The party starts today. 50 years ago today the first Mini rolled off the assembly line in England and changed the world. To celebrate we’d like to do something really exciting… like give away a beautiful British Racing Green 1963 Mini Cooper S. But we don’t have one. And if we did, we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t want to give it away either. So instead we’re re-publishing the 50th anniversary piece we posted a few weeks back to celebrate the brand, the day and the little car that changed everything. Enjoy!
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The following is an official history of the Mini/MINI over the last 50 years. It details the rise of the small car in 1950’s Britain to today’s success worldwide. If you don’t know much about Mini/MINI history, this is a must read. And as a bonus we’ve also included the largest gallery of official Classic Mini photos we’ve ever seen on the web much less posted on MotoringFile.
Official Release: Five decades full of driving excitement and individual style â€“ this, in a nutshell, is the history of MINI. But in its significance to the automobile world, MINI goes far beyond these achievements â€“ no matter how outstanding they may be â€“ alone. Indeed, only very few cars have characterised the development of the automobile in such an outstanding manner.
MINI has been the epitome of economical and, at the same time, desirable individual mobility for fifty years. And the characteristics of the classic Mini presented to the public for the first time in 1959 are interpreted by the current MINI in modern style. As before, of course, the philosophy is to combine compact dimensions with outstanding flair, superior fuel economy with genuine functionality.
Precisely these all-round qualities have made the MINI a truly timeless car over the years. But the fact remains that half a century of MINI history is now coming to an end. And MINI will be celebrating this great birthday in an appropriate manner, with a major fan event for the worldwide MINI Community being held in the home country of MINI.
The international meeting at the MINI United Festival 2009 not least symbolises the status of MINI as a global success. The unmistakable style of the brand, superior fuel economy and emission management, agile handling, a high standard of safety and premium quality â€“ these are features appreciated the world over. And the historical roots of MINI also offer a level of fascination nobody can escape. The anniversary of the brand is therefore the ideal time to take a look back into the exciting history of a truly exceptional car.
Alec Issigonis: a genuine visionary and the father of the classic Mini.
Alexander Arnold Constantine (Alec) Issigonis was the father of the classic Mini. Towards the end of 1956 he was requested by Leonard Lord, at the time the Chairman of British Motor Corporation (BMC), to build a â€œreal small carâ€ as quickly as possible.
Needless to say, Issigonis was thrilled by the idea, since the construction of a perfect small car had always been one of his favourite challenges. And now the time had come to develop his ideas on the drawing board and turn them into reality together with his team. His vision was to build a small four-seater making optimum use of the space available and offering superior comfort, a car completely different in technical and visual terms from anything else on the road at the time, and a car everybody was able to afford.
The Suez crisis tipped the scales.
The actual initiative for the project came from a man who actually had nothing to do with cars: On 26 July 1956 Gamal Abd el-Nasser, the President of Egypt, nationalised the Suez Canal Company just one month after the British troops had withdrawal from the Suez Canal Zone, and closed down the Canal. Even though the British and French, formerly the majority owners of the Company, immediately sent in paratroopers to protect the Canal, the waterway nevertheless remained closed for a number of months. As a result, the prices of oil and gasoline simply rocketed up and the British government even considered rationing gasoline to ten gallons a month. So it really looked as if in the long term only very economical cars would have a chance in the market at all.
Big plans with a small budget.
The objective was therefore clear: to develop a fuel-efficient small car taking up the great tradition of the pre-war Austin Seven and the legendary Morris Minor. Since at the time BMCâ€™s funds were very limited (as was also the case with many other car makers), Lord made sure that the cost of development was kept low and the development period short.
One of the prerequisites in building the future small car was therefore to use an existing engine from current production. British Motor Corporation (BMC) had been established in 1952 by the merger for important economic reasons of various British car makers, its brands including great names such as Austin, Morris, Riley, and Wolseley.
Compact and progressive: front-wheel drive, engine fitted crosswise.
Issigonis opted for a front-wheel-drive concept with the engine fitted crosswise in the car. The only engine to meet these requirements was the BMCâ€™s Series A power unit displacing 948 cc and developing 37 hp in the Morris Minor. And that was certainly more than enough, with the first test car reaching a speed of 150 km/h or 94 mph, which would certainly have demanded too much of such a small vehicle, since neither the suspension nor the brakes were designed for that kind of performance.
Engine output was therefore reduced to 34 hp and engine capacity was cut back to 848 cc, still enough for a remarkable top speed of 120 km/h or 75 mph.
A striking â€“ and, as was to be seen later, a characteristic â€“ feature of the classic Mini was the metal joints between the wings and the body of the car facing to the outside. The reason for this rather unconventional design feature was quite simply an economic consideration, with welding seams facing to the outside being much easier in production and, as a result, less expensive. The second result of cost-oriented production also clearly recognisable at very first sight was the door hinges positioned outside of the doors themselves.
It almost goes without saying that the interior also followed this minimalist philosophy, with the driver and passengers opening and closing the doors by means of a simple cord and with a small storage tray taking the place of a regular dashboard in front of the driver and front passenger. In the middle of the storage tray was a central instrument comprising the speedometer, mileage counter and fuel gauge. Further down there were two toggle switches for the screenwipers and the lights, with heating available only at extra cost.
Even the De-Luxe model embellished by chrome trim came in standard trim without a heater, but did boast carpets, leather appliquÃ©s on the seats and an ashtray.
Light in weight but with lots of space.
With its engine fitted crosswise, front-wheel drive, steep tailgate and the principle of fitting â€œone wheel at each cornerâ€, the classic Mini stood out clearly from all other cars then on the road in Europe. Weight of the classic MINI in standard trim was about 600 kg or 1,325 lb. At the same time the car offered adequate space for four, even allowing the passengers to take along a bit of luggage. And if the 195-litre (6.8 cu ft) luggage compartment was not sufficient, all you had to do was leave the tailgate open. In fact, with the lid to the luggage compartment pivoting at the bottom, the driver and passengers were able to place bulky objects on the lid and fasten them more or less safely in position. This was indeed by no means just a special idea for the enthusiast, but was rather presented in bright colours in the carâ€™s sales brochures showing the customer how to enlarge his luggage capacity!
Making its debut on 26 August 1959.
The big day came on 26 August 1959 with the classic Mini making its debut at exactly the same time in all countries in which BMC was represented. The car initially entered the market in two variants, as the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven, which differed only through their radiator grille, body colours and wheel caps.
However, they did come from different production plants, with the Austin being built in Birmingham, the Morris in Oxford, although later BMC built both versions at both plants. Back home in Great Britain the classic Mini retailed at Â£ 496, making it the second-lowest-priced car in the market.
The â€œIncredible Austin Sevenâ€ â€“ with the â€œvâ€ turned by 90Â° on the first advertising photo â€“ entered the market against competitors which, while being more expensive, had already proven their qualities in Europe: the Volkswagen, the Renault Dauphine, or the Fiat 600.
â€œThe Autocarâ€, Britainâ€™s legendary motor magazine, gave the new car very good coverage right from the start: â€œWhile fashion often leads to big blunders also in the car market, the results achieved by clever and knowledgeable engineers concentrating on a specific challenge may by all means be very good.â€
Although the newcomer from Britain was able to hold its own against the competition also in international motor magazines, sales started rather slowly in a sluggish process. Young purchasers felt that the Mini was still too expensive despite its low price, customers with more money regarded the car as too spartanic. And the German car magazine â€œMotor Revueâ€ expressed a clear view on the Austin Seven in 1960 in a comparative test: â€œBy far the most interesting of all contenders (leaving aside the price). But precisely this is why this miracle car (rubber springs, four-cylinder engine mounted crosswise, engine and transmission in one common oil sump, cheap 10-inch tyres, unusually large interior, small footprint on the road) is hardly to be seen in our country. Actually the Mini would deserve more recognition, since customers here often spend more money on less perfect cars â€“ but purchasers in our country lack that clear vision.â€
Back then the classic Mini retailed in Germany at DM 5,780.-, while a Volkswagen came for DM 4,600.- and the brand-new BMW 700 Sport was in the market at a price of DM 5,650.-.
Sales support straight from the Queen.
Even the fact that about 3 1/2 metres of parking space was quite sufficient for the classic Mini measuring only 3.05 metres or 120.1â€ in length did not have the anticipated impact. But then the big stars of Londonâ€™s society discovered this nimble little athlete, in particular Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaretâ€™s husband. And when Margaretâ€™s sister, the Queen herself, enjoyed a test drive in the classic Mini with nobody else but Alec Issigonis at the wheel, the Mini once and for all acquired the image it needed as a cult car.
Customers in the USA also showed increasing interest in that â€œtiny car from Europeâ€, giving it a warm reception on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1960, therefore, a leading US car journal expressed a clear view of the new model: â€œIt is fair to say that the Austin is the smallest fully-fledged automobile in the world. We must admit that even with four passengers you donâ€™t have any space problems inside the car â€“ in fact, you sit more comfortably than in one of our big domestic models. And although the Mini is great fun to drive, it is still a very real car, well built and with great options.â€
New variants from the first year of production.
With 19,749 units of the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini Minor coming off the production lines in 1959, production rocketed up to 116,677 units just a year later. And with growing success, the demands made by customers of the classic Mini increased accordingly. In 1960 BMC responded by introducing two new variants, the Van and the Estate. As particular highlights, both the closed Van and the Estate with glass windows all round came with two rear doors.
But it was not until 1961 that the classic Mini really showed all its qualities: This started at the beginning of the year with the introduction of the smallest transporter ever seen, the Mini Pick-Up. A bit more than half a year later two more prestigious models were introduced, the Wolseley Hornet and the Riley Elf with majestically upright radiator grilles and swallow-tail wings at the rear. And in the second half of the year a very special variant entered the market, destined to shape the legend of the classic Mini more than any other model: the Mini Cooper.
The athlete: the Mini Cooper.
Long before Alec Issigonis completed his legendary drawings of the classic Mini, he was already a good friend of John Cooper, the equally legendary designer and builder of racing cars. With BMCâ€™s Chief Engineer appreciating the competent opinion of his colleague, Cooper was indeed party to the development of the classic Mini right from the start. And the more the project started to become reality, the more Cooper was convinced that this new model entering the market would offer a very special asset he had been seeking to introduce for a long time, providing the foundation for a sports car able to compete with the Lotus Elite so popular back then. So once he got his hands on a classic Mini, he immediately starting tuning the car. Cooper contacted Issigonis right away, suggesting the development of a small GT based on the classic Mini. George Harriman, the new Chairman of BMC, was convinced by Cooperâ€™s idea and agreed to build a small series of 1,000 Mini Coopers to test public response.
Since the engine was not to displace more than one litre, Cooper set off the increase in stroke from 68.3 to 81.3 millimetres (2.69 to 3.20â€) by a reduction in bore from 62.9 to 62.4 millimetres (2.48 to 2.46â€), with engine capacity in the four cylinders thus amounting to exactly 997 cc. Compression was increased from 8.3 to 9.0, larger intake valves and dual carburettors also making their contribution.
Further modifications were the extra bore on the exhaust manifold and reinforcement of the crankcase reflecting the extra power of the engine.
Cooper also changed the individual gear ratios in the transmission in order to increase the carâ€™s top speed in each gear. With engine output now reaching 55 hp, top speed was approximately 136 km/h or 85 mph. And to provide the right kind of stopping power reflecting this extra engine power, Cooper fitted seven-inch Lockheed disc brakes on the front wheels.
Top performer: the Mini Cooper S.
With the response to this new model launched in September 1961 being quite euphoric, the only wish that still remained was to enjoy even more power. So Issigonis and Cooper increased the capacity of the 848-cc power unit to 1,071 cc, with output now reaching 70 hp.
Clearly, this extra power also meant higher speed, with the car now achieving a top speed of 160 km/h or 99 mph. John Cooper naturally also worked on the brakes as a result of this extra power, increasing disc diameter to 7 Â½â€, with the brake power of the Mini Cooper S making its debut in 1963 being boosted by a servo unit.
Final proof: the Monte Carlo Rally.
With the classic Mini being simply perfect for rally racing right from the start, six works cars set out for the 1960 Monte Carlo Rally just six months after the Mini had made its debut. But it took three years of learning until these small athletes were really able to compete. In 1963 Rauno Aaltonen scored Miniâ€™s first class victory, before the great day came in 1964: Taking on an armada of much more powerful competitors, Paddy Hopkirk brought home overall victory in Europeâ€™s most significant rally at the wheel of his red Mini Cooper S. To round off this outstanding triumph of Mini Cooper, his team-mates Timo MÃ¤kinen finished fourth and Rauno Aaltonen seventh.
This outstanding victory marked the starting point in the unparalleled career of the classic Mini as the worldâ€™s first grass roots sports car after the war, the small British racer beating many international stars both in rallies and on the track. Clearly, this gave the Mini an incredible image boost.
Bitter disappointment and triumphant return.
In 1965 MÃ¤kinen and his co-pilot Paul Easter continued the successful story of the Mini Cooper, winning the Monte Carlo Rally hands down. Indeed, MÃ¤kinen was the only driver in the entire race to cover the thousands of kilometres without one single penalty point.
A year later, therefore, the Mini squadron was once again seen as the big favourites in the Monte event. But things came differently: While MÃ¤kinen, Aaltonen, and Hopkirk finished first, second and third in the Rally, the winning car still had to go through an eight-hour technical approval by the commissioners. And ultimately they claimed that the four additional headlights on the front grille of the Mini Cooper were not exactly in line with French homologation requirements. This meant disqualification, one of the most contested and dubious decisions ever taken in the history of the Monte Carlo Rally.
The Mini Cooper returned to Monte Carlo once again in 1967, despite this bitter disappointment. This time the three musketeers Aaltonen, Hopkirk and MÃ¤kinen were supported by Simo Lampinen and Tony Fall. And Rauno Aaltonen, the â€œFyling Finnâ€ boasting starter number 177, was the fastest driver at the finish line. All other Mini Coopers also saw the chequered flag, with Hopkirk finishing sixth, Fall coming in tenth, Lampinen scoring fifteenth place, and MÃ¤kinen No 41.
1965: one million classic Minis.
In August 1964 BMC introduced yet another version of the classic Mini originally conceived for military use: the Moke, a unique four-seater open all round.
With the Mini Moke remaining in the pricelist for four years, Issigonis soon introduced the carâ€™s Hydrolastic suspension on the upmarket saloon models built in much larger numbers. In this semi-hydraulic suspension system the spring/damper units on the front and rear axles were connected with one another at the sides to provide extra motoring comfort.
The classic Mini remained an outstanding success, with annual production increasing to 244,359 units, a new record. A year later the classic Mini then broke the magic mark of one million units built, and in the same year Alec Issigonis and his team completed their automatic transmission included in the list of features.
This made the classic Mini one of very few small cars with such an upmarket option, especially because the automatic transmission requiring hardly any more place than a manual gearbox came with four forward gears, while even luxury cars back then generally had only three gears in automatic.
1967: model update.
In 1967 the classic Mini was ready for a thorough update. This meant a more powerful engine displacing 998 cc and, in particular, an increase in torque from 44 to 52 Newton-metres (up from 32.4 to 38.3 lb-ft). At the same time engine output was increased to 38 hp.
Two years later the modified Mini was joined by a second, slightly larger body variant with a different front end: the Mini Clubman. This special model was joined at the same time by the Mini Clubman Estate replacing the Morris Mini Traveller and the Austin Seven Countryman introduced back in 1960 and offering more space than before. Measuring 3,165 millimetres or 124.6â€ in length, the Mini Clubman was 11 centimetres longer than the classic Mini, while the Mini Clubman Estate measured 3,400 millimetres or 133.9â€ and came with even more flexible loading and transport options. Width, height and wheelbase, on the other hand, remained unchanged.
The Mini Clubman came as standard with a 38-hp 1.0-litre power unit, while the Mini Cooper was removed from the range and replaced by the top Clubman model, a 1.3-litre developing 59 hp and referred to as the Mini 1275 GT.
A number of other details also changed in 1969, with the front sliding windows featured by the classic Mini ever since the beginning being replaced on all models by wind-down windows, with the door hinges being moved to the inside, and with a special Mini logo on the engine lid.
1972: sales of the classic Mini reach three million units.
1972 was the most successful year of the classic Mini: Thirteen years after the car had made its debut, demand literally exploded once, again reaching a production volume of 306,937 units, among them the three-millionth model of this small performer now acknowledged as a genuine classic.
Small model updates introduced almost every year maintained the great appeal of the classic Mini, with Denovo wheels introduced for the Mini 1275 GT in 1974 as an early type of runflat tyres from Dunlop remaining on the wheel rims even without any tyre pressure. And in the same year purchasers of the basic model were able to enjoy the introduction of a genuine heater system now featured as standard.
Model specifications of the classic Mini moved in new directions once again in 1976, with special models featuring all kinds of highlights â€“ from sporting to fashionable, from distinguished to youthful â€“ finding purchasers everywhere.
The model range was then streamlined from 1980 â€“ 1983, the Clubman, the Estate and the Van being phased out of production. The only model still remaining, therefore, was the 1.0-litre classic Mini now developing 40 hp. And customers remained faithful to this great performer, with the five-millionth classic Mini coming off the lines at Plant Longbridge in 1986.
1990: return of the Mini Cooper.
Even after the Cooper models had officially reached the end of their days, John Cooper continued to develop and sell performance kits for the classic Mini. In 1990 the Rover Group now responsible for the classic Mini recognised the opportunities which presented themselves through this concept and decided to bring back the Mini Cooper.
Facing growing demands in terms of emission control, production of the 1.0-litre carburettor version ended in 1992, all models now featuring the 1,275-cc power unit with fuel injection.
An official convertible version developed in Germany and already sold in the German market was introduced in 1993.
Production of the classic Mini finally ended in the year 2000. By then more than 5.3 million units of this world-famous small car from Great Britain had come off the production lines in all kinds of versions, including some 600,000 units built at Plant Oxford between 1959 and 1968.
But even after 41 years there was still a great future, with the MINI One and the MINI Cooper opening up a new chapter in the history of the British brand in 2001.
MINI United 2009: anniversary party in the MINIâ€™s home country.
With the brand being re-launched under the roof of the BMW Group, the successful story of this unique small car from Britain started once again.
Introduction of the MINI into the market defined a new market segment â€“ the segment of the small premium car with worldwide presence and a wide range of customisation features. Like the classic Mini decades before, market forecasts were outperformed almost overnight, with sales of the MINI amounting to a million units within just six years after the carâ€™s launch into the market.
Today MINI enjoys growing popularity among customers in some 80 markets the world over and for a long time has been the fastest-growing premium brand in the global car market.
Production capacities at the substantially modernised Oxford MINI Plant have been enlarged several times in order to meet the increase in demand from one year to the next. In 2008 alone, for example, global sales of the Mini amounted to more than 232,000 units.
The Mini brand is celebrating its 50th birthday in absolute top form â€“ reason enough to go to a race track for this great event: The legendary Formula 1 track in Silverstone is certainly the ideal place for the Third MINI United Festival celebrating fifty years of MINI, with the international Mini Community meeting there from 22 â€“ 24 May 2009. MINI fans from all over the world, many of whom will be coming in their own car, will enjoy a unique combination in Silverstone of lifestyle parties, show programmes, music festival and motorsport action.
On the occasion the third and fourth races in the current MINI CHALLENGE season will be battled out on the race track. Indeed, the races in this popular Clubsport Series were already part of the MINI United Festival in former years. And as a further highlight classic Minis will also be on the startersâ€™ grid in Silverstone, the Mini Seven Racing Club sending some 50 classic Mini racing cars out on to the track. And last but certainly not least, Mini fans will be guided through the exciting history of the brand in a special exhibition held on the occasion.