Driven by Design: BMC Mini
(This article is part of the Driven by Design series.)
Photography by Turbometal Motorblog for Petrolicious
I once drove a car for a week that everyone loved. This might sound like car-scribe hyperbole, but it’s a scientific fact. I know it’s a fact because every time I stopped at a traffic light the person in the car next to me would notice and then yell, “I love your car!” Which actually made me like the car less because an inevitable barrage of questions would immediately follow. Yes, it’s a Mini, it’s right-hand drive, it’s a 1970-something version, it’s very roomy inside and look the light is green! Oh, you have more questions? Great…
In all seriousness, I loved the car too in spite of the quasi-celebrity status it bestowed on me. I think it had a 1000cc engine and I could nearly touch the pavement when I stuck my hand out the window and reached down. To use the cliché, it handled like a go-kart and turned so quickly that it required braking only in order to answer questions.
Yet in many ways, the BMC Mini is similar to a few other cars: the Fiat Topolino and 500 and the Volkswagen Beetle. It helped to democratize the car in the UK and many other countries. Developed by the British Motor Corporation in response to the 1956 fuel crisis and the resulting resumption of fuel rationing in the UK, its design brief required it to be ten feet long or shorter and to have a passenger compartment at least six feet in length to fit four people.
While a few cars had used a transverse front engine package, it was the Mini’s resulting popularity and package efficiency that really made this configuration the standard that it is today. The Mini also redefined two-box styling by showing how it could look sporty.
Looking at a Mini in side view can be deceptive—at first glance, the car appears solid and well planted (and safer than it has any right to look). Additionally, the passenger compartment looks larger than it is. The wheels’ relatively small size contribute to this illusion as it looks like the car will barely move. But the main reason that the Mini looks like a small, nimble fortress is because of the welds running up the A- and C-pillars. Their angle extends the cabin visually at the front (making it appear larger) and as they spread apart at their base it makes the car look set.
Viewing the car from a front ¾ angle also makes the car look firmly grounded because of the length to width proportion. And while on many other front-engine, front-wheel drive coupes a large greenhouse looks awkward and slow, the Mini’s narrow pillars, slight tumble-home, and ample body-side surfacing simply make the greenhouse lighter and the body more massive.
Surfacing was purposely kept simple and unadorned in order to decrease production costs and stamping failure rates. This however, should not be misconstrued as a negative; The Mini’s surfaces are elegant and functional if not exciting. More interesting are the details though.
Exposed, exterior hinges were used to decrease complexity in fabrication and cost. And in sharp contrast to the era, chrome was tastefully kept to a minimum. The most important exterior details are the aforementioned welds joining the body sides to the front and rear as they help give the Mini its aggressive stance.
In addition, there are a few thoughtful details worth mentioning in the interior: a centrally mounted gauge cluster was planned from the beginning to ease production of export models, sliding front windows were used in order to keep the doors hollow so that large door pockets would [marginally] increase storage space and a trunk lid that drops down (like a pick-up truck tailgate) to increase the trunk’s potential load space.
The original Mini is all about its interior space and if you’ve ever had the chance to sit in one, you’d be amazed by just how roomy it is. Obviously, you’ll never mistake it for a Mercedes S-class, but given that it’s only ten feet long, the Mini is a masterpiece of efficiency. And in some ways it proves that something has been lost since then. Just sit in a new Mini Cooper if you’d like a compelling counterpoint.
Sir Francis Bacon once said “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” If that is the case then I cannot find the strangeness to the Mini. It embodies simplicity, efficiency, and fun in an attractive, flexible package and that is why everyone, including me, loves it. Hopefully, now that you’ve read this, you’ll let me go when the light changes green.