50 MINI Years

As is often the case, the creation of the MINI brand was spawned by necessity. Not by the necessity to be admired, to shock or to outrun every other kid on the block who owned a car. MINI came to be due to economic reasons, mainly because of the same natural resource which makes today's world spin: oil.

In 1956 took place what would later become known as the Suez Canal crisis. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser decided the canal should by owned by Egypt, therefore he made it a state property. This triggered outrage in the UK, France and Israel, who teamed up for an attack on Egypt. What happened in the land of the Pharaos and how the conflict concluded is not our objective, but the effects the Egyptian takeover had on the UK are.

The oil crisis which ensued in the UK sent vehicle sales plunging and oil into rationing. The obvious choice for UK motorists was to turn their attention and requirements to the small car segment. After all, the Germans were already one step ahead with their bubble cars, most of them three-wheelers.

The only company who saw the opportunity was the British Motor Corporation (BMC). The challenge of building a small, successful vehicle fell on the shoulders of recently re-hired (1955) Sir Alec Issigonis. The crisis caught Issigonis working on three projects, codenamed XC/9001, XC/9002 and XC/9003. The first two, being medium-to-large vehicles, have been dropped in 1956, following the request of BMC's Sir Leonard Lord. From there to the end, Issigonis was to focus exclusively on the development of the XC/9003.

Lord had a number of requirements Issigonis had to comply with. The head of BMC wanted a car smaller than their current models, the Morris Minor and Austin A35, yet big enough to fit four people in it. Foremost, the car had to be propelled by an existing BMC engine. Issigonis complied with the requirements and came up with a front-wheel drive vehicle with a transverse-mounted engine.

This solution was adopted by the designer/engineer after initially attempting to mount the carburetor in the front and the ignition and electrics in the back. Due to carburetor issues, he went for this solution, rather unconventional for that time. From this first prototype, the MINI inherited its first problem. Because the radiator was mounted to the side of the engine, water seeped in the ignition system, hence the adversity of the MINIs towards rainy days.

When he got behind the wheel of the finished prototype, it took Lord only five minutes to fall in love with it. He told Issigonis to make the prototype ready for production within a year. As a result, in August 1959, the MINI was introduced to the world. Of course, it was not called MINI.

The car actually came under two names, as either Austin Mini Seven (or Se7en) or Morris Mini Minor. The 1959 model came with sliding windows and even external body welds, but, again,  how else would you be able to build a 497 pound car? The Se7en was produced until 1961 and the Mini Minor 'til 1967.

In 1960, scoring sales of some 160,000 units (the Queen herself lend a hand by taking a tour in one of the MINIs), BMC debuted production of the first derivatives of the Se7en, a van and an estate. By 1961, MINI-inspired vehicles like the Riley Elf and the Hornet started to appear, both manufactured by Wolseley, with which BMC shared some of the platforms and technologies.

Also in 1961, car builder John Cooper started eyeing the BMC creation. After seeing the MINIs had great handling and roadholding, Cooper comes to an understanding with the manufacturer for the production of 1,000 MINI Coopers. By doing so, Cooper qualified for production car races (Group 2 rally racing). The Cooper version of the MINI boasts 55 horsepower from a 977 cc engine and will also be produced for road use.

In 1963, MINI Cooper S appears, developing even more power (70 horsepower) from a bigger engine (1.071 cc) than in the Cooper. Still, performances are being shadowed by the way BMC finishes the cars. Alongside jamming windows, the rain problem we mentioned earlier starts taking its toll.

In 1969, the Austin and Morris name-tags are dropped. From that point on, the BMC vehicle will be only known as the MINI. The Clubman, destined to replace the Elf, Hornet and Cooper is introduced. The estate version of the Clubman replaces the Countryman and the Traveller, both released in 1960.

In 1986, the five millionth MINI sees the light of day. Two years later, the man who started it all, Sir Alec Issigonis dies.

On a corporate level, the Germans got themselves involved in 1994 when BMW takes over the Rover Group, a conglomerate of companies which included both the now dead Austin and Morris brands. The rebirth of the MINI appeal came in 2001, one year after BMW had shed the underperforming brands MG, Rover and Land Rover. MINI escaped from the axing and came back as the New MINI.

The successor of the original MINI now comes in three body styles: hatchback, convertible and Clubman. John Cooper Works versions are also available, but the most exciting aspect to the MINI story is no longer the past, but the future. MINI is currently involved in the development of a small SUV version, likely to be called the Crossman, as well as an all-electric one.

What started as a necessity in 1959 is now trying to fill yet another need of the XXI century consumer: to brake free from the reign of oil. The MINI E is already here, conducting tests in both North America and the UK. Hopefully, 50 years from now, we will see it becoming for the brand what Sir Alec Issigonis' XC/9003 was for BMC.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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