By on June 9, 2009

Out of adversity arises creativity. Alec Issigonis’ brilliant Mini was conceived in the depths of the oil import embargo brought on by the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. Just like our energy crises gave birth to the Chevette and the Cavalier. Ok, no more GM references. This is the Mini’s fiftieth birthday, and it deserves our undivided adulation. Well, at least from a safe distance, anyway.

Get a little closer, like inside, or actually drive one, and the reality that the Mini prototype was completely designed and built by Issigonis, two engineers, two students and a couple of draftsman becomes obvious. The un-adulterated clarity of a single bright vision comes through loud and clear, especially when that SU carburetor sitting practically in your lap starts sucking air. That big round center speedometer is there for a reason; it doubles as the carb’s air cleaner housing. There’s definitely the whiff of carriage house-baked about the Mini.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Mini, you love the Mini, we all love the Mini. And how could we not, with all the associations it conjures up? Mini skirts, for starters (yes, they were named after the car). And Paddy Hopkirk’s Rally Monte Carlo winning Cooper S bedecked with half a dozen Lucas Flamethrowers. Now that’s a name almost as iconic as the Mini’s. How I used to obsess on them in my youth: Flamethrowers and mini skirts.

Issigionis’ marching orders were to seat four in a package ten feet by four feet, leaving 80% of the space for the occupants. And given that BMC was not in a position to develop a new engine, the old A-block four needed to be turned sideways, with the gearbox incorporated into the sump and sharing the engine’s oil. Well, someone has to be the guinea pig.

Thankfully, the hydrolastic suspension didn’t make it into the early Minis, and just as well. It was eventually dumped after a few years anyway, in favor of the rubber cone springing units used at the start. They were a key part of what gave the Mini its go-kart handling (and harsh ride). Conceived as an Issetta-fighting ultra-economy car, the Austin and Morris twins found their fame and glory as a sports car masquerading as a four-passenger economy car: the Mini Cooper S.

More significantly, the Mini broke out of the shit-box segment by becoming a hot fashion item. In swinging mod London during the mid-late sixties, driving a Mini in a mini was way groovy. Even more so if it was a Radford Mini de Ville, with a Rolls Royce-grade interior and Flamethrowers built right into its maxi-cute grille.

BMC’s own upscale Mini-variants, the Wolsely Hornet and Riley Elf never escaped their self-conscious efforts to be up-class, and thus were rejected by the mod set. With their grafted on trunk and thirties grill, they’re comical, ridiculous actually. I’ve spotted an Elf in Eugene, and I’m determined to flush it out of its shoe-box hiding place.

The Mini presented huge challenges for its maker, and ultimately contributed to the demise of BMC and subsequently British Leyland. There is the endless debate as to whether the Mini was sold at a loss. BMC claims they made at least thirty pounds (on each, or on all 5.4 million units made?), and made good profits on all the options, such as seat belts and Flamethrowers, as well as the higher-end versions. But that’s only part of the problem.

The Mini started a transverse-FWD-hydrolastic revolution at BMC, with a whole line of ever-larger cars with the same configuration: compact Austin/MG 1100 (aka: America); mid-size Maxi; and the Euro full-size 1800. It was a bold attempt to reshape BMC’s lineup from the musty old RWD saloons of the fifties. No other major manufacturer except Citroen had such an advanced lineup. And like Citroen, BMC paid the price of being a technology pioneer.

The Hydrolastic suspension wasn’t as complicated as Citroen’s nightmare, but had its (expensive) bugs. And just like with the Mini, BMC couldn’t afford modern engines, so the whole line suffered from the noisy old long-stroke shakers. And their complexity was an endless drain on ephemeral profits.

Originally, the FWD cars were to be made and sold equally by Austin and Morris. But their fragility increasingly made them untenable in export markets, and even in Old Blighty, some of the loyalists became wary. So starting in 1970, Austin and Morris began a product split, with Morris reviving coarse and crude RWD sedans, beginning (and ending) with the execrable Marina. British Leyland really was doomed right from the get-go. And no wonder Japanese cars have their highest European market share in England.

A comparison of Europe’s three most iconic post-war small cars is revealing: the profoundly solid and well-sprung Teutonic VW Beetle; the quirky but brilliantly practical and efficient French Citroen 2CV; and the British Mini. All three were highly advanced, at least in their early years. But the VW and 2CV were more adaptable, durable and roomy; they were the vehicles of choice for generations of European students heading off to the Sahara or India. Nobody in their right mind would have done that in a Mini; it would have high-centered (or just disappeared) in Turkey’s first big pothole, if the Prince of Darkness hadn’t already ended the trip.

The Mini’s transverse-engine layout transcended the mortifications of its quick-rust body, and became immortal. But the Mini’s real legacy lives on its three spiritual successors today, with more on the way: the Smart, the MINI, and the Fiat 500. All fashionable, trendy and tiny city mobiles, the cars of the future. And as such the Mini is rightfully the most influential compared to the VW and 2CV, if not of the whole post-war era. Who would have thought that a noisy, cramped, hard-riding, unreliable shoe box on ten-inch wheels would pull that off? Fashion trumps practicality, once again.

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24 Comments on “Curbside Classics: 1971 Mini...”

  • avatar

    Wow what a gem.
    The neat part is seeing one next to a new Mini and realizing how small they really were. Definitely some brilliant engineering.

    • 0 avatar

      Cool video of Minis racing Mustangs!

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    There is something pure about the original Mini, the VW Bug, the Deux Chevaux, the ’62 Chevy II, the BMW 2002, the Triumph TR3, and the original Civic which cannot be bought or duplicated… is the purity of vision, the form-following-transportation- function of a first-generation idea, before people start adding, stretching, morphing and blinging….

  • avatar

    Who would have thought that a noisy, cramped, hard-riding, unreliable shoe box on ten-inch wheels would pull that off? Fashion trumps practicality, once again.

    Having driven a mini (learned how to drive in one actually) and also other cars of that era, it is an indisputable fact that minis were more capable and certainly more fun to drive than most of their contemporaries (other than expensive exotics).

    The mini was practical enough, it even somehow fit my 6’4″ frame, a feat many cars today can’t pull off, especially with the new wide center console (that carve into my shins) fad kicking in.

  • avatar

    Inevitable British car joke (hey, I’m allowed; I’ve lived there/paid plenty of taxes to Her Majesty’s Government).

    Lucas light switches have three positions.



    The car “slightly larger” than the Mini was the 1100, later morphed into a 1300.

    Here’s Basil Fawlty giving one “a damn good thrashing” because – look! It’s damp in England! And therefore the flaming car won’t bloody restart, willit?


  • avatar
    bill h.

    How long did that shared tranny/engine oil sump idea last? About as long as either component?

    Still, if one wants to have some fun looking at what these could do, you can do worse than watching the original version of “The Italian Job.” More whimsical and fun than the remake with the modern Minis. IMHO.

  • avatar

    Ahhhh… My first automotive memories are of being in the back of my parents’ beige 1971 Mini Clubman Estate (the slightly larger/uglier station wagon version), complete with faux wood stripes. That car took us on numerous trips from North Wales to The Netherlands.

    My own very first car was a 1980 Mini 1000 in white. Mine had brown velour seats and interior door panels.

    If you have the opportunity, drive one. Telepathic steering, a short wheelbase and incredibly firm suspension made the car tremendous fun to drive, despite only 36bhp. Mine would ‘cruise’ at 65-70mph all day long and could be coaxed into the high 80’s if you could stand the noise (don’t tell anyone but I got mine off the clock once -90mph+). Probably as a result of this, and being a poor student, I learned a lot of automobile maintenance and repair on it (2 new radiators, a clutch and a head gasket is just what springs to mind).

    One day I’ll have to get another. I owned a 2005 Cooper S, it was a boat in comparison.

    Thanks for the fond memories Paul, nice article.

  • avatar

    Highly recommended, if you’ve never been there before:

    The absolute anorak’s history of British Leyland, with a wonderful wealth of detail about everything they made.

  • avatar

    Anyone else ever been in an AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION original Mini?
    Wow, talk about a slug on wheels.

    Trivia: the automatic (sharing motor oil and therefore not having automatic transmission fluid) was built by AP (“Automotive Products”) in the UK, and it did not have planetary sets, nor conventional gears. It had multiple, tiny differential sets inline each with clutches, hydraulically controlled to vary the output speed, and had 4 forward speeds, 1 reverse speed. It did have a torque convertor.

    The shift quadrant was absolutely weird, and was on the floor. P-R-N-1-2-3-D. Not the usual
    P-R-N-D-2-1. So, for automatic DRIVE range, you pulled the stick all the way back!

  • avatar

    How long did that shared tranny/engine oil sump idea last? About as long as either component?

    I believe until the miniMetro became the Rover100 in about 1990 … 30 years.

    A friend’s Mini once burned to the ground in our company’s parking lot; retained power outlets and Lucas electrics should not be mixed.

  • avatar

    I never realized how much bigger my xB is than the original Mini. We’ve come a long way.

    Thanks for that picture, and an interesting article with all the links.

  • avatar

    I believe until the miniMetro became the Rover100 in about 1990 … 30 years.

    Longer than that, the Mini outlasted the A series engined Metro by another 10 yrs (The K series was used in the Metro from May 1990, but the name didn’t become Rover 100 until 1994). The last ‘proper’ Mini was built in Oct 2000, it had its gears in its sump. A 41 yr run.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    You’ve done it again, Paul. The mini was the forbear of the modern transverse engine/FWD econobox. At LimeRock , I saw a Mini Cooper parked next to a MINI, The MINI sits on 17″ wheels and is foot larger in every dimension.

  • avatar

    Another story, possibly apocryphal, is that
    Sir Alec gathered four folding chairs, put four people in them, and asked them to sit two in front and two in back as close as they could comfortably get. The resulting configuration was immortalized on the floor with a piece of chalk and became the basis for the interior layout.

    Today’s manufacturers have so many great technologies available to them that one must wonder what designers and engineers could to with a design brief that could be posted on Twitter.

    Great review. Keep it up.

  • avatar

    The xB/Mini comparison is great. It’s especially funny that both are considered tiny cars. The xB is a monster truck compared to a lot of old compacts.

    Of course, I like to park next to new xBs, because it’s a similar comparison.

  • avatar

    You mentioned the biggest of these leylands being the Euro 1800 but in fact the biggest by far was the Aussie Austin Kimberley which had a 6 cylinder OHC transverse motor. I had one of these and I could carry three steel rubbish bins (trash cans) standing up in the boot (trunk). Its internal space was humungous.

    I also had a mini 850 and a Clubman van which once carried our full size fridge on its side. My friend was 6’3″ and he claimed the mini was one of the few cars he could move the driver’s seat far enough back to be comfortable. Mine finally died after being sandwiched in a nose to tail accident making it very mini indeed.
    In New South Wales the police used Mini Cooper S as highway pursuit vehicles and they were very, very quick. They were also easy to hide behind billboards or in sugar cane fields.

  • avatar
    Greg Locock

    “Anyone else ever been in an AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION original Mini?
    Wow, talk about a slug on wheels. ”

    Owned one for four years. I disagree, it just meant you drove everywhere at full throttle, and didn’t slow down. It would, and did, cruise at indicated 85 mph, for hours at a time (Norwich to Glasgow) where possible. That was 5000 rpm.

    Brilliant handling, almost totally reliable (OK it did have a fuel starvation problem one winter, and it did break a fan belt and a waterpump and then its engine mounts and so an exhaust, and the handbrake was an annual nightmare).

    Definitely one of the best cars I have ever owned.

  • avatar

    My brother’s ’63 Mini is sitting under a tarp about 50 feet from where I sit. Back in the day it was more fun to drive than my Lotus Elan. Not that it handled better than the Elan, nothing from that era did, but if you wrecked the Mini you didn’t care. Also, it had a great tossable nature.

    Sir Alec was a brilliant, seminal engineer but the tranny in the sump thing was not his better ideas. The long chain polymers in the engine oil get chewed up in the gears, degrading engine lubrication. Meanwhile, 10W30 doesn’t lubricate transmission gears the way gearbox oil does.

    • 0 avatar

      The long chain polymers in the engine oil get chewed up in the gears, degrading engine lubrication.

      Longstanding myth that refuses to die.
      Meanwhile, 10W30 doesn’t lubricate transmission gears the way gearbox oil does.
      And yet, millions upon millions of motorcycles run shared motor and transmission oil, with no particular trend toward unreliability.

  • avatar

    “Thankfully, the hydrolastic suspension didn’t make it into the early Minis, and just as well. It was eventually dumped after a few years anyway, in favor of the rubber cone springing units used at the start. They were a key part of what gave the Mini its go-kart handling (and harsh ride).”

    I think this is rather ill informed. The only reason people now prefer ‘Dry’ minis is that replacement Hydrolastic displacers are now hard to come by and that a dry set-up allows the use of modern ‘Hi-Lo’ adjustable unit. At the time the hydrolastic cars were far superior giving much better damping control. This is why other than the 1964 entry, all the Montecarlo winners (and the 1966 bathurst winner) were all wet suspension minis.

    Hydolastic is also exceptionally trouble free, which is why it lasted so long as a concept – over 12 million vehicles with this suspension were built. It is far more dependable than a gas filled shock for instance and is designed to compensate for failures in the system.

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    Mies van der Rohe was right; less is more.

  • avatar

    It looks like the Scion escape pod.

    Actually it is the first of the new line of Chrysler products, courtesy of Uncle Obama.

  • avatar

    Ever since I walked past one on my way to school back in the 1970s (the family doctor’s son had one) I’ve lusted for one of these. About 4 years ago I finally obtained one, a grandma edition 1979 850. Hardly comparable to a Cooper S, but I have to say this car has exceeded all my expectations from my youth. That is a pretty amazing feat, when you think about it. This car never fails to delight with the driving experience. Razor sharp reflexes make it completely engaging to drive, while the lack of power teaches judicious use of generated momentum. The design really is brilliant, once you start looking and working on it. Yeah, the build quality is abysmal, panel gaps colossal, and rust resistance a total failure, but you don’t care. I only wish I’d had this cheeky little device back when I was single. My God, how the women love it. Most fun car I’ve ever owned (and it is one of fifty so far).

  • avatar

    There were also the variants made in other countries under license. I used to own a 1970 Innocenti Mini Cooper, made for the Italian home market. I imported it into the US via the antique car law, and had a blast with it for a few years. Innocenti modified the dash a bit and cleaned up the wiring loom (I think I had 6 or 8 fuses instead of 4!). It was 998cc of fury! The funny part was the complete 10 inch wheel were slightly smaller than the rims of my Chevy truck. The Inno was also just a hair too wide to ride in the back of the Chevy as a spare :)

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