British Motor Corporation started the hype in 1958 when Sir Leonard Lord decided he was sick of seeing bubble cars and wanted something to ‘drive them off the streets by designing a proper miniature car’. Enter Alec Issigonis, the mastermind behind the 1940s Morris Minor. It’s a testament to the power of the Mini brand that it still survives over 50 years after its creation and is as iconic now as it was back then.
The Mini went from conception to completion in a little over two years and became one of the most influential cars of the 20th Century. Over 5.3million were made over the course of 41 years with everyone from John Lennon to Steve McQueen owning one. The classless little car did everything from winning rallies to taking families on holiday. It was even used to deliver the mail for some years. Limited editions and spin-off models came and went but the essence of the Mini lived on, epitomising British style for over half a century.
The first Minis to be produced in 1959 didn’t have the Mini brand until 1962. They were badged as either Austin Se7ens or Morris Mini-Minors, depending on where they were built. The only difference between them was that the Se7en had a wavy grille whereas the Morris had a straight grille. With a strict length limit of 10ft, the Mini came in a Basic and De Luxe model with either an Austin or Morris badge. Both gave 34bhp out of an 848cc engine and this wasn’t changed for eight years.
The interiors however, went through a number of reshuffles over the years and a variety of different model names were also thrown into the mix. The original De Luxe edition had hinged rear windows and windscreen washers as well as floor carpets and wheel trims. The dash simply had a speedometer with a fuel gauge tucked in neatly at the bottom. No other dials featured in these original models.
In 1961 the Super arrived as a prequel to the much-anticipated Cooper with the same colour scheme along with the extra corner bumpers and different grilles. Just a few months later BMC finally fell into line with public opinion and dropped the ‘Se7en’ and ‘Mini-Minor’ names, calling all cars simply ‘Minis’. The cars were still made as separate Austin and Morris types for nearly eight years after this though.
Later in 1962, the De Luxe and Super models were merged to create a Super De Luxe. Cosmetic changes were minor including another new grille and better-quality upholstery. The baulk-ring synchromesh was also present in the gearbox, as it was in the latest Coopers.
1967 brought with it the announcement of the MkII range of Minis. This was the first time significant changes were made to the body shell and styling of the classic models since the car was invented. New badging appeared, as did a larger tail lamp. The grilles were changed yet again and the rear window was made slightly wider. The basic model underwent very little internal change but the Super de Luxe now came with the three-dial instrumentation and more comfortable seats of the Coopers. The chassis itself was changed to make it more manoeuvrable, dropping the turning circle from 32ft to just 28ft. Sales continued to increase, peaking in 1971 with sales of 318,475 cars.
The very first Coopers launched in 1961 had a 997cc version of the A-series engine and produced a mighty 55bhp. They were easily distinguishable from the saloons, not just from their 62 per cent power increase but their duotone paintjobs. The tartan red body with white roof would forever more epitomise the classic Mini Cooper. The extra bumperettes on the corners and increased sound deadening also separated the saloons from the Coopers alongside new centrally mounted instrument binnacles with added oil pressure and water temperature gauges. There was still no rev counter though. A different front grille and a platform over the spare wheel and battery in the boot completed the modifications to the faster, sportier Mini.
The Cooper only came into existence because of pressure from John Cooper to make a faster engine and give the Mini the capability to win races. Rauno Aaltonen gave the Mini its first taste of victory in 1963, winning his class and coming third overall at the Monte Carlo Rally. It was all uphill from there as the new Mini Cooper S went on to win in 1964. This was a faster model going from a 997cc to a 1,071cc and boosting the top speed by 12mph. With the vastly improved acceleration time shaving off six seconds from the previous time, the Cooper S was unstoppable. Victory continued the following year with another upgrade to the engine, now a 1,275cc. This went on to become the standard engine for the Cooper S after proving itself in the rally by not picking up a single penalty point. 1966 brought a triple win for the Coopers quickly followed by disqualification due to the French cheating, but in 1967 it proved itself by winning yet again.
In 1964, the engines were bumped up from 997cc to 998cc with the difference near-on impossible to see when you looked under the bonnet. There isn’t even a badging change to be found anywhere. The 997cc was unique to the original Coopers with BMC not using it in any other production car. By contrast, millions of the 998cc were made and used in a variety of other models. Official figures showed that the improved engine was slightly more powerful, had more torque and as it was ‘squared-up’ therefore revved higher and smoother.
In 1963, after much persuading, the very first 1,071cc Cooper S went on sale to the public. Most of the differences between it and the Cooper revolved around engine tuning but the brakes were also enlarged and thickened, giving 80% more resistance. Although it was a 1,071cc that won the Monte Carlo Rally, it was a special-order model and was officially dropped just a few months after its launch. The 1,071cc was designed simply as an interim product while design and production of the two classic S-type engines was being completed.
The 1,275cc engine was the first of these two to be completed, using a new long-stroke crankshaft and the same bore used in the 997cc Cooper engine. June 1964 brought the final S-type engine, the 970cc. It had the same block and large bore but had a 61.91mm stroke, unique to only that A-series engine and created purely for use in racing in the under1-litre touring car class.
One of the main issues with the Cooper S was that BMC refused to make it ‘too sporty’. In the words of the Competitions Manager Stuart Turner, the car would have been considerably sportier “…if Sales hadn’t insisted that it be usable by the district nurse!” This mentality created a huge tuning industry to overcome the limitations on the S-type engines, fulfilling the potential of them where BMC refused. With a sportier camshaft grind, the engine had the potential to be much more torquey. But BMC wanted their cars to appeal to the masses. It had to be as easy to drive and nippy in heavy traffic as its predecessors, not just a road-legal rally car.
VANS, ESTATES AND PICK-UPS
When Mini was first launched, there may not have been any estate versions available but BMC had always planned to slot them into the line-up. The Mini at Longbridge had replaced the Austin A34 of which over 140,000 vans and estate versions had been built so it was a no-brainer that there would be a Mini replacement of some sort. Trying to turn such a small car into an estate car of any use meant making it 10in longer and considerably heavier to ensure the load capacity had some benefit. Issoginis had drawn up plans for a longer wheelbase some time before the MkII was launched, eventually using it for the estates, vans and pick-ups.
In the summer of 1960 the vans and the estates were first launched. The front end of them was identical to the saloon with the big change being made to the box-like rear to create either an estate or just a van. The main difference between the two was that the van had a metal floor whereas the estate had a rear bench seat. Later on, BMC announced an option to have the bench seat fitted in the vans as well but there would be no rear windows. Both had two half-doors rather than the single door more commonly found on estates and the polished wood on the estates was just purely for show.
All were decked out to the same standard as the De Luxe saloon with a heater and screen washers coming as standard. The rear side windows were also lockable and there was a removable floor panel over the spare wheel as well.
The earlier models had a roof vent but this was removed in 1966 with the exception of some special-orders.
Although the van was designed to be a commercial vehicle, the handling was as good as the saloon and as cheap to run. Because it was also cheap to buy, the Mini van became an extremely popular car, being sold right up until the early Eighties.
The pick-up came with the option of a canvas tilt cover and had a 20sq ft load platform. The first ones featured a full-width rear bumper but by 1963 this was swapped in favour of the two quarter-bumpers that came as standard on the van.
In 1967 the vans and pick-ups both had the engine option of the 998cc as well as the 848cc, in line with the saloons, but they kept their door bins and sliding windows, as well as the body-coloured grilles. That same year, the AA announced that it was abandoning the motorcycle in favour of the Mini van.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
- Much noisier and draughtier than their saloon sisters so they won’t give you the most comfortable experience.
- They’re also a lot colder so invest in one with a heater for the chilly winter months.
- The engines don’t like super-wet conditions and water spray can cause the distributor to start misfiring.
- Early floorpans were notorious for leaking though almost all will have been swapped by now.
- With the sliding windows having a tendency to stick, you may find that the door bins will fill with water as well, leading to the problem of wet floors.
- Oil also sometimes leaks onto the clutch plate from the main crankshaft oil seal so keep a close eye on this.
- No rev counters were fitted to these early models so be aware of the engine starting to whine in protest at high speeds.
- The windows have the same sliding glass as the saloons so the wet floor may still be an issue.