1956

 

A fuel crisis looms over Britain as Egypt seizes the Suez canal.
Car sales plunge and, with petrol rationing in force, buyers turn in droves to crude bubble cars. The British Motor Corporation re-hires Morris Minor designer Sir Alec Issigonis, by now with Alvis.


1957

 

Issigonis, a maverick 51-year old engineer, shows Sir Leonard Lord he knows just the sort of economy car the world needs with a series of sketches. But he'll only design it if he is given a free hand. Lord eagerly agrees.


1958

 

The Mini rapidly takes shape around Issigonis's concept. Leaps of engineering imagination include siting the gearbox under the engine, front-wheel drive with the power unit mounted transversely, and rubber cone suspension designed by rubber expert Alex Moulton.





Small is beautiful. The Mini. Page 1 of 6

That's what the British Motor Corporation (BMC) thinks at the end of the fifties when the Mini-project gets started. There are no real small cars at the time. The Suez-crisis, with the subsequent shortage of fuel, creates the demand for a small, fuel-economical car. Germany is the first provider, with the introduction of the so called Bubble Cars. Small, motorbike-like 'cars', most of them threewheelers. Sir Leonard Lord, head of BMC, can't stand them. He orders the development of a small British car; that is big enough to accomodate 4 people and must be smaller than a Morris Minor and the Austin A35, the current BMC models.

Alec Issigonis with Enzo Ferrari.

Alec Issigonis is given the job of creating this car. He has already a proven track-record as the designer of the Morris Minor. Another requirement is that he should use an excisting BMC engine. The tested, but somewhat older A-series engine of Austin qualifies for this. He places the engine transverse, with frontwheeldrive, very unusual for the time. At first, Issigonis wants to put the carburettor on the front, and the ignition and electrics at the back, but as this causes problems with the carburettor, he decides to turn the engine 180 degrees. The radiator is placed on the left side of the motor. Because of this, water can easily reach the ignistion-system, and that's why Minis often have a hard time in heavy rain.

Leonard Lord drove a prototype Mini for 5 minutes and was so enthousiastic, that he orders Issigonis to have it production-ready within a year. And this is done, despite him hurting his back when he gets out of the Mini. The first Mini is not a massed produced car. Factoryworker Albert Green puts it together within 7 hours almost by hand. An achievement, cosidering there are at least 3016 bolts and screws in it. He was offered to buy it, but he doesn't want it. The Mini with registration 621 AOK was eventually brought to the British Motor Heritage Centre, where I made the picture right. In 1959, the assembly-line could produce a Mini within 2 hours.

AutoCar & Motor Magazine concludes: "Considering it's size a remarkable space inside, a good price-performance ratio and lively performances".
The Mini is badged in two varieties: the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven. Both cars are, apart from some cosmetics, identical, but badging is very popular in those days. The Mini has all kinds features which makes it different to other cars of the time; the speedo is placed centrally, starterbutton on the floor, big side pockets which can hold 9 bottles - the Mini has sliding windows, this saves space in the inside of the door.


1959

 

The Mini is revealed in August, badged as either Austin Mini Seven or Morris Mini Minor. Reaction is mixed because it's spartan and decoration-free. But, at 10ft long with four proper seats, it's clearly a masterful package. The price is unbelievably cheap; £496, cost-trimming measures include sliding windows and external body welds. Issigonis, a chain-smoker, includes an ashtray but, because he likes silence, no radio.


1960

 

Over 116.000 Minis are sold (Longbidge can make many more) but the public is still a bit weary. The first new derivatives are unveiled: a tiny van with a longer wheelbase and double doors at the back, and a similar estate with glued on woodtrim. Ford buys a Mini, dismantles it, and calculates -rightly- that BMC is making it at a loss.

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© Arno Kempers