Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Britain's Mini masterpiece!


I don't share Hanlon's view that the Mini was the best car ever made. I think that of my Toyota Echo. But, like him, I loved my mini when I had it -- JR

Cramped, leaky and ear-splittingly noisy, it's an unlikely icon. But as the Mini turns 50, one devoted owner salutes the best car ever made...

Machines are not meant to be loved. Who ever swooned for a Boeing 737 on their charter flight to Malaga, or fell for the 5.45 from Waterloo to Surbiton?

But some machines transcend practicality: Concorde, for example, or the great steam locomotives of the 1930s. And then there's the Mini - 50 years old this week and, to my mind, not only a machine worthy of devotion, but a work of creative and engineering genius.

I have driven faster cars, more comfortable cars, certainly more expensive cars.

I once spent a day with a 252mph Bugatti Veyron - a fabulous car which costs £1million - yet I cannot honestly say I had more fun in it than in the £300 battered but beloved Mini Mayfair which my wife and I owned in the early Nineties and which could be driven at full throttle almost anywhere on public roads.

Perhaps I was biased, having learned to drive in another Mini - a bright yellow one belonging to my instructor, with a slightly iffy clutch that was the legacy of British Leyland's unique attitude to quality control at the time.

It wasn't the only car I'd ever driven as a learner. I used to practise in my mum's Ford Escort - a far more powerful car. But even as a learner, it was clear that nothing parked more neatly, turned more swiftly or was easier to back around a corner than the Mini.

The story of the Mini, told in two new books celebrating the car's half-century, is quite extraordinary. It was born in the 1950s, a difficult age when Britain was battling post-war debt and reconstruction costs and, thanks to the Suez Crisis, the rising price of oil.

Back then the upper classes drove (or were driven in) Daimlers, Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. The middle classes had their Rileys, Rovers and Austins and Wolseleys - comfortable but often oldfashioned, unadventurous cars.


Poorer people simply didn't drive at all, or if they did were forced to squeeze into impecunious oddities such as the lethal 'bubble cars' which were briefly fashionable. But in Germany, Volkswagen's Beetle was proving a hit and threatening to take over the world. Britain needed an answer.

That came thanks to one of the country's great engineering geniuses, Alex Issigonis. Of Bavarian-Greek extraction, Issigonis, who had already designed the brilliant Morris Minor, was ordered by the head of the British Motor Corporation, Leonard Lord, to come up with something better than 'these bloody awful bubble cars - we need a proper miniature car'.

The 'Mini' had to be small - fitting in a box 10ft x 4ft x 4ft. Most important, there had to be four seats and the passenger compartment had to occupy 80per cent of the car's volume.

It had to be cheap, light and use as much existing machinery (including one of BMC's engines) as possible, to save costs. Issigonis sketched a design for a little boxy car - literally, on the back of an envelope. He fulfilled the design brief first by making the Mini front-wheel-drive (unlike most other cars at the time) which liberated space.

Then he swivelled the engine around sideways, giving a few more precious inches, and stuck the gearbox in the sump. To save more space (and weight) his friend, Alex Moulton, designed a simple and highly effective rubber suspension system, meaning that the Mini had no need for heavy and bulky springs.

Inside, the Mini was beautifully spartan. The doors had no padding, and because the windows slid open, rather than being wound up and down, there was no need for a bulky mechanism. No door handle inside, either - just a piece of string!

On the dashboard there was no question of glossy walnut or intricate dials - merely one big speedometer and a shelf. Thin seats, and plenty of glass to give excellent visibility.

From an engineering point of view, the Mini was actually quite a complex vehicle, but Issigonis tried to keep it as simple as possible, even having the welding seams on the outside to make construction easier.

No one really knew what to make of the Mini when it was released in May 1959. Costing £500 including tax (about £5,500 in today's money) the Mini was cheap - and it was good.

Motoring writers praised its go-kart handling and sheer turn of speed - a well-driven Mini could easily outrun a Jag on a twisty road and the Mini (officially called the Austin Seven before its nickname took over) made the Beetle look like a lumbering dinosaur.

In fact, the engine had to be detuned because BMC feared that it was simply too fast.

But people were suspicious and initially the Mini didn't sell. Its name, its smallness and its cheapness actually seemed to be counting against it.


This may have been the age of austerity, but people didn't like to be reminded of the fact. It was only some years after its launch that the Mini finally took off, when it was embraced by drivers from a social spectrum very different from its intended market.

Issigonis was thinking along the right lines in October 1959 when, in an inspired bit of marketing, he took the Queen for a ride in his new baby around Windsor Great Park. Her Majesty drove the Mini and was impressed. And if a Mini was good enough for the Queen, it was good enough for anyone.

Before long, the Mini was bring driven by celebrities and pop stars, as well as royalty. Twiggy had one. So did fellow model Jean Shrimpton and film star Peter Sellers. Tory Cabinet Minister John Profumo bought one, as did Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon. The Mini became (like the Beetle) a truly classless car.

What was so impressive was that the Mini was not originally made to be cute or fashionable (like so many of today's ghastly retro-pastiche cars). It looked the way it did because that was how it needed to look. Form followed function, in the best engineering tradition.

It wasn't perfect, of course. There was little room for safety equipment. Have a bad crash in a Mini and it was probably going to hurt.

And it was not always a comfortable ride - particularly for passengers. I remember a 100-mile drive across Ireland in the back of one. My knees complained for weeks afterwards.

Then there was that tiny boot - big enough only for a couple of overnight bags. Worse was a design flaw which meant that driving through a puddle inevitably meant a wet distributor and consequent misfire. (The solution? Get a rubber washing-up glove, snip the tips off the fingers and fit them around the electric leads.)


Minis rusted, leaked and were noisy (there was no sound insulation), but they were still wonderful.

Several variants were made, from the souped-up rally-winning Coopers (a good original one from the 1960s is worth £20,000 or more today) to the rather dire snub-nosed Clubmans and odd Riley- and Wolseley-badged versions that looked like someone had put a limo in the tumble drier and shrunk it.

When the Mini was finally killed off, in 2000, nearly 5.5million had been sold. And it has never been bettered, or replaced. Rights to the name were retained by BMW when it sold Rover, but BMW's new 'MINI', a much larger car, is like the old one in name only, not in spirit.

Today's 'small' cars are behemoths in comparison - overpowered machines full of luxuries no one truly needs.

How astonishing to consider that back in the 1950s, when the world was broke and everyone worried about the future price of petrol, Britain had the engineering talent to come up with a solution.

We still have the talent but, sadly, no longer an indigenous car industry that might capitalise on our new age of austerity and uncertainty.

As for my own beloved Mini, changing circumstances necessitated a (reluctant) sale. I miss it still. But like tens of thousands of other Mini owners, it's no idle boast to say that for a few joyful years, I once owned the best car ever made.


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