Launch and Development of the Mini
For what was virtually an all-new car, the Mini was designed and developed in incredibly short order and it now seems surprising that there were not more technical problems with the car than proved to be the case. However, there were problems, including those of oil getting onto the clutch and leaking floor-pans (the official and completely lame excuse was that final pre-production road testing was carried out during a particularly dry spell!). In fact, the car’s ‘newness’ and its faults, which were often blown up out of all proportion by the contemporary press, meant that initial sales were disappointing, many potential buyers showing great interest in the car but in the end preferring to stick with the known qualities of the Minor or A40.
In addition, the dealers were not entirely enamoured with the car. As Jeff Daniels says in his book, British Leyland: The Truth About The Cars, ‘It was not the car the dealers wanted’. Their spares and service departments took justified fright at some of the Mini’s complications. It was a cheap car, which made for low margins. Its early problems of unreliability swallowed a lot of time in warranty paperwork. None of that mattered – Lord had faith in lssigonis. In spite of all this, the show was on the road and the dealers, who had been given both Austin and Morris versions of the car, built at Longbridge in Birmingham and Cowley near Oxford in deference to their still-jealously guarded pre-BMC status, were later to cry all the way to the bank as the Mini sold and sold, giving them a continuing turnover on cars, parts, accessories and servicing. Moreover, in spite of the oft-repeated claim that BMC/B.L. Made a trading loss on the sale of Minis, the benefit that accrued from economies of scale in many shared components must have been enormous.
The Mini’s price-new caused some comment when it was launched (although the legendary below-f500 price tag is not confirmed by The Motor whose 1959 road test showed a price of £537. 6s. 8d., nor by Glass’s Guide of the day which gives a launch basic price of £506). Even so, only the old ‘upright’ Ford Popular (which was dropped in price by Ford from £444 in 1957 and ‘58 to £419 in 1959 to help clear their decks for the ‘New Popular’) was cheaper among small cars, and for that you still got an unmistakeably pre-war car! The more modern looking (but mechanically ordinary) ‘New’ Ford Popular was still £2 dearer than the Mini, the tiny Fiat 500 was priced at £525 and everything else, from Minor and A40 to Standard 8 and the Ford Anglia 105E ranged in the £603 to £665 price bracket. If the Mini seemed cheap in 1959, what of the 1963 price move which dropped the Mini’s price to a mere £455 and left it below the £500 mark until 1967? And yet, in retrospect, it may not have been only its low cost that turned the Mini into a big seller. Its extremely poor sales figures for 1959 can be discounted because of the fact that the car was not launched until the summer and because it is unlikely that production would have got properly under way. In 1960 the Mini sold a little over 100,000 units world-wide, in 1961 the figure was 150,000+ and by 1962, the figure had jumped to the over 200,000 level which was to become the minimum for almost a couple of decades. As people overcame their natural caution and came to accept the Mini as a normal piece of street furniture, they became more likely to buy it. In addition, the rich and famous had taken to the Mini like a new toy and created the image that the Mini was tres chic. Certainly once they had overcome their inhibitions, no one could have failed to have been impressed by the little car.
The Motor was impressed at launch, saying: ‘Characteristics which have often been thought utterly incompatible are combined amazingly well in the new 848cc Austin Seven. It is an exceptionally low-priced car which costs little to run, and its overall dimensions are extremely compact. Yet it carries four adults with space to spare, potters with conventional multi-cylinder smoothness or accelerates briskly up to a top speed of well over 70mph, rides comfortably and handles with exceptional precision’.
After it had had time to think the Mini over, The Motor published another road test, this time of the other Mini twin, the Mini-Minor. Apart from a small criticism of the size of the rear view mirror and the only semi-adequacy of the brakes, this mid-1960 road test was just as enthusiastic about the little car, pointing out that in spite of the Mini’s lack of inches, ‘far from needing to feel slightly apologetic about his rate of progress in a modern main-road traffic stream, the Mini-Minor owner is far more likely to be irked by bigger cars getting in his way.’
The Motor rounded off grandly: ‘In short, this 850cc BMC design is an outstanding example of advanced theory being proved to the hilt in practice, and it is doubly satisfying to find such a car emanating from a British factory at so modest a price.’
In May 1960 came the first of the many Mini variants when the Mini-van was launched. Utilising a longer wheelbase than the car but with almost identical mechanical specification, the Mini-van was one of the cheapest ways to whizz around, if you could put up with the lack of rear quarter visibility, a very high level of interior noise and the very real chance of being ‘nicked’ for exceeding 40mph in a goods vehicle which, as the author found to his cost, was likely to elicit a fine from the local Justice. BMC made available for the van an excellent folding rear seat conversion which, when folded down, reduced the carrying capacity not at all and, in conjunction with a pair of side windows, the Mini-van became a passenger vehicle capable of being piloted at speeds up to the legal maximum before the boys in blue took an interest.
In March of the same year, the Austin Mini Countryman was announced. It was a tiny estate car based upon the van but with the spare wheel where the van’s fuel tank went and with a saloon type tank. In the style of the Minor Traveller, the Mini had wooden ‘shooting brake’ embellishments at the rear, but unlike the Minor’s they were stuck on and not a part of the vehicle’s structure. The all-steel version of the Countryman was not made available in the U.K. Until October 1962 but it eventually replaced the ‘Woodie’ version. Later, in September, the Morris Mini Traveller version was announced. Early in 1961, the Pickup was introduced and proved to have great sales potential, especially in rural areas. All of the Commercial vehicles had a higher rear ride height, made so by the use of longer rear suspension trumpets.
Later in 1961, in October, a new Mini duo was launched called the Wolseley Hornet and the Riley Elf. Both front and rear of the car were revised while the whole appeal was somewhat more ‘up-market’, a trend which became even more apparent when leather replaced leathercloth for the wearing surfaces of the seats in 1962.
In September 1961, one of the most significant of all Mini developments took place when the first Cooper was introduced. The impact of the Cooper went beyond the requirements of those who wanted to embarrass owners of much larger cars; it led to successes on the international rally circuits on a hitherto almost unprecedented scale and it will be realised that it is no coincidence that from this point onwards, Mini sales figures really took off.
The Mini Clubman, introduced in May 1969, was an attempt to give the Mini a new look ‘on the cheap’. Several design studies had been carried out at Longbridge for a Mini replacement, including one with an overhead camshaft, all-aluminium engine of excellent promise, but all were scrapped on the grounds of cost and because of the presence of weak management prone to making a string of decisions of the sort which led to the eclipse of BMC and then BL as a major force. (Incidentally, the belief that the unions were responsible for the strangulation of BL, although fostered with glee by the Fleet Street comic-strip newspapers, is proved to be a myth by those such as Graham Turner and Jeff Daniels who have both carried out in-depth analysis of the company. Obviously, the unions reaction to bad management was deplorable and unhelpful although perhaps inevitable under the circumstances . . .) In any case, the virtual demise of BL (as successor to BMC) meant that the only affordable long term development of the Mini turned into the Metro and that, as everyone knows, was destined to accompany the Mini and not supplant it. So, it could be argued that the Mini has kept on plugging along for almost a quarter of all the history of the motor car simply because the company that made it was too weak and too poor to replace it: a veritable silver lining if ever there was one!
How the Mini was Originally Customised
By designing the Mini in such a way that almost all of its mechanical components were attached to two removable subframes, Issigonis unconciously gave a lead to builders of odd-balls and specials of all types. Moreover, the Mini was such a bare little package that the minute it became fashionable it also became prone to being customised in all sorts of both tasteful, and tasteless, ways. Much of the blame, or the credit depending on how you look at it, must go to BMC themselves who, in their usual attempt to please all their dealers, produced ‘badge engineered’ Riley and Wolseley Minis, each with upmarket appointments and revised appearance. The idea caught on and Harold Radford Ltd., suppliers of quality coachwork to the limousine-owning gentry, seized upon the Mini-Cooper with the idea of turning it into a Mini-Rolls-Royce. Although fitted with deep-pile Wilton carpet, an elaborate fascia, claustrophobically large leather seats and electric windows, the quality of craftsmanship was by no means up to coach-built standards, a fact which did not prevent the sometimes outrageously expensive little gimmicks from selling so well that other coachbuilders such as Wood and Picket and Crayford with their convertible Mini, were prevented from getting in on the act.
Another Mini conversion that caused a sensation in the mid-’sixties was the Mini-Sprint, which was a ‘de-seamed’ Mini with a roof-line that was actually lowered by 1.5 inches to give the appearance of a rather squashed but very purposeful little car.
One of the strangest looking of alternative Minis was developed and produced by BMC themselves with the idea of military applications.
Called the Mini-Moke, it consisted of an open-topped platform chassis and although it was given the thumbs down by the Generals, the Moke was regarded as a very ‘swinging’ mode of transport in an era when being ‘with it’ and ‘a dedicated follower of fashion’ as The Kinks would sing, mattered more than anything. An almost Moke-like variant that reached preproduction levels (and possibly around 40 were actually built) was the code-named Austin ANT (or ‘Alec’s New Toy’, as one wag had it). The Ant was a four-wheel-drive Mini 1100 built as a chassis-cab unit with a variety of rear-end options in the style of the Land-Rover with permanent f.w.d. and a transfer box to a tiny, square rear differential and with bags of potential versatility, the Ant could surely, have been a world-beater (and still perhaps, could!). The logic now seems clear enough: country dwellers who loved the Pick-up for its economy and utility, now aspire towards many of the existing four-wheel-drive vehicles because of the guaranteed mobility that they give and would surely have flocked to the Ant. However, while there are still a tiny number in use today, production of the Ant was not to be.
Perhaps the Innocenti Minis should not be considered ‘quirky’ at all: in the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, BMC set up a number of satellite plants in several different parts of the world. From 1961, the Innocenti plant in Milan, Italy built Austins under licence and then, in 1965, began to build the Mini. In 1972, Leyland took direct control of the one-time motor scooter factory and then, two years later, launched the Innocenti Mini 90 (1000cc) and the 120 (1275cc). The two new cars were far more stylish than the standard offering both inside and out and featured a hatchback rear door. The body panels were actually made in the U.K. But the car never saw the light of day in Britain, largely because Leyland cut their Innocenti losses and ran, leaving De Tomaso to continue production of the car in spite of its high production costs and inadequate rear seat headroom.
Fitting new bodies to Minis was by no means left to the big manufacturers and many, many kit car makers have offered bodies to take the Mini’s front and rear subframe unit, although most were hampered in their attempt to be sleek and stylish by the Mini’s tall engine so that even the more successful cars, such as the highly priced Midas, suffered an ugly bonnet line. One of the greatest ironies was that owners of a micro-car which pre-dated the Mini’s transverse engine, front-wheel-drive layout, the Berkeley, often threw out their unreliable motorcycle-based engine and transmission units and carved out a location for the Mini front end assembly to be fitted. In practice, none of these alternatives was as successful as the original car — but many were more spectacular!
Only saloons were built at Cowley near Oxford. Most were Morrises but there were also some Austins. Fewer than 250,000 Minis were built at Cowley and only up until 1969. All others were built at Longbridge, Birmingham.
Non-saloon bodies were all sourced at the Castle Bromwich, Birmingham plant.
All Elfs and Hornets were built at Longbridge.