At the height of their popularity all four Beatles owned Minis. Even Enzo Ferrari, the founder of the Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix motor racing team, and subsequently of the Ferrari automobile marque owned one. It has been featured in countless action movies, one of the last being the remake of The Italian Job where they treated the Mini like another member of the cast.
The Mini is a small economy car produced by BMC (British Motor Corporation) and its successors from 1959 until 2000 – the original is considered an icon of the ‘60s British popular culture.
The space-saving transverse engine front-wheel drive layout, which allows 80 percent of the area of the car's floorpan to be used for passengers and luggage, influenced a generation of car makers. The Mini was voted the second most influential car of the 20th century in 1999, behind the Ford Model T, and ahead of the Volkswagen Beetle.
Sir Alec Issigonis designed the distinctive two-door car for BMC. It was manufactured at the Cowley and Longbridge plants in the UK, and later on in Spain, Belgium, Australia, Chile, Italy, Malta, Portugal, South Africa, Uruguay, Venezuela and Yugoslavia. The Mini Mark I had three major updates – the Mark II, the Clubman and the Mark III. Within these was a series of variations, including an estate car, a pickup truck, a van and a jeep-like buggy.
The Mini came about because of a fuel shortage caused by the 1956 Suez Crisis. The car was designated by Leonard Lord as project ADO15 (Amalgamated Drawing Office project number 15) and the product of the Morris design team. Petrol was again rationed in the UK causing sales of large cars to slump, while the market for German bubble cars boomed.
It was rumored that Lord, the somewhat autocratic head of BMC, detested these German cars so much he vowed to rid the streets of them and design a 'proper miniature car.'
He laid down some basic design and layout requirements: the car should be contained within a box that measured 10×4×4 feet; and the passenger accommodation should occupy 6 feet of the 10-foot length.
Alec Issigonis was recruited back to BMC in 1955. Issigonis specialized in designing small cars. The team that designed the Mini was small: besides Issigonis, there was Jack Daniels, Chris Kingham, two engineering students and four draughtsmen. Together, by October 1957, they had designed and built the original prototype – affectionately named ‘The Orange Box’ because of its color.
Issigonis' friend John Cooper, owner of the Cooper Car Company and designer and builder of Formula One and rally cars, thought the Mini might be competition. Issigonis was initially reluctant to see the Mini in the role of a performance car, but after Cooper appealed to BMC management, the two men collaborated to create the Mini Cooper. The Austin Mini Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper debuted in September 1961.
A more powerful Mini Cooper, dubbed the ‘S’, was developed in tandem and released in 1963. More than 4,000 Cooper S cars were produced and sold until the model was updated in August 1964. The performance versions were successful as both race and rally cars, winning the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967. In 1966, the Mini was disqualified after finishing in first place, under a controversial decision that the car's headlights were against the rules. The Mini Cooper S also scored wins in the 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s numerous "special editions" of the Mini were produced for the British market, which shifted the car from a mass-market item into a fashionable icon. It was this image that probably helped the Mini become such an asset for BMW, which later bought the remnants of BMC and retained the rights to build cars using the Mini name.
The car was even more popular in Japan, which took the lion's share of the 40,000 Minis produced in the early 1990s. It was seen there as a retro-cool icon, and inspired many imitators. The new model made by BMW is technically unrelated to the old car but retains the classic transverse four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive configuration and ‘bulldog’ stance of the original, hence the catchphrase Mini has been using in some of its literature: ‘There’s a Bit of a Bulldog in All of Us.’
The last original Mini, a red Cooper Sport, was built in 2000 and presented to the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust that year. A total of 5,387,862 cars had been manufactured, nearly 1.6 million of which were sold in Britain. The last Mini to leave the Longbridge plant did so in 2012.
Several events marked the 50th anniversary of the Mini in 2009. In January 2009, The Royal Mail released a limited edition of stamps titled ‘British Design Classics,’ featuring an original, Egg-Shell Blue, MK1 Mini, registration XAA 274. In May, a world record parade of 1,450 Minis congregated at Crystal Palace as part of a London to Brighton run. The following week, 10,000 Minis and 25,000 people attended an anniversary party at Silverstone Circuit on the border of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.
In August of 2009, ‘smallcarBIGCITY’ launched in London to provide sightseeing tours of the capital in a fleet of restored Mini Coopers.
In recent years, Mini has been known for its catchy slogans: “Of Course it’s Smart. It is from Oxford,” “A Dirty Mini is a Sign of a True Motorer,” “Motorers Are Ageless,” and “Let’s Motor.” These slogans have helped brand car company as a type of lifestyle for those who want to be on the go, speeding off to the next adventure.
It’s an effective marketing campaign, and it’s something that films and celebrities seem to pick up on. The Mini isn’t just a car: it’s a fun car that takes its owners on an epic journey full of twists and turns, and ups and downs.
In a Mini the open road is your oyster.
2017 MINI Cooper
MSRP: From $20,950
MPG: Up to 28 city / 38 highway
Cargo volume: 5.7 to 13.1 ft³, 7.6 to 40.7 ft³ with seat area
Overall NHTSA safety rating: 4 star
Curb weight: 2,605 to 3,035 lbs.