John Cooper, the automotive engineer, enthusiast and sports-car driver who created one of the more notable chic fashion statements of London's swinging '60s, the Mini Cooper, is born July 17, 1923, in Surrey, U.K.
Alec Issigonis of the British Motor Corp. sketched the original Mini on the back of a cigarette pack in the late 1950s. But Cooper made the car one of the auto industry's venerable touchstones.
With an ingenious design, Issigonis devoted 80 percent of the car's space to passengers and just 20 percent to mechanical components. The layout did not permit room for a driveshaft, so the standard 850cc, four-cylinder engine -- and the four-speed gearbox -- were slotted above the driving wheels.
Soon after the Mini was launched, Cooper recommended to George Harriman, head of the British Motor Corp., a tuned-up version of the Mini. Harriman doubted that he could sell more than 1,000 but sales of Minis with Cooper's modifications topped 125,000.
Starting in 1961, Cooper created a special edition called the Mini Cooper, and in 1963, the higher-performing Cooper S. The Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S were available with bigger engines of 970cc, 1,071cc and 1,275cc. The Cooper models featured twin carburetors, front disc brakes, a shorter shift lever, higher gearing and wider tires. They became the most coveted Minis and a status symbol in England's capital and beyond.
Cooper was consulted regularly about improvements to the design and an entire family of Mini Cooper variants evolved over time. The Mini Cooper dominated rally racing for the rest of the 1960s, winning multiple championships and four consecutive Monte Carlo rallies from 1964 to 1967.
It was the first economy car to become a status symbol. Owners included King Hussein of Jordan and members of the Beatles. "Drive a Mini Cooper -- the most fun you can have with your clothes on!" the company declared in advertisements. "If your tyres survive more than 2,000 miles, you've driven like a wimp."
Its maneuverability was immortalized in the 1969 movie, The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine.
The Mini, which appeared as Austin and Morris models in Europe in 1959, was built continuously in England until 2000, with 5.3 million produced over time.
Mini became an independent marque in 1969 and replaced the separate Austin Mini and Morris Mini car model names.
The tiny car foreshadowed the wave of econoboxes in the 1970s and '80s, and its front-wheel-drive configuration, with the engine mounted sideways for space efficiency, was widely copied.
Cooper's father, Charles, was an engineer who worked in automobile design in the early years of auto racing. John Cooper's first job was an apprenticeship in one of his father's companies, and he went on to work for a toolmaker who specialized in equipment for England's Royal Navy.
He made aircraft instruments during World War II.
After the war, John and Charles teamed up to build race cars for the Formula Three and Formula Two racing circuits, with John Cooper as driver and co-designer.
Stirling Moss won the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix in a rear-engine, lightweight Cooper-Climax that went the entire race without a single pit stop for a tire change, a racing breakthrough that brought fame to the Cooper Car Co.
The company became the first British motor racing manufacturer to win the Formula One constructors' championship, which it captured two years in a row.
Cooper's Formula One ties declined and after his father's death in 1964, he sold the company and turned his attention to what would become the Mini Cooper.
In 2007, BMW officially acquired the John Cooper Works brand name from the Cooper family.