The Mini has its roots in 1956, in the wake of the Suez crisis.
Gasoline rationing had been introduced in the United Kingdom. Sir Leonard Lord, chairman of British Motor Corp., demanded a new small car to fend off competition from Germany. At the time, BMW had introduced its 'bubble car' in response to the fuel crisis.
Along came Alec Issigonis, a Turk by birth whose father was a naturalized Briton. After spending some time designing suspension systems for Hillman and Humber cars, Issigonis joined Morris in 1936. Asked to design a new small car, he visualized a box measuring approximately 300 centimeters by 120 centimeters, with 80 percent of that space for passengers and luggage, and just 60 centimeters for the powertrain.
To save space, Issigonis designed the Mini as a front-wheel-drive car. The logic of the Mini's packaging was inescapable; virtually every small car made today features a transverse engine and front-wheel drive.
Despite its innovative features, the Mini took time to become popular. The first year's production was fewer than 20,000 cars. Two years later, production topped 200,000 units, and it stayed consistently above this figure until 1977.
What was conceived as a fuel-efficient import-buster eventually became a stylish legend. To appeal to enthusiasts, British Motor produced a 'performance' model dubbed the Cooper S, which featured a 1.3-liter engine that offered sportier performance than the base 848-cc engine. The car was versatile: You could drive it to the store for groceries, or you could win a world rally championship in it.
The front-wheel-drive Mini's handling became famous. It may not have been as quick in a straight line, but it could easily out-corner the tail-waggling rear-wheel-drive cars of the time. It did, however, call for a change in driving technique. The Mini introduced understeer to an entire generation of drivers.
The Mini had a tendency to keep plowing forward in the bends. The trick was to keep winding the steering wheel to bring the nose round. But many drivers lifted off the throttle instead. The result? Instant front-wheel grip, immediate oversteer and an appointment with the nearest hedge.
The car's interior was basic. The instrument panel featured a centrally mounted speedometer, fuel and oil gauge; a long, spindly, floor-mounted shifter that turned gear selection into a lottery. It had tiny foot pedals and a steering column that rose almost horizontally from the floor. There were no window winders - you just shifted the side panes backward or forward. Door handles were little more than loops of wire in the door cavities.
Many owners used to soup up performance with aftermarket add-ons, or paint the cars outrageous colors. Girls used to give their cars names, such as Mildred or Monica.
While the Mini was fun to drive, it was uncomfortable, particularly for tall motorists. Anyone taller than 180 centimeters would sit with his or her knees poking on up either side of the steering wheel. The ride was harsh, and some passengers could have used a chiropractor for a rubdown afterward. Many men my age who owned a Mini in their youth blame the car for middle-age back problems.
For 20 years the Mini was untouchable. But the car was finally eclipsed by the rise of the supermini in the late 1970s. Austin Rover, followed by Rover Group, tried to add sophistication to Issigonis' baby. But the Mini just never seemed right with walnut trim, leather seats and electric windows. The old Mini belongs in another world; it has moved from icon to dinosaur. Somehow I cannot see its successor having quite the same effect on automotive history.
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