The Mini Cooper is either the most or second most influential car design in history. It all depends on which side of the Atlantic you live on. It was originally created in response to the Second Arab–Israeli war. This conflict saw fuel supplies in England reduced dramatically. To the point that rationing became a necessity to keep the countries industries operating. Now, well over half a century after its 1959 introduction it is as a cultural icon available in over a dozen countries. The Mini Cooper rules race tracks around the world; there are versions that range from the automotive sublime to the villainous. Furthermore, the Mini was the first car to put the transverse-mounted engine/front-wheel-drive concept into practice. It was the brainchild of Alec Issigonis an automotive designer and engineer whose name stands right along beside Royce and Martin in the annals of British automotive history.
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The Mini Cooper story begins with the vision of one man who could see beyond the conventional confines of current trends and envision new possibilities. Born to a wealthy industrialist father who died while fleeing to England from the Ottoman Empire, Alec found himself as a young boy in a strange land without connections or prospects. Thankfully he won his way into the Battersea Polytechnic Engineering School in London from which he eventually graduated despite failing his math examines three times.
The Mini or MINI as it is officially now known can trace its origins back to the Morris Minor which was initially a small two-door Saloon first conceived by Morris Motors in 1941 but whose introduction was delayed until 1948 because of World War II. This was the first car that Issigonis worked on as a full-fledged engineer rather than a draftsman and gained the attention of the head of the Morris engineering department, Vic Oak.
Even though WWII ended in 1945, it took some time for the world to settle down to anything approaching calm. The war saw the end of the Ottoman Empire, the creation of Israeli State and the disassembly of the British Empire over much of the planet. One byproduct of this turmoil was that fuel prices soared in the UK leaving many to question the wisdom of the big cars that the Brits had traditionally driven and created a need for a small, economical car that was long on mileage and room yet easy on the gas pumps.
To fulfill the need for an every man's car, the head of the British Motor Company that resulted from the 1952 merging of Morris and Austin Motors, Sir Leonard Lord turned to his rising star of unorthodoxy, Alec Issigonis. To say that Alec threw out the book would be an understatement. He did away with much of the styling like flared fenders that were dominant at the time, redesigned the undercarriage and suspension and the complete drive train.
The car that Issigonis and BMC delivered to the public in 1959 was unlike anything that had been seen before. Gone was everything considered unnecessary - including the heater. The wheels had been moved out to the corners of the car and the engine was turned sideways. While unorthodox in its appearance the car had a surprising amount of room as 80% of the total floor pan space was made available for passengers and luggage.
The Mini Mark I was envisioned as a car that nearly everyone could afford to buy and drive, but it delivered much more than BMC could have ever dreamed of. With its simple lines, affordable pricing, it became a cultural icon symbolizing the freedom that young people were marching in the streets for in the 1960s. It was such a part of the Pop Culture of that era than it is considered the second most influential car of the 20th century surpassed only by the venerable Model T Ford.
It wasn’t just in popular culture that the Mini drew attention, there were all types of Minis produced but perhaps its most astounding accomplishments was the impact that it had on the worlds Rally races. British racing legion John Cooper realized that the tiny cars lightweight and nimble suspension made it a natural and set out to add power and finetune its handling. The modifications he performed gave birth to what many termed the ‘Giant Killer’ as the little demon simply out handled its larger more powerful competition all the way to Victory Lane.
Moke is an archaic word that means donkey and the perfect name for one of the more interesting variations of the Mini that was produced, the Mini Moke. Introduced in 1964 and intended to be a Brit built alternative to the American Jeep. Sadly, it was too small and lacked sufficient ground clearance to be of much use in a military role where it did find a huge following though was among the beachcombing resort set who purchased over 50,000 of them between 1964 and 1968.
While the Cooper variants of the Mini had first appeared early during the first generation of Mini’s life it wasn’t until the car had built a truly sterling race record including back to back wins from 1964 to 1967 at prestigious Monte Carlo rally that people realized just how much the high performance and higher-priced variants had to offer. Both the Cooper and Cooper S models featured more horsepower and stiffer suspension. The biggest difference between the two is that the ‘S’ came with even more horses under the hood and fancier trim, albeit at a higher price tag.
Over 2 million Mini models had been sold around the world by the end of the Mark I's production run. But they weren’t all standard Minis or even the common Coopers and Mokes. Among the other varieties that the British motor company brought to the market were a pickup, a station wagon version, and a Mini delivery Van. While the thought of these tiny utility vehicles may seem outrages, they were extremely rugged, and owners soon found that they could be counted on to deliver reliable service at modest operating costs.
By 1967 The Mini Morris or Mini Austin, depending on your country, was being produced in 11 plants around the globe and was one of the world’s most popular cars. While there was no substantial modification made to the mechanics of the car, it was given a new grille, larger backglass, and other cosmetic changes. Perhaps the biggest shift came in the fact that many options like seatbelts, a radio, and a heater became standard equipment by the time the second generation of Mini hit the streets.
By the late 60s and early 70s, even those people looking for basic but fun transportation had somewhat grown in sophistication and paid closer attention to the styling, fit and finish of the cars they bought. To keep up with the market BMC once again upgraded the Minis looks. Once again, the back glass was enlarged, the car was given larger doors with hidden hinges and some of the bodies harder edges were rounded. Also, the suspension was returned from Hydrolastic to the original rubber cone system to help control production costs.
From the fourth through the seventh generation of Mini there were many mechanical upgrades made to the car like the engine mounts being moved forward to accommodate a 78 cubic inch powerplant, and larger brakes being installed as standard equipment. The biggest shift came in the public’s perception of the brand. Bought by BMW in 1994 there were several special editions released that converted the image of the car to that of a fashion icon from solid transportation.
BMW ended the production of the classic Mini in 2000 and introduced the MINI, all capital letters, as a sporty luxury car more in line with the parent company’s image. These vehicles are the largest and heaviest MINIs ever made and come with more power due to the addition of supercharged engines. They also are the most luxurious that every hit the road with features like wooden dashboards, premium quality sound systems, and leather racing seats being standard equipment.
Along with all of the other changes that BMW made to reinvigorate the MINI line was the reintroduction of the ‘Cooper’ and ‘Cooper S’ marques to the MINI line. Though perhaps not as nimble as their namesakes these new models were a blast for the true auto enthusiast to drive. Available with 118 and 172 hp respectively they came as either hardtop models as a convertible. It is perhaps these cars that have solidified the image of the ‘Mini’ in the minds of today’s drivers.