The Mini was a great success in the UK, and is familiar to audiences worldwide for appearances in films; the classic being 'The Italian Job
', in which Michael Caine
's gang of robbers stage a daring raid involving three getaway Coopers painted red, white and blue. The Mini was sold briefly in North America and Canada during the early 1960s, but was neither designed nor suited for those markets, unlike the contemporary - and larger - Volkswagen Beetle
. Along with the Beetle and the Citroen 2CV
, the Mini forms a triumverate of quirky, affordable vintage cars with iconic style. The Mini was also a revolutionary piece of design, an icon, and extremely popular in both senses - millions were sold, and people liked it. People who knew nothing about cars liked the Mini. It was an unlikely but potent babe-magnet
if you were a boy; if you were a girl, it was the height of chic
. It was cheap but not tatty or low-rent, and it made a virtue of being small. It had big eyes.
The car itself was designed by Alec Issigonis, later Sir Alec Issigonis. Alec was by all accounts a very clever man indeed. He was responsible for the extremely popular Morris Minor and Austin Maxi, and although he would eventually be sidelined into retirement due to company politics, his reputation remained intact. Tasked by the chairman of the British Motor Corporation with creating a compact, fuel-efficient car to rid Britain of bubble cars, Issigonis came up with a quietly radical design. To save space in the front, he mounted the engine sideways, transversely, which was in itself revolutionary and highly influential. To save space in the sides, the suspension used hydrolastic rubber cones filled with fluid, something which was not at all influential and died a death, albeit that it was clever. To save space at the back Issigonis simply did away with the boot; in years to come, only the lack of a full-length hatchback betrayed the Mini's vintage.
The car was introduced in 1959 as the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini-Minor; this kind of badge engineering was quite common for British Leyland, and the car eventually went on to become the BMC Mini, the BL Mini and then just 'Mini'. Mini itself, as a word, became something of a cult during the 60s. During its time it had been owned and driven by all the Beatles, Peter Sellers, Twiggy, Lulu, several generations of learner drivers, rally stars, the list is endless. It was simultaneously a mass-produced commodity car and a fashion icon; a little runabout and a fantastic drive. It was classless, in that the car said nothing about your status; they were driven by the young and old, the rich and poor, students and teachers alike. Like Audrey Hepburn, almost everybody loved the Mini. The only people who didn't love the Mini were pathetic, empty people. The car went out of production in October 2000, amid many tears.
Although initially intended to be a compact family car for an austere age, the car's handling and power-to-weight ratio was such that it became a huge rallying success, winning the Monte Carlo rally three times outright; with a wheel at each corner and hard suspension, the car had excellent handling and roadholding, and was usually geared for acceleration. Although even the fastest models would struggle to top 90mph, the fact that you sat only a few inches off the ground meant that it felt faster than it was. The excellent roadholding and relative lack of power meant that racing drivers of the late-60s and early-70s did not have to use the brakes; they simply turned harder into the corner and relied on the 10" tyres to scrub off the extra speed.
The Mini stayed much the same externally throughout its life, with the exception of the extremely dated, now quite rare 70s 'Clubman' exterior, which gave the car a larger, squarer front end. The only other change of note was that the radiator grille went from being curved to being angular in the late 1960s. The internal gubbins were however periodically updated. The ultimate Mini is the 1963-1971 1275 Cooper 'S', which could reach 90mph and go from 0-60 in 10 seconds; it was followed in the 70s by the less interesting 1275GT, which used the Clubman body. The long-running 'a series' (and, from the early 80s, a+) engine became unleaded-friendly in 1986, and in 1996 the whole range was updated and given leather seats, airbags, a fuel-injected engine and more weight, which dulled performance slightly. From the late 1960s Innocenti of Italy also produced Minis, competing directly with the Fiat 500; Innocenti's Minis are the height of class, but are even more prone to rust than the British ones. Interestingly, Innocenti actually developed the car, producing a rebodied version that resembled a Renault 5, and even a turbocharged version with the DeTomaso badge. Issigonis himself spent time in the 1970s coming up with a successor, the poignant X9. This also resembled the Renault 5, but predated Renault's popular machine. Sadly it was never released, although Renault's design would go on to capture the essence of Mini more effectively than any post-Mini small car.
Throughout the car's life engineers tried to coax more power from it. The most successful was John Cooper, who lent his name to the 'Cooper' models, which can be distinguished by having white roofs. During the 1970s BL tired of paying the man royalties, which is why the 1275GT was not called a Cooper, although John Cooper continued to produce unofficially modified Minis. To confuse matters, the post-1996 Rover Mini Coopers are no different from the standard models except for the name, although a trickle of genuine Coopers - with five-speed gearboxes, rollcages, fire extinguishers and so forth - continued to appear from Cooper Garages. John Cooper himself sadly died in 2001.
The Mini was supposed to have been killed off in 1980 and replaced by the Austin Metro, which eventually became the Rover 100. However, demand for Issigonis' machine ensured that the Mini actually outlasted its supposed successor (successors, if you include the Clubman), and even the company, as Rover was sold to BMW in 1998. By this time the 'New Mini' was almost at the end of its development cycle - when BMW dropped Rover like a scalding stone in 2000, the New Mini became a BMW product. It is currently a big sales success and, apparently, a superb car. But it is not an icon, at least not yet.