Unlike the new Mini of today, which is made by BMW and big – the standard car is the same size as a Golf and the Countryman given its ungainly proportions should have been christened the Elephantine – the original Mini was quite the opposite of its 21st century re-incarnation.The 1956 Suez Crisis once again saw petrol rationing throughout Britain, and the British Motor Corporation saw the necessity for a small, cheap city car to keep within the times of austerity. Furthermore, small, more fuel efficient models from continental brands were outselling British marques due to their more efficient nature, and then BMC head, Leonard Lord decided he would ‘rid the streets’ of these continental rivals by creating a ‘proper miniature car.’
By the end of the decade, Lord’s brief – with a little help from the car’s designer, Sir Alec Issigonis – for a two door, four-cylinder car with a monocoque chassis became reality. The Mini, which until 1969 when it became a brand in its own right was marketed under BMC’s main brands Austin and Morris, was presented to the automotive media in April 1959.
However, whilst 1959 was the year that was important for the car as the Mini changed the whole ethos of the city car, it was 1961 that saw the most famous model in its history introduced. The Mini Cooper.
The most iconic Mini in history was born as the result of John Cooper – the owner of the Cooper Car Company who knew a thing or two about making F1 and rally cars – recognizing the car’s miniscule dimensions (120 by 55 inches) as a basis for a motorsport version.
After some initial difficulties caused by Issigonis’ reluctance to see a performance version of his creation, Cooper overrode his friend and appealed directly to BMC management with his idea. The project was given the green light, Issigonis was persuaded by the idea and in 1961, the Austin Mini Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper made their first appearances.
To keep true to its sporting ethos, Cooper increased racing-tuned the standard Mini’s 848cc engine to 997cc, a process which increased power by 19 bhp to 55 bhp. In order to meet the homologation regulations of Group 2 rallying, twin carburettors were also fitted, as were a closer ratio gearbox and front disc – as opposed to drum – brakes. It was these modifications that began the Cooper’s legacy of one of the most successful cars in motorsport history, with John Love taking the British Saloon Car Championship in 1962.
1963 further cemented the car’s motorsport credentials with the development of the Cooper S model. A more powerful car, Cooper and his team increased performance by fitting a 1070cc engine which was strengthened to accommodate further tuning, as well as a nitrided steel crankshaft and hydraulic assisted (Servo) brakes. Additionally, two further Cooper S models for competition in 1,000 and 1,300cc series were added to the range, with 970 and 1275cc engines offered. These engines were also offered in the road cars, but the 970 was not well received and by the time the model had been discontinued in 1965, only 963 had been built.
However, whilst the Cooper and Cooper S’ performance credentials and fun handling characteristics appealed to many buyers, the success that the Cooper S gained on the Monte Carlo rallies of the 1960s cemented its appeal in the hearts of enthusiasts all over the world, much like the Subaru Impreza or Mitsubishi Evo does today.
Between 1964 and 1967, the Cooper S cleaned up in the sheet ice and snow covered hills above Monte Carlo, with drivers Paddy Hopkirk, Timo Makinen and Rauto Aaltonen making use of the car’s mountain goat like handling to skip around the treacherous conditions. 1966 would have also seen another win for the Mini, but all three cars were excluded from the results after stewards controversially decided to disqualify all three cars after failing to fit the correct lamps.
If this was not enough to seal the car’s reputation as a small icon, then there was also the small matter of the 1969 film, The Italian Job where three Minis – one blue, one red, one white -are arguably the key players in a Turin based bank heist…
By the early 1970s, the previous decade in which the car became a rallying icon and a film star seemed a distant memory. Although a combined total of 80,000 MK1 and MK2 Coopers and 7,800 MKs 1, 2 and 3 Cooper S’ had been sold, by 1971, BMC sold the licence to the Cooper name to the Italian and Spanish firms, Innocenti and Authi* who sold the car as the Innocenti Mini Cooper 1300 and the Authi Mini Cooper 1300. Even sadder was that the Cooper had disappeared all together from its native Britain, after BMC – now British Leyland – refused to pay John Cooper the royalties for using his name on the car.
As a result, it was not until almost another 20 years that the Cooper name reappeared on British shores.
By 1990, British Leyland had morphed into Rover and a slightly down-tuned Cooper reappeared as the RSP (Rover Special Product). The following year, the model was once again marketed as a Cooper and finally went back into production, such was the popularity of the RSP car. From 1992, Rover fitted a fuel injected 1275cc engine, and various other technical improvements during the final evolution of the car included an airbag in 1994 and a multi point fuel injection system in 1997.
The year 2000 saw the end of the road for the original Mini, after seven evolutions, a total of 5,387,862 cars produced and almost 40 years. By the end of its production, four models were being produced; the Mini Classic Seven, Mini Classic Cooper, Mini Classic Cooper Sport and for foreign markets, the Mini Knightsbridge and despite not being the safest, or most reliable cars in the world, still remain highly sort after by enthusiasts due to one aspect of their nature that cannot quite be reproduced in the new car; personality.
By George East
*Author’s note; Authi is an acronym for Automoviles de Turismo Hispano-Ingleses