The Mini Story, Part One
Small is Beautiful
By J. S. Smith
In contrast to the recent Autosavant article about the tragicomic Austin Allegro, which regularly tops “Worst Car Ever” lists outside North America, is the BMC Mini, which was voted the European Car of the Century in 1999. Other than its connection to the BMW MINI, however, North American gear heads remain unfamiliar with the BMC Mini—it was only sold in the States through 1967. So, here’s the first part of a series to familiarize our domestic readership with the most important automobile of the Post-War Era. Nearly 50 years later, the standard format for mass-produced automobiles is a transversely mounted engine and front-wheel drive.
BMC and its corporate heirs produced over 5 million Minis from August 1959 to October 2000 and Minis won the Monte Carlo rally three times—1964, 1965 and 1967 (and finished in the top three spots in 1966, only to be disqualified by French judges for a minor lighting infraction). Although the VW Beetle sold far more units and was more reliable, it was an automotive dead-end—how many air-cooled rear-engine cars are being built anymore?. Moreover, the Mini was faster, got better fuel economy and had more interior space, despite being nearly two feet shorter. And outside of Hollywood, the Beetle never won at Monte Carlo. Nor was it driven by royalty, movie stars or John, Paul, George and Ringo.
The most striking thing to domestic readers upon encountering the Mini is its size: the car is incredibly small to those accustomed to Suburbans, Explorers and even Camrys. The Mini is 10 feet long, about 4 1/2 feet wide, and less than 4 1/2 feet tall. To put this in perspective, it’s over five feet shorter than a Camry. Despite these Lilliputian outer dimensions, it has enormous interior space—about as much as modern subcompacts that are several feet longer.
Why such a small size? The story goes back to 1956. The British and French, still fancying themselves independent world powers despite the penury brought on by two world wars and rapidly unraveling overseas empires, conspired with Israel to invade Egypt, which under Gamal Abdel Nasser had recently nationalized the Suez Canal, in which both Britain and France had commercial interests. President Eisenhower, wisely considering the scheme to be the type of dangerous imperial power squabble that had recently led to the near-destruction of Europe, refused American support. After initial success against Egypt, the Soviets informed the British and French that they were within the range of certain destructive Soviet weapons and the Americans informed the British that it would sell its Pound reserves and sink the British economy. Tail firmly planted between their legs, the British retreated. For several months, the Suez Canal remained closed.
The short-term effect was that Europe, which imported most of its oil from the Middle East and through the Suez Canal, suffered an oil shock. Demand for small “bubble” cars like the BMW Isetta and Messerschmitt skyrocketed. In March of 1957, Leonard Lord, head of BMC—the largest British make, the fourth largest automobile manufacturer in the world and probably world’s leading car exporter—asked his design chief Alec Issigonis to design a car to drive the bubble cars off Britain’s shores. Lord gave Issigonis a clean-slate—his only directive was that it fit a family of four, achieve exceptional fuel economy, and use an existing BMC engine.
Issigonis was already legendary as a car designer. After the War, he had designed the Morris Minor, Britain’s first million-seller. The Minor had modern styling at a time when other British saloons were stuck in 1935. It sported rack-and-pinion steering and a torsion bar suspension. Issigonis wanted to go further and fit it with front-wheel drive, but Morris balked at the expense.
When going about the Mini’s design, internally known as the ADO15, Issigonis began with a brief series of sketches of a small car with tiny wheels at the extreme corners, an abbreviated trunk and a stubby engine compartment with a transversely mounted engine driving the front wheels. That basic layout planted the seeds of nearly every car design of the next 50 years.
Today, most cars have a transversely mounted engine that drives the front wheels. In the late 1950’s no car did. Citroen made front drive cars, but the engine was mounted horizontally, like that of rear-wheel drive cars. Issigonis realized that mounting the engine sideways approximately halved the size of the engine bay, allowing a larger passenger compartment for the equivalent size vehicle. Other makes followed this lead; after the two oil shocks of the 1970’s, it became the standard design model for automobiles because of its weight—and thus fuel—saving propensities.
The car was essentially designed around the passenger compartment. One photo I have seen shows an early BMC buck that has four seats, pedals and a steering wheel—from the beginning, the goal was to optimize interior space relative to exterior size.
In addition to the engine layout and putting the tires at the corners, the early Mini was designed to have several interior storage bins to compensate for the relatively modest trunk—whose space was partially consumed by the fuel tank and battery. The doors featured large side pockets. These pockets necessitated windows that opened by sliding to the side rather than by rolling down. In addition, the door trim rested against the outer sheet metal, with only about 3/4 inch of sound deadener separating them.
Similarly, the rear seats featured large side pockets that rested against insulated trim covering the outer shell on the side and the rear wheel well in the back. Under the rear seat was about one foot of storage space running the length of the seat bottom.
Although revolutionary in so many respects, there were some dead-ends, but by the standards of the time, they were cutting-edge. One prime reason why no one mounted engines horizontally was it left unanswered the question of where to mount the gearbox. Issigonis solved this by putting it under the engine in the oil sump—the oil pan to Americans. To be fair, this basic design was copied by other marques for about 20 years, but due to the excessive demands it places on engine oil, it is no longer in use.
Along these lines, the suspension had to be very small, yet rugged. Issigonis solved this—with the help of Alex Moulton—by using compact rubber cones as the primary suspension rather than metal springs (later iterations used a relatively advanced linked-fluid system known as hydrolastic suspension). The rubber cones produced a firm ride that kept the wheels squarely planted on the tarmac. Coupled with the placement of the wheels at the corners, it made for an exceedingly well-handling car.
The engine dropped into the car was the now-legendary BMC A-series engine—a powerplant worthy of an article of its own. Although a 948cc unit was initially put in the prototypes, it proved too fast, easily topping 90 mph. BMC reduced the stroke, taking displacement down to 848cc.
The car was launched in August 1959—only 29 months after Lord asked Issigonis to start work on it—as the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini Minor, priced at the low price of £496 (approximately $930). The Austin version took its name from a 1930’s car and the Morris version denoted a smaller version of its ever-popular Minor. To the public, it quickly became known simply as the Mini. As to why BMC launched two nearly identical models—only the grills were different—is far too long a story to answer here. Suffice to say, BMC’s brand engineering escapades make GM’s foray into it look like mere child’s play.
The British and European motoring presses were impressed from the start. The interior space of the car amazed, as did its handling. Although designed to be a humble economy car, discerning motorists recognized that BMC’s advertising line “Wizardry on Wheels” was entirely accurate. It was recognized as the most advanced automobile in the world.
The Mini was very much a reflection of the British auto industry at the time—bold, advanced in design, innovative in concept, yet also myopic, insular and built with dangerously lax standards. The car, like BMC and the entire domestic British industry, had several tragic flaws that are perhaps illustrated by the reaction of BMC’s keenest competitor.
At Ford, then in second-place in the British market, the Mini caused considerable consternation. It easily outclassed the jejune “Dagenham Dustbins” produced by Ford. Eager to find out exactly how BMC could make a profit on a world-class vehicle at such a low price, Ford bought a Mini, took it apart and priced it. It concluded that BMC sold each Mini at a loss of £30.
This was partially the fault of BMC pricing the Mini to compete with low-priced Ford Anglias (i.e., Harry Potter’s car) rather than aiming up-market, which would have been fully justified by the advanced design. It was also partly the fault of letting the design be dominated by Issigonis, a genius, but one who designed a car that was not well-suited towards automation or ease of assembly. Both of these problems would haunt BMC in the years to come.
Another worrying sign—and an omen of things to come in the British industry—was that the initial summer of 1959 production run installed the sills incorrectly, resulting in the door bins and foot wells filling with water. Although BMC quickly corrected this, it showed a glaring lack of fully thinking through the design prior to production. This too would haunt BMC and the entire British industry for the next 20 years.
At the time, however, all appeared to be wine and roses. And the 1960’s would be even better to the Mini, as it became a fashion icon and a dominating force in both track and rally racing.
62.94 mm bore by 68.26 mm stroke
0-60 from 26.5 to 29.7 seconds
Quarter mile from 23.3 to 23.6 seconds
Top speed of 75 mph
Approximately 40 miles per gallon Imperial (35 miles per gallon US)
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