British icon turns 60: why the humble Mini was so groundbreaking
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On August 26 in 1959, the British Motor Corporation unveiled to the public a new model that was not just “Incredible” but also offered “Wizardry On Wheels”. Sixty years later, it is almost impossible to envisage how the Mini seemed different to virtually another vehicle, for one of its few recognisable elements was the model names, which both harked back to an earlier era; Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor.
The cinema advertisements claimed that driving a Mini resulted in happiness and, judging by the footage, donning a very jaunty sports jacket. The basic model cost just £496 19 2s in the UK (“less than £500 tax paid!” proclaimed the advertisements), but the De Luxe offered even better value for money at £537 with its heater and windscreen washers as standard.
Mini designer Alec Issigonis
There was also that choice of Seven or Mini-Minor, for although the Austin and Nuffield empires had merged in 1952, there remained separate chains of dealerships. Even the paint finishes were different - Tartan Red, Farina Grey and Speedwell Blue for the Seven and Cherry Red, Old English White and Clipper Blue for the Mini-Minor.
This was to be the British Motor Corporation’s (BMC) vehicle for the “blue-collar worker” or the “District Nurse”. Christy Campbell notes in her indispensable book Mini: An Intimate Biography how BMC’s sales teams were “ordered to emphasis roominess, ease of parking, handling, performance, economy (‘the cheapest form of transport available today’) and safety, in that order.
The Motor magazine reported on the launch date that “Whereas most new cars represent variations on a theme, it is the theme itself which is different in the new BMC cars”.
Two days later an Autocar test reassured its readers that “this 850cc design, the work of Alec Issigonis and his team, bristles with originality, yet there is nothing remotely freakish about it”.
Many Britons remained unconvinced, however, and their reluctance to place an order for a Mini was not always for fear of the neighbours regarding them as a beatnik. Sixty years ago, even front-wheel-drive was a comparatively unfamiliar concept (the Slough-built Citroën 2CV was never a common sight in the UK) and it was more sensible to invest in a known quantity.
Paddy Hopkirk drives the Mini in which he famously won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally
Some motorists wondered if they could raise funds for the eye-catching 105E while your friendly local Ford dealer offered the Popular 100E. Its lines were pure 1953, and the list of fittings was so dismal that the basic model even lacked a boot lock, but Dagenham boasted that it was “a real-size car”, one that complied with the accepted image of a family saloon. BMC embarked on various public relations schemes, including the chance to win a Mini-Minor courtesy of the Danish Lard Council, but the early models were plagued by a spate of technical issues, including a well-published habit of leaking water through the floor seams.
However, by the end of 1960 Mini sales were more than those of the larger Morris Minor, for the Mini was becoming accepted and even fashionable. It was a development that did not enthuse Issigonis, but a De Luxe was the perfect car for the art school lectures keen not to be thought a “square” by the students or the young architect engaged on planning concrete monstrosities on bombsites.
That year also marked the debut of the Austin Countryman and the Morris Traveller estates with “plenty of space for dad’s long legs” while “Mother’s skirt won’t get crushed or crumpled”. More importantly, there was the wholly decorative timber framing, with its innate appeal to the East Cheam resident with dreams of one day being invited to join the country club.
The Morris Mini Traveller, with non-structural wooden sections, joined the line-up in 1960 joined
The (relatively) high-performance Cooper made its bow in September 1961 (George Harriman, the chairman of BMC, initially doubted its commercial prospects), as did the Super versions with their “new comfort, new glamour”.
For the truly aspirational and/or the dedicated social climber, the Wolseley Hornet and the Riley Elf sported tailfins and “traditional” radiator grilles and even featured leather upholstery. The young Margot Leadbetter of The Good Life almost certainly owned a duotone Hornet which, for a mere £672 1s 5d, brought “luxury and distinction” into Haute suburbia. The Mini was now well on the way to the middle-class realm famously described by Nicholas Tomalin as “the scampi belt”.
By January of 1962, the Austins had finally lost their Seven identity, and it was over the next two years that the Mini arguably established itself in the national consciousness.
Such questions of the time as “Does it run sideways?”, “Why are the wheels so small?” or “Where is the boot?” have largely faded into history and the Mini enjoyed several high-profile film appearances; Dirk Bogarde’s wicker-panelled Morris in Doctor in Distress and its more subdued counterpart driven by Juliet Mills in Nurse on Wheels. The Morris Cooper piloted by Julie Christie in the sublime The Fast Lady reflected how the Mini was seen as the ideal town car by “the smart set” – former debutants, readers of Queenand Town magazines.
Meanwhile, gossip columnists revelled in the fact that HRH Princess Margaret used a Mini in London and that Peter Sellers commissioned Hooper (Motor Services) Ltd. to create the ultimate town car from his Cooper - “anything you boys can think of, you have my full permission to do”, said the comic actor.
In April of 1963, the Cooper S tempted many a former MG and Triumph owner to the realm of the saloon car with a Mini capable of 91mph and 0-60mph in 13½ seconds for just £695 7s 1d.
The millionth example of the Mini departed Longbridge (production had started at Cowley near Oxford and the Birmingham factory later produced the Mini) in 1965 but the point at which it became one of the few cars to merit the over-used term “icon” occurred in January 1964. Paddy Hopkirk, his navigator Henry Liddon and the Morris Cooper S registered 33 EJB topped the bill of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and the Monte Carlo victor was flown from the rally to the ATV studios. When a car is introduced to the nation to 28 million viewers by Bruce Forsyth, it has well and truly arrived.
And perhaps the real importance of the Mini lies not so much in footage of competition success or that much-overused imagery of Swinging London, but in its impact on everyday life. To look at a photograph of a provincial high street in the mid-1960s is to encounter an array of grim supermarkets, determined ladies in Thora Hird headscarves, ageing Teddy Boys – and at least one Mini Van or Super de Luxe saloon.
Production of the Issigonis masterpiece ended on the October 4 in 2000 under the auspices of Rover, but the memories abided – the extensions for wiper and light switches, the stiff catches from the sliding windows and how the flashing indicator stalk bathed the cabin in green light.
Above all, the Mini forever altered long-held ideas concerning the form and function of a motor car – as well as fulfilling its promise that “you’ve never seen a new car like this before”.
- Telegraph UK