History of the British Mini
Nowadays, we in Britain are so used to passing a Mini in the street, parking next to one, hurrying across the road as one tucks sharpishly round the corner or, perhaps jumping into and driving a Mini, that the reaction of the public to the car’s introduction in 1959 is a little hard to take on board.
Everyone knew even before the Mini appeared that something ‘different’ was on the cards and the car’s launch became a well orchestrated media event. Sadly, there was a heck of a lot of national cynicism around at the time, and the first reaction of most folk was to guffaw at the very idea: the Mini didn’t fit the conservative view of what a car ought to be and it didn’t fit many people’s image of what the British Motor Corporation ought to be doing.
At that time, BMC were in the running for being the fourth largest car manufacturing company in the world (in contrast to today’s sad and sorry position of being the smallest mass-producers in Europe) and their new car had to be something special. The first crop of post-war motor cars were ageing, the first petrol crisis (Suez, 1956) had brought a new dimension to the needs of the motoring public and the general level of affluence had risen. Folk could afford more, and manufacturers were rising to the challenge. Most car makers gave people new cars which were simply pretty new wrappings neatly folded around boxes which contained much the same as before. Of course, there were technical improvements to be made but you could hardly describe anything that the contemporary opposition was to offer as a quantum leap forwards. It’s probably an over-simplification to say that Ford merely modified the perfect to make the Anglia; that Renault dressed up the 4CV and called it the Dauphine; or that Triumph rebuilt the Standard 10 as the Herald. Of course, Renault for instance, invested the Dauphine with real chic, (though with diabolical road-holding) and an advertising campaign that now features in marketing history textbooks as a ‘classic’, but the Renault Dauphine was hardly as new as its image. The Mini, in contrast, came . . . from where?
It’s often said that there’s nothing new in this world, and to an extent that is perfectly true. Even the Mini, regarded by many as a ‘new’ breakthrough, was the sum of many individual parts with their own background and development histories. The most venerable part of the car was its engine.
Alec Issigonis, the Mini’s designer, was told right from the start that he would have to use the BMC A-series engine as the basis of his new car and time has shown that to have been a wise move. The car was sufficiently innovatory without having to run the risk of using an unproven engine too, and the 848cc version of the A35/Minor engine was a great success from almost every angle. It was a direct development of the unit which had first seen service in 1951 in the Austin A30 and which was itself essentially a smaller version of the 1200cc Austin A40 unit; this was later to become known as the B-series engine and find fame in enlarged form when fitted to the MGA and MGB amongst several other models. The smaller A-series engine was originally of 803cc capacity and was a conventional four-cylinder with a three bearing crankshaft running in thin-wall bearings. One of its most notable features was its highly efficient cylinder head, designed by Harry Weslake, an independent consultant, who discovered that a heart-shaped combustion area with a protruding peninsula between inlet and exhaust valves permitted gases to swirl and so promoted more complete and efficient combustion of the mixture. The engine was used in the Austin A30 and Morris Minor until 1956 when it was enlarged to 948cc and the cars renamed Austin A35 and Morris 1000 respectively. Actually, the engine was redeveloped rather than simply enlarged, its bores being siamesed (ie: losing the water jackets that were previously situated between them) and lead-indium crankshaft bearings were accompanied by great improvements in crankshaft and connecting rod strength and bearing sizes.
Having dealt with the engine, let’s take a look at the rest of the car where there are ideas that seem to have come from nowhere but the brain of the brilliant designer Alec Issigonis. The gearbox was placed beneath the engine, sharing its engine oil with the unit ‘upstairs’ because, in all logic, that was the only place it could go in order to meet Issigonis’ design criteria for the car. A front mounted, transverse engine was a ‘must’ if maximum passenger space was to be made available and an in-line configuration gave an intolerably poor steering lock. (In fact, it could be that Issigonis was influenced by the stillborn Alan Lanburn economy car of 1952 with engine over gearbox transverse layout — after all, Issigonis corresponded with Lanburn when the idea was offered to Alvis where Issigonis was working at the time.)
The tiny wheels, which seemed especially small by comparison with the chariot-sized wheels fitted to other contemporary cars, such as the ‘sit-up-and-beg’ Ford Popular, were deemed necessary to give the required amount of additional passenger space inside the car while the partnership with rubber suspensions provided the ideal foil to the problems of excessive harshness which small wheels can produce on rough roads. Rubber suspension proved ideal for the Mini for a number of other reasons, too. The car was so light, weighing in at only around 1300 pounds, that the addition of four occupants could easily add 50% to the all-up weight! Any conventional springing system designed to put up with that sort of loading would have been unduly stiff at low load levels, or would have possessed the length of suspension travel of the lean-happy Citroen 2CV, which Issigonis clearly did not want. Rubber, however, has the useful quality of becoming progressively stiffer as it is depressed, which fitted the bill perfectly. In addition, of course, the small amount of room taken up by the suspension gave another space-saving bonus.
The Mini’s ten-inch wheels were all its own and were developed by Dunlop after Issigonis approached them with his requirements. It is said that Dunlop’s researches actually began with an examination of an eight inch wheel, but it was found that such a small size left insufficient room for brakes. Even the idea of a ten-inch wheel broke with all tradition and meant that new ground had to be covered in its design. Of course, bubble cars had used wheels of this size but only in conjunction with skinny tyres, poor performance and light loadings. There were some initial problems with ensuring that the tyres remained located on the wheel but these were overcome by increasing the depth of the rim. Issigonis’ thinking with regard to small wheels was not an over-night revelation but the end result of progressive thinking in that direction. When Issigonis designed the Morris Minor just after the Second World War, he stood it on 14 inch wheels, while the contemporary Morris Eight used 17 inch diameter wheels and even the ‘baby’ Fiat of the day, the ‘Topolino’, used 15 inch wheels. When the time came to design the Mini, his daring innovation on the Minor had become the norm and another leap of imagination was required.
The point that evolution played its part in the design of the Mini is worth making here. Even the rubber suspension idea had been around for some time and, indeed, Issigonis had used it as early as 1939 in his hillclimb car the ‘Lightweight Special’ (although in a different form) and Alex Moulton, another notable innovator of the age, had developed the basic thinking behind the suspension (before, incidentally, going on to market his own ‘mini’, the Moulton Special small-wheeled bicycle with its own rubber suspension system).
The final piece in the technological jigsaw was the acquisition of a suitable type of constant velocity joint to drive the wheels. The problem with the traditional Hookes type of c.v. joint, as any owners of an early 2CV will appreciate, is that the ‘velocity’ imparted is less than ‘constant’, especially at lower speeds and full lock; in fact it was felt that this type of joint would give an unacceptable degree of snatch and feedback through the steering wheel. Hardy Spicer were commissioned to examine the problem and found a joint which was already in very low volume production and used in connection with submarine conning tower control gear. It had been designed as far back as 1926 by a Czech called Hans Rzeppa, and now its moment had come.
Strangely, in examining each of these key innovations one by one: the transverse engine, transmission in the sump, 10 inch wheels, small tyres and wheels, rubber suspension and true constant velocity joints, one does not gain a true impression of the impact of the whole car, not even when you consider the strides made in space, utilisation, weight saving and so on. The reason is that the Mini was conceived by Alec Issigonis as a total concept and that the components are only its necessary building blocks. The car as a whole adds up to much more than the sum of its parts, impressive though they may be. In the end, it’s what the Mini did and continues to do for ordinary folk that makes it so extraordinary. The individual ideas just had to be made to work in order that the original concept could function.