Last week I was bemoaning the disappearance of cars that I’d once taken for granted as everyday sights – those of which there seemed to be so many that, for better or worse, we’d never run out. Well, they didn’t come any more commonplace than BMC’s masterstroke, the Mini. I went on to use the word ‘iconic’ to describe the Ford Capri, and in motoring terms I’d say that was fairly reasonable – the ‘I word’ gets bandied around a lot today, and though I’m loathe to overuse it, I think I’m duty-bound to say the same of this week’s car, only Sir Alec Issigonis’ creation is deserving of the term in a much wider sense.
In the years since their creation, only two cars have regularly found their way into galleries and exhibitions, their designs worthy, by any standards, of repeated celebration, largely because each perfectly embodies a philosophy of purposefulness: the E-Type Jaguar could exist only to be fast, whilst the Mini was the very image of efficiency. Born of the petrol rationing which followed the Suez Crisis, and the resultant boom in the sales of bubble cars, the Austin Seven or Morris Mini Minor was released in 1959, and clearly offered an infinitely superior motoring experience to the Messerschmidts and Isettas, which were little more than scooters with enclosed bodywork. Happily, it was also immediately apparent to Issigonis’ chum John Cooper that the little car might have competition prospects, and in spite of some initial resistance the board of BMC agreed to have him lend his name to a performance tuned version, one which would pass into racing legend. An incredible run of rallying successes included three Monte Carlo victories (which would have been four consecutively had it not been for an unfair disqualification in ’66) whilst the likes of John Love and Sir John Whitmore took home the honours on the touring car circuit.
As the sixties progressed the Mini became an automotive incarnation of the zeitgeist, its total lack of pretentiousness in itself a statement for the in-crowd, customers included George Harrison as pictured here.
As the sixties progressed the Mini became an automotive incarnation of the zeitgeist, its total lack of pretentiousness in itself a statement for the in-crowd, customers including The Beatles, The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith and racing fanatics Peter Sellers, James Garner and Steve McQueen, the latter pair famously thrashing their Coopers through the Hollywood hills. The Mini was a blank slate, capable of becoming anything to anyone, yet always remaining instantly recognisable, from George Harrison’s heavily psychedelicized one-off to the sporty Cooper, to the family Clubman, the eccentric Moke and the utilitarian pick-up and van models.
By the close of the decade the Mini had outgrown both the Austin and Morris names, becoming a marque unto itself, but though sales would remain high for another decade, its time in the sun was drawing to a close. When, with a typical lack of foresight, British Leyland saw fit to sever ties with Cooper over relatively insignificant royalty payments it was quite clear that the ongoing development of the Mini was no longer a priority. By this time affordable alternatives from the likes of Fiat, DAF, Honda et al were being imported en masse and the novelty of a comfortable and efficient small car had begun to wear off, it had instead become a contest to build the best, a contest Leyland were ill-equipped to win.
It’s ironic that BMW, former purveyor of bubble cars, should have reinvented the Mini as something, well, not particularly miniature, for if ever the tarmac arteries of Britain were in need of just such a car, it’s now.
You can see the Wheeler Dealers working on a classic Austin example on Shed (August 19th at 8pm).
Exhaust Notes 9 - Ford Capri - The Car You Always Promised Yourself
Exhaust Notes 8 - Jensen Interceptor - The Forgotten Heirr