On 26 August 1959, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) launched its newest car, the small, affordable – the price was less than £800 – Mark I Mini. The diminutive Mini went on to become one of the best-selling British cars in history. The Mini is also one of the most beloved cars every built, enjoying world-wide popularity.
The impetus that resulted in the Mini began in August 1956, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in response to the American and British decision to withdraw funding for a new dam’s construction due to Nasser’s ties to the Soviet Communists. The international crisis that followed led to fuel shortages and gasoline rationing across Europe.
Sir Leonard Lord, head of BMC – formed by the merger of automakers Austin and Morris in 1952 – wanted to produce a British alternative to the small, fuel-efficient cars such as the VW Beetle, Citroën CV4 and Fiat 500 (“Topolino”), that were gaining market share after the Suez Crisis. Lord turned to Alec Issigonis, a Turkish immigrant who as chief engineer at Morris Motors had produced the Morris Minor, a teapot-shaped cult favorite that had nonetheless never seriously competed with the Volkswagen “Beetle” or Fiat’s 500.
Above: Alec Issigonis designed the Morris Minor prior to being asked to develop the Mini. Shown is a 1955 model.
Below: Fiat’s 500 “Topolino” was produced in this style from 1949 through 1955.
Issigonis, marching orders from Lord in hand, began development of the Mini in secrecy in 1957. The project was known as “ADO (Austin Drawing Office) 15”. After only two and a half years – a short development period for a clean-sheet design – the Mini was ready for Lord’s approval, who immediately signed off on its production.
Launched on 26 August 1959, the new front wheel drive car was marketed as the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor. The two vehicles were the same except for each had a different radiator grille. By 1962 both were known simply as the Mini. Issigonis’ design, including an engine mounted transversely to take up less space, had created a surprising amount of space for such a small-bodied car: At only 10 feet long, the Mini could sit four adults, and had a trunk big enough for a reasonable amount of luggage. With it’s very low starting price, the Mini was truly a “people’s car,” but its popularity transcended class, and it was also used by affluent Londoners as a second car to easily maneuver in city traffic.
Cross section of the Mini shows its space efficient layout.
The Mini spawned an entire range of variations from British Motors Corporation, including Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet luxury versions, estate wagons, panel trucks and pickups, and the Mini-Moke utility vehicle. A performance variant, the Cooper S developed by John Cooper, became a legend in its own right.
Designer Brooks Stevens, in his Herculean efforts to save Studebaker, developed a Studebaker small car which borrowed Issigonis’ Mini layout – transverse engine, front wheel drive.) Steven’s proposal used many interchangeable components:
Above: Designer Brooks Stevens’ plan for a Studebaker small car using a layout very similar to the layout Issigonis used for the Mini.
Steven’s efforts came to naught as his project ended when cancer forced Studebaker president Sherwood Egbert to resign and the Studebaker board of directors ended Studebaker production in the U.S.
By the time production was halted in 2000, 5.3 million Minis had been produced. Around that same time, a panel of 130 international journalists voted the Mini “European Car of the Century.”
In 2003, with the Mini name in its pocket, BMW re-introduced the Mini.
In 2003, the Mini was updated and re-introduced for a new generation of buyers by the German automaker BMW. Despite on-going reliability issues that BMW has (very surprisingly) failed to resolve 14 years on, the Mini continues to sell well, delighting drivers with it’s “go kart” handling and zippy performance.
It is odd that in 14 years of production, BMW has never fixed several on-going and serious reliability issues with its Mini brand. Nonetheless, the Mini continues to sell well.
Enjoy this 10 minute video of the development of the original Mini (Click to play):