Has there been a single British car in automotive history that has been more iconic and quintessentially British than the Mini? It is all a matter of opinion, but looking at it from an objective point of view, the answer is probably not.
There may be a handful of British cars out there that each of us like more than the Mini, but in terms of worldwide association with Britain, the Mini surely must be the clear winner. There are other cars which came into being in the sixties which are also iconic as British cars from that decade, such as the Jaguar E Type or the Triumph Spitfire. But it is important to note that those two are sports cars and in that sense they had a head start – they were always much more likely to become popular because they were designed to look sporty and turn heads. The Mini wasn’t – let’s not forget that it was just a small economy car – a city car. But so was the Reliant Robin – so why hasn’t that become popular? (Well, probably because it doesn’t look particularly nice and has only three wheels. It has, however, gained quite a ‘cult’ following, in a way.)
In 1999, the ‘Car of the Century’ was was elected. There were 26 nominees – whittled down from 200 cars initially – and then the best five were elected by a specialist jury. The results were announced at an awards ceremony in Las Vegas. The Mini came second – beaten only by the Ford Model T, which was undoubtedly picked because it was the first mass-produced and ‘affordable’ car, and because it was manufactured using the assembly line method that Henry Ford was so enthusiastic about. The Mini was second in the list, then the Citroen DS, then the Volkswagen Beetle, with the Porsche 911 coming in fifth (the only sports car in the winning five, interestingly).
So what is it about the Mini that caused it to become such a symbol of British sixties culture? Was it the classic 1969 film The Italian Job, famously starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward, or is there more to it than that?
The Mini was designed for the British Motor Corporation by Sir Alec Issigonis, the legendary Greek-British car designer who was so admired that he was nicknamed ‘the Greek god’. He started designing the Mini in 1956 because he was given the task of coming up with a design for a smaller car which would not use as much fuel as other British cars which were being manufactured at the time. This was because there was a general fuel shortage in 1956 which was brought about by the Suez Crisis. This trouble in Egypt and the Gaza Strip meant that the British needed to start being more careful in regards to how they were using their fuel – petrol was even rationed. This meant that the sales of larger cars began to plummet, and so in an effort to prevent German bubble cars becoming the new British everyman’s car, the British Motor Corporation sought to design their own economy car.
The head of the British Motor Corporation, Leonard Percy Lord, 1st Baron Lambury (the most British-named man in the history of the universe), apparently hated the above-mentioned German bubble cars with intense passion, vowing to rid the streets of them entirely – and this is where Issigonis came into the equation. Perhaps the reason for this level of hatred was down to the fact that at this point the Second World War had only been over for little more than a decade. Lord also criticised their design and aesthetic though, saying that he would have a city car made which was a ‘proper’ miniature car.
Issigonis was renowned for his skills in designing small cars with strictly compact measurement requirements – he had designed the Morris Minor in the late forties. For this reason he was recruited by the British Motor Corporation and worked with a small team, which included a man called Jack Daniels (no, not whiskey man – he was Jack Daniel and moreover was long dead by now) with whom Issigonis had worked on the design of the Morris Minor. By the back end of 1957, Issigonis and his team had completed their design and constructed the first prototype Mini, which was orange in colour (and therefore dubbed ‘the Orange Box’). At this stage the car was still officially known by its project code, ‘ADO15’ (the letters standing for ‘Amalgamated Drawing Office’).
The Morris Mini-Minor was subsequently developed for production and was unveiled to the media in April of 1959, but was not to be put on sale until later on that year, in August. Therefore, it could be said that despite the fact that the Mini has been extensively associated with the ‘Swinging Sixties’ for many years now and on many platforms, that it is in actual fact very much a product of the 1950s. Had there not been the Suez Crisis in 1956, who knows, maybe the Mini would never have come into being – at least not as we know it.
The Mini was rather innovative in its design under the bonnet too – it had front wheel drive and a transversely mounted engine, which enabled such a decent engine to be packed tightly and fitted into a small car. That is one of the most remarkable things about the Mini – the fact that it really was so small. Indeed, its name does kind of give that away, but the car was only ten feet long and four feet wide – and could fit four people in it. Granted, for long journeys which required luggage, the car may not have been that ideal, but there was a little bit of boot space (probably not enough for a family’s luggage). That said, though, the Mini’s optimisation of cabin space (particularly passenger space) is totally jaw-dropping when you stand back and look at it. Fifty-odd years on now, we probably have not made a single car which has been as clever in this regard as the Mini was.
The suspension system also saved a lot of space and allowed for the Mini’s small size. Instead of the springs which are commonplace in suspension systems, the car implemented rubber cones. The system was designed by Dr Alexander Eric Moulton, who was good pals with Issigonis, and a keen inventor and engineer. Throughout his life’s work he focused on the design of suspension systems, so naturally he was the first person Issigonis thought of. The rubber cones were built into the car’s subframes, which some remarked made the car handle like a go-kart – something which some motorists would have got a kick out of, whilst other would have found in inconvenient and uncomfortable.
The British Motor Corporation branded the Mini under both the Morris and Austin names initially, for the first decade in fact. Morris called it the ‘Mini-Minor’, which is of course a nod to the Morris Minor and the fact that this car was even more ‘minor’ than the Minor. Austin, on the other hand, sold the car under the name ‘Seven’ and ‘Se7en’ (that’s right – like that really good detective film starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman). In 1961, the ‘Seven’/’Se7en’ name was scrapped by the British Motor Corporation, and from then on the Austin versions of the car were known as the Austin Mini.
Initially, the Mark I Mini sold somewhat slowly, but as the 1960s progressed, sales improved year by year. Throughout the decade, over a million Minis were produced. The Mark II Mini had a much shorter lifespan – they ran from 1967 until 1970, but 429,000 were made. The front grill boasted a new look on the Mark II, and its rear windshield was a bit bigger (those are the most instantly noteable differences, though there are more).
Nothing sells cars like celebrity endorsement. Over the years there have been many famous Mini owners. Hollywood legend and racing enthusiast Steve McQueen purchased a 1967 Mini, which is quite a little-known fact these days – he is more well-remembered for his motorbike racing and his Ford Mustangs and Ferraris. In typical McQueen fashion, the 1967 Mini that he bought was one of the faster ones – the Mini Cooper S 1275. Other famous Mini owners were David Bowie, sixties fashion designer Mary Quant, Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland (her out of The Wicker Man who, you know, yeah, her), Clint Eastwood, John Lennon, and even Twiggy. So this small economy car – which let’s not forget had only been designed as a way to combat the British fuel shortage of 1956 – had garnered some serious endorsement from celebrities. Not only were many of the above celebrities who were well-recognised by the public, but they were also ‘style icons’, and therefore what they thought was ‘cool’ was cool. It still works that way today, but to a lesser extent.
No article about the Mini and how it is such an iconic car would be complete without mentioning the starring role(s) the car played in Peter Collinson’s 1969 crime caper classic, The Italian Job. Michael Caine’s line – “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” – is one of the most revered and repeated in British film history, and its cliffhanger ending (quite literally) is one of the most memorable. However, The Italian Job is most certainly best remembered for the three Mini Cooper S’s – one red, one white, one blue – which are used in the heist scene that takes place in Turin. The Minis are all part of an ingenious plot to steal millions of pounds worth of gold which is being transported – they act as the getaway vehicles. They are perfect for performing the function of a getaway car, as they are a city car which is able to manoeuvre in tight spaces – such as the streets and shopping arcades of Turin – and, as we have already covered, they are more spacious inside than you might think!
There is a fairly abysmal (but almost enjoyably so) remake which you may or may not have seen, and that was made in 2003 and stars Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron. It does incorporate the Mini into the plot, though, which is nice. One of the characters has an original model, which is a nice nod to the original film, and the Minis used in the remake’s action and chase sequences are the the 2003 Mini Cooper S models – which are of course more resemblant of the Minis which are produced today. 32 custom-built Mini Coopers were used for the action sequences, and many of them had to be modified in order to allow for cameras to be placed inside or mounted on them. This does indeed sound like a lot of effort and waste of perfectly good cars, but you couldn’t make an Italian Job remake without using Minis, could you?! Besides, one would imagine that sales rocketed somewhat following the release of the film (even if it wasn’t very good!) so it probably served as a decent advert for the 2003 Mini Cooper S.
So why has it become so iconic and popular?
It is not really very clear; there seem to be a number of factors. Part of the popularity was most probably down to the fact that a number of celebrities had purchased models of the car throughout the sixties and seventies, and were photographed in or with them. For anyone who saw these photographs at the time, this would have appeared as though that celebrity was (unofficially) endorsing the car – which was often the case. There are many photographs out there on the web which show sixties and seventies icons and their Minis – some which you might not expect. Give it a Google!