The Mini Story, Part Two Point Five
High Tide and Green Grass—Apogee
By J. S. Smith
Mini sets the scene
As discussed in a previous installment, the Mini was not only a revolutionary design, it was also phenomenally successful as a race and rally car, probably more so than any other car of the 1960s. In addition to that role, the Mini was an international style icon. All four of The Beatles owned one in the mid-60s. Other stars did as well—Lulu, Peter Sellers and Brit Eklund, and others I cannot recall.
Even royalty owned Minis: Princess Margaret—the randy royal—and Lord Snowden drove a Cooper S, and Princess Grace owned a Mini too. Government bigwigs drove them too– Labour Minister Ernest Marples had a Mini with a customized hatchback. Alec Issigonis personally delivered a Mini to fellow automotive icon Enzo Ferrari.
Steve McQueen owned a tuned Cooper S. McQueen is well known as a screen legend, but he was also a very serious motor sport enthusiast. McQueen raced cars and motorcycles, and he loved his Mini. Mary Quant, inventor of the mini-skirt, liked the Mini, even designing a limited edition Mini in the 1980s. Countless other cultural icons of the 1960s drove Minis. One 1970’s music legend—glam rock king Marc Bolan of T. Rex—died when his wife veered off the road and struck a tree with his Mini in 1977.
Radford Mini deVille
As alluded to in a previous article, the Mini inspired numerous performance tuners and aftermarket performance parts. The best known were Downton, Speedwell and Taurus. For the well-heeled Mini-phile, several firms began making luxury conversions, decking out Minis with wood dashes, leather seats, wool carpets and even power windows. Most renowned were Radford and Wood and Pickett.
Finally, the Mini capped the decade by starring, along with Michael Caine and Noel Coward, in The Italian Job. The car chase scene in The Italian Job is a must-see for film buffs and autophiles. It is on the same rarefied plane as McQueen’s epic battle with a Dodge Charger in Bullit and Gene Hackman’s urban thrill chase in The French Connection.
Rule Britannia indeed – The Italian Job Minis
The Mini began as a humble economy car, designed to get our people from point A to point B in maximum economy. It became an icon that cut across social barriers—no small feat in the class-conscious Britain of the 1960s.
By the late 1960s, both BMC and Issigonis realized that they had taken the Mini concept as far as it could possibly go. In the face of increasing competition and new technology, BMC and Issigonis intended to replace the Mini with a more modern design, complete with a hatchback, something no other small car of the time had.
Issigonis worked on a concept called the 9X, which would have taken the Mini concept to a new level and, once again, would have been several steps ahead of the rest of the automotive world. It was not to be, however. Due to limited development funds, the project was scrapped and British Leyland would not have a modern update until 1980.
Meet the New Boss: The British Leyland Merger
The most important event in the British car industry of the latter half of the 20th century was the 1968 merger between BMC and Leyland. BMC, one of the largest auto companies in the world, built the Mini, under Austin and Morris names. It also controlled Wolsely, Riley, Jaguar, Daimler, Vanden Plas, MG, Austin-Healy…virtually the entire British domestic industry. Leyland owned Leyland Trucks, building it into an international player in the heavy truck market, and then bought Standard-Triumph and Rover. Triumph and Rover had been exceedingly successful in the 1960’s, although they were natural competitors in the near-luxury market—Rover being similar to lower-end Mercedes and Triumph being similar to BMWs.
Although BMC dominated the British market—in addition to the Mini, it made the 1100/1300, the most popular cars in Britain—it was a poorly run company and on the verge of failing. Leyland, in contrast, earned healthy profits and Rover and Triumph made some of the best executive cars in the world. Even Ralph Nader thought highly of the Rover P6, the first car to incorporate passive safety features like crumple zones.
The British government feared that if BMC failed, it would either be gobbled up by a foreign company, as had happened when the Rootes Group was bought by Chrysler, or would leave a few hundred thousand people unemployed. Prime Minister Harold Wilson found neither option palatable, so he encouraged it to merge with Leyland. Many believed that the better-run Leyland would give BMC the discipline and cash it needed to survive and move forward. So, with some arm-twisting, BMC and Leyland merged to become British Leyland. It turned out to be less Nash-Hudson and more Studebaker-Packard.
Needless to say, this change impacted the Mini. Shortly after the merger, the Mark III Mini came out. It contained several major changes. Most noticeably, it had roll-up windows and internal door hinges. It also scrapped the expensive Hydrolastic suspension and returned to rubber cones. With the Mark III, the Austin and Morris names were dropped and Mini because a separate marque.
Less noticeable were several cost-cutting moves. British Leyland stripped much of he already-meager sound insulation from the car. It also used thinner steel panels, which tended to rust more quickly.
Another cost-cutting move was to sever ties to John Cooper and eliminate the royalty he received on all Coopers produced. The standard Cooper models thus disappeared, replaced by the new 1275 GT, which was based on the new Clubman. Most enthusiasts of the time considered the 1275 inferior to the Cooper. The Cooper S models would not last much longer either.
Another big change was the aforementioned Mini Clubman—you don’t think BMW came up with that idea all on its own? The Clubman used the standard Mini body shell up to the front clip, which was completely different. It was a few inches longer in the front, and featured a then-contemporary squared look. It was essentially an attempt to “modernize” the Mini on the cheap. But British Leyland sold about a half million of them, so the move was a success.
Although it could be dismissed as a cynical marketing ploy, the Clubman did have some advantages. The most noticeable was that there was now much more space under the bonnet, to the relief of mechanics all over the British Isles. In addition, the Clubman Estate looked much better with the squared-off front end. The standard Clubman, to my eyes at least, is less attractive, sporting a late 1950’s rear and middle section, with a 1969 front end welded on.
The handsome Clubman Estate, pre-BMW
Variations on a theme
The Mini family was not restricted to saloons (the strange term the British use for “sedan,” although it includes two-door cars as well). It included a delivery van and an estate (or wagon), on a longer 84.25” wheelbase, with a 129.9” overall length. Early estates had wood panels. The Mini range also included a 1/4 ton pick-up. No, really. An actual pick-up intended as a light-duty work vehicle. The estate died in 1980 while the delivery van and pick-up remained in production until 1983.
Another variation was the Mini Moke, a small Jeep-like open vehicle based on the standard Mini chassis. BMC originally marketed the Moke towards the military, and designed the body so that it could be stacked on transport planes or ships. Because it was used the Mini chassis, however, it had low ground clearance. That, along with the miniscule 10” wheels gave it little off-road prowess and dissuaded the military from using it. “Moke” is an English colloquialism for “mule.”
A short stack of Mokes—don’t try this at home
It became a popular beach vehicle in Britain, southern Europe and Australia. Production moved to Australia and then Portugal, where it remained in production until 1993. The Moke remains popular among American enthusiasts and new body shells recently went back into production—for $10,000 you can order your very own. Google “Mini Moke California” for details.
Mokes were also the preferred mode of transportation in the Village on the classic British television show The Prisoner. Beware of self-propelled weather balloons when piloting your Moke.
BMC, not content to have Austin and Morris versions, used the Mini body shell on the Wolsely Hornet and Riley Elf. BMC was addicted to badge engineering and most of its models were available in slightly altered forms throughout all of its brands—the BMC 1100/1300 was available as in Austin, Morris, Wolsely, Riley, MG and even VandenPlas versions.
The Wolsely Hornet and Riley Elf were marketed as “upscale” models, and had a tiny trunk jutting out of its back end. It did little to increase the small cargo space, but, in the eyes of many, did much to destroy the simple grace of the Mini’s lines.
Wolsely Hornet, with vestigial boot
The Wolsely Hornet and Riley Elf initially used the 848 cc A-series, but soon moved up to a 998 cc engine. In addition, the Elf had luxurious appointments—a wood dash and leather seats adorned the interior. Production of the Hornet and Elf ended with the introduction of the Mark III. About 60,000 were produced from 1961 to 1969.
On Thursday June 19th 1969, the two-millionth Mini rolled off the production line at British Leyland’s Longbridge plant in Birmingham. It remained Britain’s fifth best-selling car, and commanded 8.1% of the market. That year also saw the release of The Italian Job. The Mini had peaked. There was only direction in which it could go . . .
Issigonis soon left active work at British Leyland, forced out because of the relative failure of his last two designs, the Austin 1800 and the Austin Maxi. Despite this, the 1960’s had been a pretty good decade for Issigonis: his Morris Minor, introduced in 1948, became the first British car to reach one million cars produced in January 1961. His Mini reached one million units produced in February 1965. Another Issigonis design, the BMC 1100/1300, which took the Mini concept to a family-size car, did the same in March 1967. When Mini production finally ended in October 2000, over five million had been produced. Given the state of the British industry, no other British vehicle is likely to best that.
All photos courtesy of Austin-Rover Online, the most addictive British car site on the web.
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