Mini – Cult Car with many Faces

Austin Mini

“When the Mini was conceived in 1957, there was no English automobile being produced in large numbers with front-wheel drive and independent suspension; there was no automobile in the world built in reasonable numbers without metal springs; until then, no one had associated water-cooling with a transversely mounted four-cylinder engine; no one had imagined reaching 70 mph with rims that were less than one foot (30.48 cm) in diameter; everyone had accepted that vehicles with an overall length of less than eleven feet (3.35 metres) would necessarily have rear seats that could only accommodate children or luggage – or sometimes all these inconveniences were encountered together.

The technicians also agreed that a very small car could not possibly reach more than 60 mph and that – driven in top gear – even moderate gradients could no longer be mastered. The Mini put an end to all these prejudices – and behind it was a technology that has dominated the world of small vehicles ever since.”

There is no clearer or more precise description of the tremendous technical progress that the Mini represented when it was launched in 1959 – and Laurence Pomeroy, the doyen of British motoring journalism, was himself technician enough to be able to assess this unusual piece of technology so confidently in his “Mini Story” as early as 1964.

What was the secret of Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis, the father of Mini, who – born in 1906 in what was then Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey – grew up in an upper middle-class home with private tutors? On the one hand, there was the self-confidence of a child nurtured from youth – on the other hand, Issigonis had to fend for himself from the age of 16, because the family had to leave home in 1922 – the father had refused to cooperate with the Germans during the First World War. Issigonis and his mother landed in England without his father, who had died during the several-month odyssey via Malta.


The fact that he only passed his studies at Battersea Polytechnic with great difficulty, “…mathematics is the natural enemy of every creative person…” was only due to the benevolence of his teachers, who valued his creative spirit and his art of throwing construction drawings with a looseness higher than his theoretical knowledge. Throughout his life, Issigonis distinguished himself by doing things differently from others: “If you invent something and no one understands it, then it was a miserable invention” was one of his insights.

His greatest good fortune was probably to have a superior in Lord Lambury, the head of the British Motor Corporation (BMC), which merged in 1952, who recognised his genius and gave him degrees of freedom that other engineers could only dream of – however, in the meantime Issigonis had presented a successful model with the Morris Minor, which even the cynical and always sceptical Lord Lambury called a brilliant success.

So Issigonis had carte blanche when he set about developing the little car for everyone in 1957 – and he packed all the technical features into his Mini that Laurence Pomeroy summed up so precisely in his words: But why it was precisely this independent spirit that invented the Mini and (more importantly) drove it to production readiness is explained in a remarkable sentence: “All my professional life I have disliked developing large vehicles – I have always appreciated the convenience that a small car offers in everyday traffic.”


And the Mini hit like a bomb straight away – over the years it was produced under the names Austin Mini, Austin Se7en, AUTHI Mini, Innocenti Mini Minor, Innocenti Mini t, Leyland Mini, Leyland Mini Clubman, Morris Mini, Riley Elf, Rover Mini, Wolseley 1000 and Wolseley Hornet.

And when a stroke of genius sees the light of day, the creative minds of this earth also take great pleasure in subjecting this object of desire to mutations – and so, of course, the Mini, in its simple perfection, was also exposed from the outset to questions as to whether the refined technology could not also be adorned with other body shapes. A question that was quickly answered in the affirmative, because where else was there such advanced technology on such a small footprint, just waiting to be adorned with new shapes by creative designers and engineers. However, the fact that the very first variant would deal with the topic “Maybe the Mini doesn’t offer enough space after all?” may be considered an interesting mental exercise with today’s distance – and that the British would desecrate the almost futuristic shape (for design times at that time) without chrome and flourishes only one year after the world premiere with a small estate car and wood applications was a surprise, to put it mildly.


Of course, the Countryman was already cult at the moment of its introduction in 1960 – this melange of avant-garde technology with wooden trim and two small rear doors was so quirky that even traditionalists could now agree with the Mini. After all, it was now more practical, and it offered better access to the slightly larger boot, and the look was now very British. And those who did without the rear bench seat and the rear side windows had a practical everyday companion in the form of a minivan – often with a canvas cover instead of a tin roof – that served not only small businesses but also the British postal service and the army well.

From 1962 onwards, the Mini Moke became the most open version of the Mini – it owed its existence to the army’s wish for a light, stable and handy vehicle for four people that could be dropped from an aeroplane by parachute if necessary. The fact that the army did not want the Moke – the name stands for donkey in English – did not bother the small but steadily growing number of admirers.

After the production in Great Britain was stopped in 1967, they made sure that the factory in Australia, where the Moke was supposed to produce 26,000 units, was now working to capacity. And when Australia gave up, another 10,000 vehicles were produced in Portugal – until Rover then gave up the factory and sold the rights to the Italian motorbike company Cagiva – where it continued to be built.


The vehicle then became even more famous when John Cooper created the basis for a grandiose racing history with the Mini Cooper and the Mini Cooper S, which was particularly effective in rallying. One of the great masters of his trade, the Finn Rauno Aaltonen recognised these strengths immediately – the rally professor, whose fundamental knowledge of driving conditions and the resulting basic mechanical requirements are still legendary today, knew it when he saw his first Mini in Finland in 1960: “It was an 850 and it was green”. He was suddenly confronted with the realisation that here was the perfect rally car in front of him: “Small, handy, all four wheels far out at the corner, optimum wheelbase with the smallest possible footprint – and above all this small polar moment of inertia. I saw the car and knew it was a winner”.

At that time, the company still believed that the Austin-Healey 3000 was the better rally car, but after the Mini had already achieved its first placings in circuit races in 1960, a separate class for cars up to 850 cc had to be set up just one year later, which was open to the Mini – and when Sir John Whitmore won the class up to one litre capacity at Goodwood at Easter, the Mini had finally mutated into a winner. At least as important for the myth of the underdog, however, were the legendary victories of the rally cars, which – after the racing department had got to grips with the fragile technology – had a firm grip on the rally world for a few years.

The competition felt so offended by the superiority of the Mini that they then changed the regulations every now and then – which happened especially gladly at the Rally Monte Carlo, where they had blown the competition so badly in 1964 and 1965 that Timo Mäkinen was disqualified the following year because of allegedly wrong light bulbs. This in turn angered Rauno Aaltonen – he won again in 1967, only to finish third the following year. In 1969, the factory stopped using the little racers – but the legend of the little Mini that beat the big Renault-Alpine, Porsche and Lotus Cortina was born. A reputation that was never lost again and that is still one of the pillars of the Mini myth today.

A few years before production was discontinued, Rover delivered the long-awaited convertible based on the Cooper from 1993 to 1996, but only 1,081 of these were built. Then came the end: on 4 October 2000, the last original Mini rolled off the production line, technically modified only in details during the 41-year production period. This meant that the best-selling British car had reached a total of 5,387,862 vehicles produced.

1964 Mini Cooper S Rallye Monte Carlo Aaltonen (8)

Pictures: BMW AG

Author: Jürgen Lewandowski

Jürgen Lewandowski schreibt seit mehr als 40 Jahren über Menschen und Autos - und hat mehr als 100 Bücher veröffentlicht. Traumklassiker: Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Touring Spider und Lancia Rally 037. Eigener Klassiker: Alfa Romeo R.Z. von 1993.

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