A Look Back at the Three Generation of the MINI Cooper & Cooper S

As MINI gears up to release the entirely new MINI Cooper and Cooper S in early autumn it’s time for a look back and where the model has come from. The idea, hatched by brilliant Formula One designer John Cooper, to fuel the agile small car with an extra hit of performance and a car for the road and track has lost none of its appeal. But the Cooper has never been about horsepower, as a comparison between the classic Mini and its two successors resoundingly proves. The key here is the basic principle of the creative use of space, combined with the inimitable go-kart feeling that runs like a thread through the three generations.

Whether your a classic, R50/53 or a R56 fan, it’s hard to argue with the incredible success of the little car from the UK or the experience behind the wheel.


The small British car positively craves twists and turns demanding quick and precise changes in direction; this is where it feels most at home. The classic Mini was tailor-made for tackling hairpins and corner-strewn roads, and it still looks the part today – aided by the healthy 46 kW/63 hp available in a Mini Cooper towards the end of its production run. The classic Cooper was built up to autumn 2000, by which time its successor was already twitching in the starting blocks. In contrast to the original Mini, the new model was available in Cooper guise from the outset. And with 85 kW/115 hp under the bonnet, it would do its nameplate proud. From the word go, the car’s powerplant and chassis formed a harmonious alliance to deliver unbeatable driving fun. As John Cooper realised, sometimes you actually can’t have too much of a good thing. 50 years ago he unveiled the 70 hp Mini Cooper S. And today, its youngest descendant places 135 kW/184 hp at the disposal of its driver. As if that wasn’t enough, the turbocharged engine powering the latest MINI Cooper S also sets the benchmark for efficiency in its output class.


When Alec Issigonis set out to develop a new small car for the British Motor Corporation in the mid-1950s, his priorities were space and price. Indeed, at a touch over three metres in length, the classic Mini offered astonishingly generous accommodation for passengers and their gear alike. Issigonis settled on a front transverse installation for the four-cylinder engine, under which lay the gearbox, plumb between the wheels. The positioning of those wheels at the far corners of the car and the Mini’s short overhangs did the rest. The Mini was small on the outside but roomy on the inside, not to mention – at around 600 kilograms – extremely light. The principles underpinning its design remain the template for small and compact cars in the modern era.

However, it was left to another key figure in the brand’s history to uncover the vast well of sporting talent under that diminutive shell. John Cooper, a friend and business partner of Mini creator Issigonis and winner of two Formula One constructors’ world titles, was quick to spot the car’s dynamic potential, and in 1961 the first Mini Cooper hit the roads. Production of the Cooper was temporarily suspended in the 1970s, but by that time the Mini Cooper badge had long since become the signature of a sporty and agile small car.


As well as the intervention of John Cooper, the launch of this famous sporting career also relied on the brilliance of the classic Mini’s chassis. Issigonis had broken new ground with the steering and suspension of his new creation, and in so doing laid the foundations for the go-kart feeling appreciated by drivers to this day. Homokinetic joints reduced torque steer, a subframe (to which the rear wheels were fixed) improved directional stability, and rubber springs and small telescopic dampers ensured accurate responses and progressive spring action. The wealth of ideas packed into this small car still impresses. And the result of those ideas – the classic Mini’s much-celebrated handling – explains why the car continues to enjoy such a loyal community of fans. When the successor to the original car came along in 2001, it was clear that highly advanced chassis technology would be needed in order to set the pace in driving fun all over again. The MINI Cooper rose to the challenge in some style, thanks to MacPherson spring struts at the front axle, axle shafts equal in length, a multi-link rear axle unique in the small car segment, disc brakes on all four wheels, and DSC (Dynamic Stability Control).

The latest-generation MINI Cooper S also features Electric Power Steering with Servotronic function and a DSC system including DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) and an electronic locking function for the front axle differential. Known as Electronic Differential Lock Control (EDLC), this system gives the MINI a crucial edge through the tight bends of Alpine passes, for example, by braking a spinning wheel as required to enhance drive out of corners as well as the car’s steering properties. Added to which, pressing the standard Sport Button in the MINI Cooper S makes the steering even more direct and stirs up a particularly sporty soundtrack from the engine. All of this was unimaginable 50 years ago, of course, but you get the impression John Cooper would have wholeheartedly approved.

  • bluzeke

    Brilliant head-on comparison shots.

    • ulrichd

      It also highlights how much taller the R56 front end seems compared to the sloping R50. Curses on you, new Euro pedestrian impact standards 🙂 I eagerly await to see how MINI designers have resolved this on the F56.

      • bluzeke

        Yeah – I call it Bonnet DEVO.

      • piper

        I agree 100%. The higher profile hood detracts from the design and eliminates the beautiful contours of the fenders.

        • There are a lot of details about the R56 that I dislike, but the higher belt line is the one thing that makes that car look great in my opinion. My R53 looks outdated in comparison, at least in terms of that proportion. That said, I’ve never liked the rear end on the R56 hatch. Don’t like the bigger hips and arse. This is also why I love the look of the Clubman so much. It’s got the better rear.

        • Captain

          Likewise. Though I have owned a Clubman since ’08 and I am biased. I hope they do not torch it too bad when it jumps platforms.

        • All our info says the Clubman will remain. Although it will apparently evolve into more of a “shooting brake” which in modern interpretation could mean lots of things. Expect a club door on each side and a rear profile more like the Paceman.

        • Nick Dawson

          Don’t hold your breath on there being two club doors on F54. One reliable source has stated that two conventional rear doors, similar to those on F55, are more likely. Intriguingly, a more recent source has stated that there will be no rear passenger doors. The latter information is certainly more in line with the idea that Clubman 3 will have a more sporting shooting brake style. The rear barn doors, however, are a MINI iconic feature and are said to continue on F54, so it’s unlikely to have a Paceman rear profile.

    • Nick

      The R50 hood and fenders blend into a thing of beauty.

  • The car has seen many advances, but electric steering really bums me out. The road feel in the R56 is quite disappointing compared to the hydraulic steering in the R50/53. But electric steering seems inevitable now. I suppose there’s no car on the planet that will now give me the combination of value, mileage, handling and steering road feel that I want.

  • Gary

    Notice that, almost as a rule, whenever photo evidence is used to illustrate the brilliant design of the BMW MINI follow-on, invariably they choose the Justa as their preferred subject. 😉

  • Gary

    Notice that, almost as a rule, whenever photo evidence is used to illustrate the brilliant design of the BMW MINI follow-on, invariably they choose the Justa as the preferred subject. 😉

    • Very true. I wrote an opinion piece years ago about the design of all MINIs through the years. My conclusion: the R50 wins.

      • ulrichd

        I agree and have a particularly soft spot for the 02-04 models with the horizontal chrome bumperettes.

    • I don’t think there is a classier MINI than an early R-50 in Velvet Red with chrome accents and black roof.

      • To each their own of course. Never a fan of VR or black roofs on early cars. I loved BRG, black or Indi Blue with white and s-lites. They were heavy but they worked so well with that car.

  • I’m glad the R50 made this lineup. It IS truly a classic.