Budget Direct Insurance Budget Direct 20th anniversary

Special Feature

Mercedes 300SL 1954 Citroën DS19 1955 Mini 1959 Audi Quattro 1980
Mini 1959

Video courtesy of MOVIECLIPS


What drives innovation? A desire to create? A need to be different? Sometimes, plain old hatred can get the juices flowing just as well as a more artistic mindset. That's how the story goes, anyway, when it comes to a true British icon: the Mini.

If Britons thought things would soon get back to normal after the Second World War, they would be mistaken. Lack of basic foodstuffs, fuel and a decimated male workforce meant that rationing of basic goods continued into the 50s - it wasn't until 1954 that rationing was officially over and Brits could buy as much as they want. So it was a bit of blow when the Suez Crisis resulted in fuel shortages and the return of rationing, and drivers had to revert to using their cars less often.

One of the results of the fuel shortage was that sales of economic little bubble cars, made in Germany of all places, really started to take off. This was an affront to the sensibilities of Leonard Lord, president of the British Motor Corporation, who is said to have detested these peculiar contraptions to the point that he didn't consider them cars. In response, he charged his designers with creating a "proper miniature car" which would render them obsolete.

The basic requirements for this new car were all about space: it must be no longer than ten feet, no higher or wider than four feet, and the space for passengers must occupy six feet of that length. To make matters even more difficult for the design team, Lord decreed that costs must be saved by using an existing engine. A design team of just nine people was put on the case, led by the man behind the Morris Minor, Sir Alec Issigonis.

Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis
Nov 18 1906 - Oct 2 1988

This small space in which to work meant the designers had to be inventive, and the results were feats of ingenuity that would revolutionise small car design for ever.

Issigonis decided to use a front-wheel drive system, since his BMC A-Series four-cylinder, water-cooled engine would be in the front. However, even that caused problems with space, so the engine was mounted transversely, meaning the axis of the engine's crankshaft was at right-angles to the length of the car.

In another ingenious move, space was saved by bolting the four-speed transmission to the engine, making it so close that it could share lubricant. The radiator was moved over to the left side of the car, and as for the suspension, conventional springs were replaced with rubber cones, built into the subframe.

All this meant Lord got exactly what he wanted, and there was ample room for a family in the Mini's comfortable interior. As a final British touch, legend has it that the storage pockets in the doors were specifically sized to comfortably house a bottle of Gordon's Gin.

Credit: Geni

Of course, all the inventive design in the world means nothing if the car is a dog to drive. Luckily, it was far, far from it. Because the Mini was so light, those rubber cones gave a bumpy but not overly bouncy ride, while the ten-inch wheels were right at the corners of the car, which combined with the low centre of gravity made it feel like you were driving a go-cart. In a bid to make a small, economical car for everyday working class Britons, BMC accidentally made one of the most enjoyable drivers' cars ever to be produced.

When the motoring press got their first look at it, most were not particularly impressed. How good could a car that size be? All scepticism was gone with one test drive.

One man who immediately saw the
potential in this little box of fun was
racing car builder John Cooper, a
friend of Issigonis.

The car's lead designer didn't see his creation as a racer, but worked with Cooper to race-tune the engine, increase the power by more than half and add disc brakes to create the Mini Cooper. The little go-cart was now a true rally car which dominated the 1960s.

MINI Cooper Rally Champion

Over the years, more than five million Minis were sold before the brand was sold to BMW and re-imagined for the modern era, making it Britain's most popular car.

Credit: motortrend.com

The design was undoubtedly ingenious and revolutionary: since the Mini almost every small car built has used front-wheel-drive with a transversely mounted engine.

But like the Citroën DS19, it was more than just innovation which elevated it to national icon: the Mini was cool. It was the most exciting British car at a time when more or less everything British was cool. London was swinging, hemlines were ascending and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were making the music that mattered. Just as that music and style has endured, so too has love for the Mini.

Credit: DeFacto

Previous Part Citroën DS19 (1955) Next Part Audi Quattro (1980)