The Mini, an iconic British motorcar, was originally designed by Sir Alec Issigonis in 1959. Today, over 40 years later and in various guises, the car is still extremely popular. Featuring cute looks, a bubbly personality and, in later years, a curvy shape, it is cheap to run, maintain, repair and modify. If you add nippy handling and easy parking, you come up with a true 'classic'.
Sir Alec Issigonis (1906 - 1988) was instructed by British Motor Corporation (BMC) boss Leonard Lord to design a small, compact, economical car so as to rid Britain's roads of the ugly (in Lord's eyes) European-made bubble cars which were rampant at the time. Issigonis succeeded beyond Lord's wildest dreams.
How it all Began
Alec Issigonis joined the team at Morris Motors in 1936 at the age of 30. After the merger of Austin and Morris into BMC, tensions between Austin and Morris staff resulted in Issigonis leaving BMC for Alvis to design a new V8 powered car that, alas, proved too expensive for Alvis to put into production. During November 1955, Issigonis returned to BMC and began work on the supremely successful Morris Mini-Minor and 11001.
In 1959 the Mini was born. It became the first car to have a sideways mounted engine that supported front wheel drive. In another first, it was the only car on the planet at that time to have a suspension system utilising rubber springs instead of the more typical steel springs2. Furthermore it was the first car to have the gears integrated in the oil pan.
Finally the car everyone had been waiting for had arrived.
Cooper and Son
It has been over 50 years since father Charles Cooper and his son John founded the ground-breaking Cooper racing team that was to become synonymous with the Mini Cooper. Working together in a small BMC garage in Surbiton, they toiled long and hard to design and build the first racing car with a rear-mounted engine, the famous Formula III Cooper 500. This speedster, with legendary drivers such as Stirling Moss behind the wheel, went on to win many races. As the Cooper Car Company expanded throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s it continued to produce race-winning cars. With Jack Brabham now driving, Cooper Cars won the World Championship in 1959 and 1960.
It was not long before the Coopers recognised the racing potential of the recently launched Mini. With the blessing of Sir Alec Issigonis, the car was soon modified and re-engineered for saloon car racing and rallying. The Mini Cooper became more successful than anyone could have imagined possible. It became the first British car to win the European Rally Championship. Other successes include taking the chequered flag at the world-famous Monte Carlo Rally three times.
One Era Ends and Another Begins
The last 'classic' Mini - produced by the British-based Rover company (Rover traces its roots back through British Leyland, the company where BMC, makers of the early Minis, ended up) - came off the production line in 2000. It was sold off at a charity auction. New Minis', MINI One and MINI Cooper, produced in Britain by the German-based company BMW, will be in car showrooms from July 2001.
As befits a classic car, the Mini became a magnet on the cultish celebrity circuits. Over the years, it has won the Monte Carlo Rally and starred alongside Michael Caine in the hit film The Italian Job (see below). It has also had more than its fair share of celebrity owners. To name a few:
- The Beatles (who had one each)
- Peter Sellers
- Britt Ekland
- Steve McQueen
- Clint Eastwood
- Paul Newman
- Brigitte Bardot
- Dudley Moore
- Cliff Richard
- Lord Snowdon
- Princess Alexandra
- Prince Michael of Kent
- Dame Margot Fonteyn
Paddy Hopkirk, '33 EJB'
Paddy Hopkirk along with his little red Mini won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. There are few vehicle registration plates in the history of British motor sport that evoke such emotion as Paddy's '33 EJB'. Paddy Hopkirk is the name many Brits associate with the Mini and the Monte Carlo Rally. The Mini he drives is always red and white, festooned with a bank of spot and foglamps on the grill. You can almost imagine his little red Mini screaming down muddy tracks, scrabbling for grip through the tree-strewn stages of the rally.
The Italian Job
The Italian Job is a cult-classic comedy film made in 1969 about a botched robbery, starring Michael Caine and Benny Hill. The film is centred on Michael Caine's character Charlie Crocker, a bank robber who does time and is finally let out of jail and is on the make again. This time Crocker is planning to steal four million dollars in gold from under the nose of the Mafia. The movie captures the style and humour of the late 1960s, and contains the legendary Mini Cooper chase sequence, an extremely long and exciting car chase involving Mini Coopers that stretches through streets, buildings, rivers, sewers, highways, and rooftops.