This year, 2019, marks the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the Mini, arguably the most innovative and best-loved small motor car in history. First produced in May, 1959 in the wake of the 1956 Suez oil crisis, during which supplies of crude oil to Britain were threatened by Egypt’s seizure and blockade of the Suez Canal, it was an instant success, and went on to sell more than five million copies over the forty years it was in continuous production, won three Monte Carlo Rallies, became a fashion icon adored by the Beatles and royalty alike, and added a new word to the English language after Mary Quant, the ‘Swinging Sixties’ dress designer, named her invention the ‘miniskirt’ in homage to the little car. In its second, larger, incarnation as a vehicle much-coveted and now BMW-owned, the Mini continues to sell around the world in large numbers today. It had a starring role in the 1969 film The Italian Job, a re-make of which appeared in 2003, but no Mini has yet won an Oscar for its acting. A protest is long overdue.
The Mini was the creation of the brilliant but eccentric engineer Sir Alec Issigonis, who had previously designed the best-selling Morris Minor. It was logical for him to name the new, smaller, car the Morris ‘Mini-Minor,’ its original name. Despite being only ten feet in length, it could park in a space less than twelve feet long, and carry four passengers and their luggage in surprising comfort, a feat achieved by an ingenious drop-down trunk lid and, more importantly, by the substitution of smaller wheels at each of the car’s four corners, a decision which gave it increased passenger space and stability in cornering, but shorter tire life. Other innovations included siting the engine in a space-saving east-west instead of the normal north-south configuration, giving it independent rubber cone suspension and front-wheel drive—then highly unusual for an ‘economy’ car—and placing the gearbox inside the oil sump. When Ford engineers bought a Mini to try to understand how its manufacturers could sell such a complex machine for such a low price, they concluded that it could not possibly sell at a profit. They were correct. It could not, yet for decades it was so beloved by the public that management kept selling it at a loss, saving money by fatally refusing to invest in updating it in any significant way over the years, nor did they make a serious attempt to equip the car for very different overseas markets. The heater was woefully inadequate in our first Mini, and only marginally better in the next two.