The Morris Minor had always driven better than it went and, as a result, a number of tuning companies set about providing the early Minor with its missing get-up-and-go. The Mini was similarly possessed of cornering, handling and roadholding that were far and away better than needed for the performance generated by its engine and, once again, performance goodies became available to bridge the gap. This time, tuning was not restricted to a wealthy or eccentric few; everyone seemed to want to get in on the act. The engine itself had been around for quite a time and had also been widely used in Formula Junior circuit racing, so the supply was ready for the take-off in demand.
The basic 848cc Mini engine, however, was not without its problems. Timing gear was very short-lived at higher engine speeds and clutches were prone to oiling up while engine torque would cause engine mountings to fracture. In addition, the authoritative late Clive Trickey claimed that in spite of its technical brilliance, the early Mini ‘possessed one of the worst gearboxes and most inefficient set of brakes ever contrived.’ Last but not least, the camshaft, which ran directly in the block without the aid of bearings, could seize and wreck the engine when it was being used in the most enthusiastic manner. Clearly, forcing higher output from an engine with these inherent problems was not exactly conducive to promoting long and efficient engine life.
It took almost two years and a wonderful leap of faith for BMC to launch a purpose-built go-faster Mini called the Mini-Cooper, named after the highly thought of Formula Junior racer John Cooper who had brought almost unparallelled excellence to the racing development of A-series engines. As well as being able to draw upon the experiences of Cooper, BMC had gained enormous and invaluable experience from their own race and rally departments at Abingdon, which had competed in the Mini almost from the word ‘go’.
Pat Moss and Stuart Turner (then a pair of unknowns) were the first to win an event in the Mini, clearing the field by ten minutes in a local Knowldale Car Club event, but other events in 1959 served only to point up reliability problems, especially with oiled-up clutches. 1960 and 1961 saw the Mini being rallied in a range of international events but with few successes of any kind except a class win in the 1960 Geneva Rally. The reasons for the car’s lack of success lay in its still-developing standards of reliability, the relatively small amount of emphasis being given to it by Abingdon but, most of all, its underpowered engine.
Many private individuals as well as those who took it to the race circuits tried tuning the basic car but then found even more weaknesses. Its phenomenal cornering ability was more than early wheels could stand and under competition use many of them cracked, the brakes were not up to the job of stopping the car from higher speeds and shock absorbers failed rapidly. Under the stresses imposed by the tuners, early Mini cranks were prone to breakage at higher revs and timing gear was extremely short lived. The camshaft, running directly in the block without the normal benefit of white metal bearings, would seize when spun at high speeds which, naturally enough, generally led to a completely wrecked engine.
Then, the enthusiasm being felt for the Mini’s outrageously effective handling and the needs of the works rally team were both met in one fell swoop when the first Mini-Cooper was announced in September 1961.
The car worked far more efficiently than the standard Mini could ever hope to, and an early success was chalked up when Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom won the Coupe des Dames in the 1962 Monte Carlo. Then in the Tulip Rally of the same year the same team secured a class win to be followed home by no fewer than seven other Minis!
The Mini-Cooper’s improved performance leaned heavily on Formula Junior racing car practice, in which branch of the sport there were already hundreds of engines all based on the Mini (or A-series) unit. As some of these engines were actually churning out 90bhp without calamitous results the new Mini’s 55bhp looked quite modest until you realise that it was actually a 50% increase over the standard car! The increase in performance came about by leaving the bore more or less as it was (there was a minute reduction in fact, so that the engine size was kept below the 1000cc rallying class limit) while a new stroke dimension of 81.28mm was used. It was announced at the time that the longer stroke engine was part of a process of ‘rationalisation’ of BMC’s engines, but in fact it was not used again until the 1275cc engine appeared in the 1974 Cooper ‘S’, after which of course, it became a very common stroke size in the many 1275cc engines used in a whole range of cars. However, in 1961 it was an oddity and made the car look extremely long-stroked, although in practice, the long stroke helped to keep the engine flexible and at 1500rpm (which represents 22.5 miles per hour in top gear) the car was actually developing no less than 87% of its maximum torque (or ‘pulling power’) of 54.5 lb.ft. What this meant in practical terms was that the car’s flexibility was such that it had as much pulling power when trickling along in slow moving traffic as when screaming flat-out down a dual-carriageway, making it a very versatile car indeed.
Issigonis himself took a personal interest in the development of the Cooper and entrusted most of the highly acclaimed Cooper ‘S’ development work to consultant Daniel Richmond. It has been said that Issigonis treated Richmond patronizingly and that Richmond accepted this treatment from Issigonis. The designer put what would normally be regarded as intolerable demands on the man (as he did to anyone who would allow him to) and virtually every time, Richmond came up trumps, time and again working through the right to have a piece of testing or experimentation ready for Issigonis the next morning.
Improvements in the camshaft, inlet valves and combustion chambers (the Sprite and Midget 948cc engine’s head was used here) were combined with the use of twin 1-1/4 SU carburettors, and a multi branch exhaust manifold to boost output, while the crank webs were strengthened, lead bronze was used to line big ends and main bearings and the block itself was also strengthened. A torsional vibration damper was fitted to the nose of the crank to drastically reduce the risk of crank breakage. In short, the engine was almost totally redeveloped! A remote gear-change was fitted and the gear cogs were ‘pinched’ from the Sprite and Midget range to close up the gear ratios.
Special tyres with nylon casings were developed by Dunlop for the new car and disc brakes were fitted to the front. In use, these early cars’ disc brakes can be something of a joke and BMC virtually admitted as much by fitting a servo-type brake booster to the new car. The Cooper was trimmed and soundproofed to a higher standard than the basic Mini (which was very basic!) and a range of ‘Super’ Minis was launched at the same time offering most of the Cooper’s trim improvements.
The achievements of the 997 Mini-Cooper were apparently few but, quite apart from launching the Cooper concept in a blaze of sensational publicity, the new car coincided with the era in which the Abingdon-based works rally team gathered around it a group of drivers who were to become world famous for their rallying exploits. Pat Moss (to become Pat Moss-Carlsson), sister of Stirling Moss, became famous in her own right but left to join Ford in 1962; however Rauno Aaltonen, Timo Makinen and Paddy Hopkirk became household names as successful Mini rally drivers and each, in their turn, was to win the greatest prize, that of the Monte Carlo Rally, in years to come.
In May 1963, the 1071cc Cooper ‘S’ was announced, based upon a big-bore Cooper conversion and leaning even more heavily upon Formula Junior racing practice. With a ‘unique’ bore size and several fairly exotic engine modifications, the engine was a little ‘flier’ and added further to the Cooper’s reputation and competition successes. However, the car was produced only for a year or so and only 4,000 units were built which makes the 1071 something of a ‘homologation special’ ie a car which was produced in sufficient numbers to allow it to compete as a ‘production’ car. In January 1964 the basic 997 Cooper was superseded by the 998 Cooper which, although barely different in engine capacity, meant that the innards of the engine were held in common with many other basic production engines, and, in fact, the 998 Cooper engine was developed from the Riley Elf/Wolseley Hornet units, themselves made more powerful in order to drive their heavier bodies.
Eight months into its production run, the Cooper was given hydrolastic suspension in common with all other Minis. Although the 998 engine is a less ‘exotic’ unit than the 997, Motor’s road tests show that it had improved performance as well as increased spares availability, giving a maximum speed of 88.7mph (85.2) and a 0-60mph time of 14.8 seconds (17.2), the earlier car’s figures shown in brackets. The 998 Cooper provided the bedrock of Cooper Sales, selling steadily until November 1969.
More spectacular happenings were taking place with the Cooper ‘S’ models. The 1071 block had taken a great deal of development, the bores having been moved in the block which was also given extra stiffness. As a result, the Cooper ‘S’ developments both used the same basic block, but with different strokes. The 970cc ‘S’ used a minute stroke length of 61.91mm (the shortest stroke used on any A-series engine; shorter by a considerable margin than the 1952 803cc engine) while the 1275cc engine reverted to the long stroke of the 997cc engine, albeit with increased crank journal length. Of the two, the 970 ‘S’ was relatively short-lived and was discontinued in January 1965 after a production life of only ten months, while the 1275 ‘S’ outlived all the other Coopers and saw production from March 1964 through to July 1971 and in numerical terms sold in numbers which were second only to the 998cc Cooper.
The 998cc Cooper had status attached to its name but the 1275 ‘S’ had something more; it was engineered to an altogether different standard. While the 998 was a ‘go-faster’ Mini, the 1275 ‘S’ was a car with genuine top-flight competition potential in road-going form. This point was made most famously when, in 1966, the Mini-Cooper ‘S’ ‘won’ the Monte Carlo Rally for the third successive time, only to be denied by an incredibly over-zealous display of partisanship when the scrutineers literally tore the winning car apart to try to find something non-standard about it, to triumphantly proclaim that the headlamps were not precisely in conformity with the rally regulations. To answer the French press’ xenophobic reaction that the English were ‘cheats’ (proving only that much of the French press is as extreme as our own in this respect), a Cooper ‘S’ was borrowed from a local main dealer’s showroom and compared up a steep hill-climb course with Paddy Hopkirk’s own ‘winning’ car. The event was overseen by L’Equipe, one of the more suspicious sporting papers, and even they had to own that ‘once and for all, in all important respects the cars that really won the Monte Carlo Rally were genuinely the same as you can buy’, as Peter Browning, then Competitions Manager at Abingdon, wrote in his book ‘The Works Minis’.
After its 1964, ’65 and ’67 ‘official’ Monte Carlo wins and the host of wins in international rallying, on the track and on the grass circuits, the Mini inevitably started to become less competitive as a new generation of quicker cars came along, produced largely by continental manufacturers.
Then, in 1968, came the British Leyland merger under the ‘super-Salesman’ Donald Stokes. One of the first decisions made by the new management was that Minis should be competed on the track rather than on rally circuits; circuit racing being a far cheaper branch of the sport. Rallying was to continue in a much reduced form but only in those countries where a direct sales benefit was perceived. The all-conquering rally team was disbanded and an air of undisguised pessimism set in among those at the Competitions Department. Their feelings of doom were quickly seen to be well founded when the department was closed down completely in mid-1970.
In 1969, the Mini 1275 GT had been announced. It was a car with ‘go-faster’ appeal but with little of the engineered excellence of the Cooper ‘S’ but at a cost of £868 compared with the £942 of the real McCoy. The 1275 GT was based on the inherently slower Clubman bodyshell and was quite a lot less powerful than the ‘S’, being fitted with a single-carburettor Austin 1300-type engine although in common with the ‘S’ it did have disc brakes and a rev-counter. In spite of the fact that the GT was clearly a shadow of the car that the Cooper had been and an unworthy successor, the demise of the Cooper ‘S’ was announced in July 1971, the final car undoubtedly having been built some time earlier.
Edwardes and on . . .
British Leyland lurched through the 1970s in a dreadful state: reviled at home and abroad for having a poor product range which was shoddily produced, over-manned at the virtual insistence of Government and lacking in the basic managerial skills or labour relations to get itself out of the mess.
Then the paroxysms ran themselves out and British Leyland began to change from a dying giant to a much smaller and thinner, but nevertheless surviving entity. The first event to arrest the illness was the true onset of the world recession. This forced Leyland to act or go under very quickly and it made it easier to lay off workers without total condemnation, because so many other companies were having to do the same. The fact that Britain’s recession was so much deeper than that of most of our neighbours also helped inasmuch as the unions, previously dominated by extremist leaders, became more afraid of job losses and so initiated fewer stoppages.
This trend was exploited to the full by a new Chairman at British Leyland, a diminutive South African by the name of Michael Edwardes. When he joined BL from the highly successful Chloride group in 1978, Edwardes’ motives were difficult to understand. If he had been looking for a challenge then he had certainly found one! Never a man to court popularity for its own sake, Edwardes won the respect of his management team and, just as importantly, the general public to such a degree that even though he left the company after a relatively short four year tenure, people began to speak well of the attempts by the various companies within BL to pull themselves together and build a model range with quality standards to satisfy almost everyone.
Through all the traumas, the upheavals and the re-adjustments sailed the evergreen Mini. Throughout the 1970s, the Mini was retained because no one at the top had the will or the nous to push through its successor. When the new generation Mini did come, the old Mini was retained while the new Mini-Metro made its own impact upon the motoring world. If the Mini was retained simply as an insurance policy, then it has truly passed that stage. Virtually all of its development costs have been amortised long ago, leaving it as a profitable income earner. It has been able to share in the newly efficient engine adapted for the Metro and in its generally improved levels of quietness. Of course, mounted on rubber suspension, the latest Minis are little more comfortable in terms of ride than those that went before, but the small sensation of 12-inch wheels and disc brakes fitted from mid-1984 did improve ride quality just a little.
Apart from the relatively crude Citroen 2CV, the Mini still had no real competitors and word had it from Longbridge that it would go on, and on . . . at least until 1989 when safety regulations were to outlaw its external body seams and protruding door handles, unless special dispensation could be obtained. Certainly the Austin-Rover management had no plans to drop the Mini but instead celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 1984.