1957 they had designed and built the original prototype, which was affectionately named 'The Orange Box' because of its colour.
The ADO15 used a conventional BMC A-Series four-cylinder water-cooled engine, but departed from tradition by having it mounted transversely, with the engine-oil-lubricated, four-speed transmission in the sump, and by employing front-wheel drive. Almost all small front-wheel-drive cars developed since have used a similar configuration. The radiator was mounted at the left side of the car so that the engine-mounted fan could be retained, but with reversed pitch so it blew air into the natural low pressure area under the front wing. This location saved precious vehicle length, but had the disadvantage of feeding the radiator with air that had been heated by passing over the engine.
The suspension system, designed by Issigonis's friend Alex Moulton at Moulton Developments Limited, used compact rubber cones instead of conventional springs. This led to a rather raw and bumpy ride, but this rigidity, together with the wheels being pushed out to the corners of the car, gave the car its famous go kart-like handling. It was initially planned to use an interconnected fluid system, similar to the one which Issigonis and Moulton were working on in the mid-1950s at Alvis, but the short development time of the car meant this was not be ready in time for the Mini's launch. The system intended for the Mini was further developed to become the hydrolastic system and was first used on the Austin 1100 (launched in 1962). Ten-inch wheels were specified, so new tyres needed to be developed, the initial contract going to Dunlop.
The car was designed with sliding windows in the doors, thus allowing for storage pockets to be fitted in the space where a winding window mechanism would have been. Issigonis is said to have sized the resulting storage bins to take a bottle of his favourite Gordon's Gin. The boot lid was designed with the hinges at the bottom so that the car could be driven with it open to increase luggage space. On early cars the number plate was hinged so it dropped down to remain visible when the boot lid was open.
To keep labour costs down, the car was designed with quirky welded seams that are visible on the outside of the car running down the A and C pillars and between the body and the floor pan. To further simplify construction, the car had external door and boot hinges.
All of these novel and elegant technical innovations resulted in a car with minimum overall dimensions yet maximised space for passengers and luggage.
Production models differed from the prototype by the addition of front and rear subframes to the unibody to take the suspension loads, and by turning the engine around with the carburettor at the back rather than at the front. This required an extra gear to be placed between engine and transmission to reverse the engine direction. Making this a reduction gear had the beneficial effect of reducing loads on the gearbox and preventing the rapid wear on the synchromesh which had been a problem on early prototypes. Having the caburettor at the rear helped to reduce carburettor icing, but did expose the distributor to water coming in through the grille. The engine size was reduced from 948 to 848 cc, which reduced the top speed from an unprecedented 90 mph (145 km/h) to a more manageable (for the time) 72 mph (116 km/h) - a decision that was reversed in 1967.
Despite its utilitarian origins, the classic Mini shape had become so iconic that by the 1990s Rover Group, the heirs to BMC, were able to register its design as a trade mark in its own right.
The production version of the Mini was demonstrated to the press in April 1959, and by August several thousand cars had been produced ready for the first sales.
The name Mini did not appear by itself immediately - the first models being marketed under two of BMC's brand names, Austin and Morris. The name Austin Seven (sometimes written as SE7EN in early publicity material) recalled the popular small Austin of the 1920s and 1930s. The other name used in the United Kingdom, Morris Mini-Minor, seems to have been a play on words. The Morris Minor was a well known and successful car, with the word minor being Latin for "smaller"; so an abbreviation of the Latin word for "smallest" - minimus - was used for the new even smaller car.
Until 1962 the cars appeared as the Austin 850 and Morris 850 in North America and France, and in Denmark as the Austin Partner (until 1964) and Morris Mascot (until 1981). The name Mini was first used to name the car in 1961, somewhat to the surprise of the Sharps Commercials car company (later known as Bond Cars Ltd) who had been using the name Minicar for their three-wheeled vehicles since 1949. However, legal action was somehow averted, and BMC used the name Mini for the remainder of the life of the car.
In 1964 the suspension of the cars was replaced by another Moulton design, the hydrolastic system. The new suspension gave a softer ride but it also increased weight and production cost and, in the minds of many enthusiasts, spoiled the handling characteristics for which the Mini was so famous. In 1971 the original rubber suspension reappeared and was retained for the remaining life of the Mini.
The new MINI
When production of the classic Mini ceased in 2000, BMW (the new owner of the brand) announced the successor to the Mini - which is variously called the "BMW MINI" or the "New MINI". The brand name for the new car is MINI (written in capital letters).
Some Mini enthusiasts reject the claim that the MINI as the natural successor of the original car - others simply dislike it - yet others were amongst the first to buy the new MINI when it was launched. There are many reasons offered for the negative point of view. One notion is that the classic Mini could have continued in viable production for many more years had it not been 'killed off' to make way for the MINI. The new MINI is larger than the classic Mini. It is around 55 cm longer, 30 cm wider, weighing 1050 kg rather than 650 kg. That, together with the departure from the spartan minimalism of the original, has proven objectionable to some enthusiasts. Others resent the manner in which BMW took the Mini brand name from the Rover group. However, many Mini owners take the opposite view and embrace the new car as a logical succession of the original and view it as the only way the concept could have continued in the light of modern safety, emissions and manufacturing principles. Some Mini clubs go so far as to ban MINIs from their club meetings - others actively seek car enthusiasts from both camps. This spectrum of attitudes has been noted with other retro-car releases such as the Volkswagen Beetle and is far from being unique to the Mini community.