The Birth of the Mini
Where did the concept behind the Mini and its name come from? Leonard Lord who had been in charge at Austin since November 1945 announced in 1947 that Austin were to build their first post-war medium sized cars to replace the sit-up-and-beg old-timers they were still churning out. As R.J. Wyatt in his book ‘Austin 1905-1952’ points out: ‘As early as January 1947 Lord had told shareholders that he was not yet proposing to make a Mini car [my italics]; that description seems first to have been applied to a small economy vehicle much earlier than has generally been imagined. He could not really have called the A40 a Mini any more than Nuffield could have used the name for his famous Morris Minor. A car had to be very much smaller to be termed Mini and it had to be revolutionary enough to become a cult before any title would stick.’
So the Mini car concept was known to be voiced by Leonard Lord some twelve years before the launch of the Mini, but that was not all. In 1951, Austin launched the A30, a baby car in the pre-war Austin Seven mould but with far more advanced features. The engine was a development of the Austin Dorset and Devon engine but generally reduced in size, the smaller engine becoming known as the A-Series engine and the larger, the B-series. Wyatt, again, says of the car’s development: ‘Many components and arrangements were tried, including two-cylinder and four-cylinder engines, front and rear engine locations and just about every known variation of power unit and suspension system. The basic problem was to be able to carry four people and luggage in the smallest body possible at the minimum cost.’ Once again, Leonard Lord was the motivating force behind the car and while it failed to match Issigonis’ Minor (produced by the arch rivals at Morris, of course) in terms of steering, cornering and in the utilisation of space, it was a somewhat more compact car. It ended up as a car which was conventional in all respects, except that it was Austin’s first chassis-less car, but it is interesting to note that so many innovations were considered, almost certainly at the behest of Lord.
Later, of course, it was Leonard Lord who brought Issigonis into BMC to design the Mini, and there is no doubting that the initial push towards the ideas revolution that became the Mini actually started with the widely disliked but undoubtedly successful Leonard Lord.
It has already been noted that Issigonis set about designing the car around the needs of the occupants — he came up with the requirement that, less engine and boot space, the car required a minimum of 105 inches (2670mm) in length, 50 inches (1270mm) in width and 52 inches (1320mm) in height — and that several leaps of the imagination were required to make the package come together but perhaps nothing was more unconventional than his view that the gearbox could be placed beneath the engine, in an extended sump and share the engine’s oil. (Incidentally, Mini gearboxes seem to last just as well as others, so why the need for ‘special’, more expensive oils. Are they simply more profitable for the oil companies?) In the event, there was just one small feature of the car that was partly spoiled because of Alec Issigonis’ famous stubbornness. He deemed that radios in cars were a ‘bad thing’ and so there was never any provision for locating a radio in the Mini’s dashboard area. Mind you, if it had not been for the stubborn determination of Sir Alec Issigonis (as he later became) the little car, with all its advances and their attendant problems would undoubtedly never have existed . . .
The first Mini prototype was fitted with a 948cc engine, as used in the contemporary Austin A35s and A40s (the Farina type, not the bulbous, earlier A40s) and the Morris Minor and the car was significantly quicker than any other saloon using this unit. It was built with the ‘front’ of the engine facing the right-hand side of the car and this meant that the exhaust pipe had either to snake its way around or pass underneath the engine and also that the carburettor, situated behind the front grille was prone to icing-up whilst the distributor was cramped inaccessibly between engine and bulkhead. A decision was made to turn the engine around which meant, of course, that the crankshaft was turning the ‘wrong’ way (unless owners had been prepared to put up with four reverse gears and one forward!) and so an idle or ‘drop’ gear was used which meant a 4% drop in efficiency due to the energy taken out of the system by the additional gear. The reversed engine made the carb the now all-but inaccessible component, whileup trouble for the ignition system: in any case the change to Morris’ favourite carburettor, the S.U. And away from Austin’s Zenith downdraught probably did as much as anything to solve the icing-up problem. Another future problem identified at this stage was that rear-end lightness caused lack of braking efficiency and locked-up rear brakes: the battery was moved into the boot in an effort to minimise the problem while the addition of a rear brake limiter in the hydraulic system also helped.
Other alterations that took place between the construction of the sheet-metal ‘Orange-Box’ prototype and the pre-production versions were that engine size was reduced to 848cc from the 948cc of the standard unit, by the relatively simple expedient of reducing the stroke from 76mm to 68.2mm. The car was made two inches wider and it was decided to mount most of the front-end mechanical components into a separate, detachable subframe and the rear components, such as they were, into another independent subframe. The Longbridge assembly plant was designed to build cars with engines offered up from beneath and even though a new assembly line was built for the Mini, the tradition was continued, only this time engine, gearbox, final drive, front wheels and brakes, steering and suspension all came to up to meet the car in one unit.