The Mini Story, Part Two

Sweetness and Light—Mini dominates the 1960’s: the Cooper through British Leyland Merger

By J.S. Smith

09.15.2008

At the dawn of the 1960’s, the BMC Mini stood at the forefront of the world automotive scene and the company that made it was an industrial colossus. Recognized by auto scribes as the most advanced car in the world and by consumers as one of the most sensible and economical cars to drive, the Mini occupied a unique place. At the same time, it was beginning to gain the recognition of enthusiasts, including one John Cooper.

John Cooper was a racing man whose cars had won the Formula One championships in 1959 and 1960. Cooper also built cars for International Formula Junior racing, using BMC A-series engines for those cars. Thus, Cooper realized the performance potential of the A-series engine.

He also realized, along with other enthusiasts, that a stock Mini, with its wheels placed at the corners, would out-handle all but the most exotic sports cars of the day. The humble 848 cc engine, however dutifully it tackled the task of everyday transportation, was hardly poised to blaze a path through the salt flats at Bonneville.

It was not merely a matter of displacement. Much like today’s Honda Civic, the Mini inspired a rash of tuners, some professional and others amateur. They soon found that stock crankshafts and clutches could not handle the stress. Nor were the stock drum brakes sufficient for performance applications.
Cooper approached Issigonis and BMC with the proposition of a high-performance Mini. Issigonis hesitated, but Lord Harriman of BMC figured it would be good for a few sales. BMC agreed to pay Cooper £ 2 for each Cooper sold; Cooper went about designing the car that would bear his name.

Cooper 997 and 998
The Mini Cooper, in Austin and Morris forms was released in 1961. Lord Harriman felt that a production run of 1,000 units would be sufficient. He was wrong. The 1961 version quickly sold around 1,700 units. Harriman realized he had a hit, opened the production spigot, and BMC sold nearly 14,000 in 1962.

The 848 cc engine was stroked from 68.26 mm to 81.28 mm and bore was reduced from 62.94 mm to 62.43 mm, giving a displacement of 997 cc. Twin 1.25-inch SU carburetors were added, compression was increased from 8.3:1 to 9:1, and a high-lift cam was added. In addition, a more performance-friendly exhaust manifold was added, along with larger intake and exhaust valves. In order to handle the additional horsepower, many other modifications to the engine were made, including better crankshaft bearings, a 16-blade fan and an additional oil inlet was drilled through the crankshaft and bearings.

Horsepower increased from 38 to 55—a gain of nearly 50%. Torque increased to 54 pound-feet. The Cooper models also came with better interiors, unique grills and subdued exterior badges. In addition, the a rod-linked shifter replaced the ergonomically-challenged “magic wand” shifter of the standard models.

To handle the improved performance, front disc brakes were added. This posed special problems for the Mini, shod with 10-inch wheels. Lockheed developed a unique 7-inch disc for the Cooper. At the time, many (although not all) road testers praised the brakes, it soon became apparent that they were inadequate to the task at hand.

Although the Mini had been raced in 848 cc form, finishing no better than 23rd at Monte Carlo in 1960, it tasted its first success in the 997 Cooper. In 1962, a 997 Cooper won the 1000cc and the overall British Racing and Sports Car Club (“BRSCC”) British Championship, a sort-of UK NASCAR. In that same year, Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom wont the Tulip Rally in a 997 Cooper. Competition use of the standard Cooper model quickly faded in the wake of the release of the Cooper S in 1963. The last hurrah for the 997 was a 3rd place finish at Monte Carlo in 1963 and a 2nd place finish at the Tulip Rally the same year.

In 1963, BMC slowly phased out the 997 Cooper and replaced it with the 998 Cooper. One may wonder why one additional cubic centimeter merits any discussion at all, but the two engines are completely different. The 998 cc engine used a 76.2 mm stroke and a 64.58 mm bore. It produced the same 55 horsepower as the 997, but at 5,800 rpm rather than 6,000 rpm. The 998 also produced more torque—57 pound-feet—at a lower rpm. The 998 unit is more flexible than the 997 and offers slightly better performance.

BMC developed a front-drive version of its 998 cc A-series engine for two “posh” Mini derivatives, the Riley Elf and Wolsely Hornet. In order to rationalize production, it created a high-performance 998, complete with twin carbs and the other upgrades made to the 997. This made perfect sense, given that several other BMC cars used the 998 cc engine and only the Cooper used the 998 cc engine.
The standard Cooper continued in production through 1969 when it was replaced by the 1275GT, a model based on the Clubman. After the introduction of the Cooper S, the Cooper became more of a practical sport saloon for the masses, playing Chrysler 300C to the Cooper S’s SRT-8.

Other than standard range-wide changes, BMC made few major alterations to the 998 Cooper. In 1964, it added Hydrolastic suspension in place of the rubber cone suspension. Alex Moulton, the man who helped design the rubber cone suspension, designed the Hydrolastic suspension, which linked the front and rear wheels on either side via connected lines containing a pressurized fluid. The Hydrolastic suspension gave a far more comfortable ride, with some sacrifice in handling. British Leyland, the hydra-headed behemoth that united most of Britain’s domestic car producers, discontinued the relatively expensive system in 1969.

Regardless of its merits, it seems odd to have attached a pricey suspension to what remained, for most buyers, an inexpensive economy car. Another example of seemingly foolish business practices by BMC.

Another important addition was the upgrade to 7.5-inch front disc brakes. Although the difference seems small, the discs were also thicker, resulting in the ability to better shed heat. Road testers of the period considered the brakes to be quite effective.

Driving Impressions: 997
I own a 1962 Morris Cooper 997, so I can give some idea of what it’s like to drive, albeit in middle-aged form (the car, not me). My Cooper, unlike most, has few modifications. Someone added a second gas tank on the right side and upgraded to the 7.5” discs. Pull on the choke, pump the accelerator 3-4 times, and it typically starts with little fuss.

The driving position is…unique. The steering wheel could substitute for a small child’s hula hoop and, like most cars of that era, is quite thin. There is a surprising amount of legroom, but the passenger window is hard to reach with the seat belt on. Yes, these cars came with seat belts—it was thought that many owners would race them on the weekends and then drive them to work Monday through Friday. Similarly, the toggle switches for the headlights and wipers are hard to reach with the belt buckled. BMC also placed the pedals mercilessly close to one another. They placed the gear lever, however, right where it belongs, although my right-hand drive English model must be shifted with my left hand.

Compared with a modern car, it is very, very loud. The road noise is intrusive even at idle; it becomes less noticeable once underway only because of the wind and road noise. At highway speeds, which it does rather well, the driver and any passengers are surrounded by a symphony of loud road noise, hurricane force winds and the screaming engine. If it is warm outside, the open windows create even more noise.

The non-synchro first gear takes some practice—and even then it’s easy to err. If you’re at a complete stop, it should slide into first without crunching the gears. It rarely happens so easily. I’ve found that shifting into second beforehand allows a smooth shift to first. Unfortunately, this means keeping the too-stiff clutch depressed at stops.

The A-series is very torquey; although there is no tach—strangely, the original Coopers never came from the factory with one—it will readily pull at under 2,000 rpm. This strong torque curve is unlike any other four-cylinder I’ve driven. It also has a nice, slightly aggressive exhaust note. I think it sounds much better under 60 than over—I can’t really be sure, however, because it makes so damn much noise at higher speeds that it’s impossible to make out the exhaust sound.

Performance is modest by modern standards. It feels faster than the Chevette I had in college, and it definitely performs better on the highway. My Smith’s odometer stops for about 20 or so miles whenever it flips over each 100 miles, so I haven’t been able to measure the mileage. I would guess it gets around 40 mpg, which is better than contemporary road tests managed—tests which, no doubt, drove the Mini foot-to-floor the whole time.

Handling is sublime, even on my somewhat questionable Kumho tires. It really does feel like a go-cart. The turning is very quick—it takes some getting used to on the highway. The suspension not only communicates with the driver, it can let you know where the asphalt was mixed and what gravel pit the filler stones were taken from. Unfortunately, the small 10” tires can be gobbled up by potholes, especially the craters we have on Michigan’s ravaged roads.

In all, the driving experience is like no other car. Compared with American cars of that era, the handling and firm ride are incomparable. The space utilization is also fantastic; you really can fit four adults into it. It has about 80% of the passenger space of a 1962 Impala with about half the size. Brilliant!

Cooper S
Although the Cooper represented significant progress, it did not offer the Mini quite enough juice to be the dominant force hinted at by its suspension and steering. Hence, the Cooper was upgraded to the Cooper S in 1963, with a 1071 cc engine via a 70.64 mm bore by 68.26 mm stroke. Power increased: 70 horses at 6,200 rpm and 62 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. In this form, the Mini became more than a metaphorical giant slayer, winning the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.

Added displacement was not the only change. A brake servo was added; twin tanks were optional and then became standard, as was an oil cooler. Several other specialty parts were added to ensure the engine could stand up to the rigors of competition. Nickel alloy valves, valve guides of Hidural 5, forged rocker arms, a crankshaft made of nitrided high-strength steel. The Cooper S would make use of all these modifications as it dominated track races and rallies throughout the decade.

Soon thereafter came even more power when the 1071 was stroked to 81.33 mm, resulting in a 1275 cc’s: 75 horses at 5,800 rpm and 80 pound-feet at 3,000 rpm. The 1275 cc engine, in later Minis, remained in production until October 2000.

Although the 1275 superseded the 1071, BMC made a 970 cc Cooper S in order to have a more competitive car in 1000 cc races. With its 70.64 mm bore and shortened 61.99 mm stroke, it revved more than other Coopers, producing 65 horsepower at 6,5000 rpm and 55 pound-feet at 3,500 rpm. A production rarity—only 963 were built—the 970 proved highly successful in British and European track races.

Cooper S models dominated British saloon racing throughout the 1960’s. Watching old tapes of these races is truly amazing, the tiny Mini scrapping amongst Ford Anglias, Hillmans and Triumphs—and even a few large American sedans—flitting through slit-like openings, following curves like as if on rails, and generally humbling its more weighty and cumbersome competitors.

But it was on the international rally scene where the Mini cemented its competition immortality. At Monte Carlo, the most prestigious rally, the Mini won in 1964, 1965 and 1967. It placed first, second and third at the 1966 Monte Carlo rally, only to be disqualified by French judges for a trivial lighting violation. Perhaps not surprisingly, this catapulted a Citroen to the top spot. If De Gaulle smiled, Harold Wilson certainly did not.

By the late 1960’s, its competition star was fading in the face of more advanced and focused machines. At the same time, the sheen was fading on the more pedestrian Minis.

Pedestrian Minis—Mk I, II and III
A quick glance at the 1959 Mini and the 2000 Mini shows that the cars are closely related—perhaps even unchanged. As Mini-philes know, however, there were several generations, or “marks,” of Minis. Not surprisingly, the first generation is known as the Mark I.

As mentioned earlier, Hydrolastic suspension became standard across the entire Mini range in 1964. An automatic transmission became optional in 1965. Other than a few additional options, the Mini didn’t change much until Mark I production ended in 1967, after about 1.5 million had been produced.

The Mark II had a few cosmetic changes and a few substantive ones, including a turning circle reduced from 32 feet to 28 feet. The biggest change was the addition of a 998 cc engine in the non-Cooper range. This engine was borrowed from the Riley Elf and Wolsely Hornet, two upscale Mini-derivatives, and did not share the Cooper 998’s performance upgrades. It had a single carburetor and produced 38 horses at 5,250 rpm and 52 pound-feet at 2,700 rpm. In 1968, an all-synchromesh gearbox became standard, meaning no more crunching into first gear—at least theoretically.

The Mark II was short-lived, and production ceased in August 1969, after about 400,000 or so were made. The Mark III would prove to be long-lived and will be discussed in detail in a later chapter of the Mini story. This was the first revision following the British Leyland merger—which merits its own story—and reflected both the desire for rationalization in the range and the limited funds available for development.

Post-Script
During this decade of competition and sales success, despite two revisions, the Mini was the same basic car as that introduced in 1959. And it’s reliability improved little, if at all. Meanwhile, the competition from Germany, Italy and France had been making strides forward—not to mention entries from a new player on the scene, Japan, whose derivative designs were already attracting notice for build quality, if not rustproofing. For all of its successes in the 1960’s, the Mini was losing ground. By the time of the Renault 5, it could no longer claim to be the world’s leading small car. It took over a decade, but the rest of the world had caught up and was rapidly leaving it behind.

Performance

Next installment: Mini as fashion icon; Mark III; Mini derivatives and styles; the apogee

Photo courtesy of the author.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: J.S. Smith

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3 Comments

  1. Good writing, well done. Add a zero to the first batch of Coopers produced.

    Mark

  2. Thanks, Mark–good catch on that.

  3. Thanks guys – have fixed that typo.

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