The Mini Was The Giant Killer Born To Burst Some Bubbles
Photography by Rémi Dargegen
As a classic car enthusiast who prefers to put his own blood, sweat, and tears into his favorite hobby whenever possible, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “why don’t you just…?” from friends and family (who grow ever more impatient as they wait for me to finish a job that I assured them would be “simple enough,” completed hours earlier, and would not put me in any danger of being late for the social engagement that I’m now officially running late for). And, in almost every case, I respond with the wise words of Hunter S. Thompson (or just about any parent or elementary school teacher) and explain that “anything worth doing is worth doing right.”
I think it is this attitude, common within the classic car enthusiast community, that has drawn so many of us to what is often and affectionately referred to, quite simply, as the “Mini.” I say this because the original Mini was the manifestation of a slightly more hostile iteration of this belief that any challenge worth confronting, is worth tackling the right way. In an attempt to prove this point, though, much like last time, we need to take a short drive back in time.
Back in 1955, two-thirds of all of Europe’s oil supply travelled through the Suez Canal. While being so reliant on a roughly two-hundred meter wide piece of Egyptian territory would ordinarily seem like an incredibly precarious position, European powers were comforted by the fact that, for nearly a century, Britain and France exerted a tremendous amount of control and influence in both the region and over the Suez Canal Company, which operated the canal since its completion in 1869.
This comfort, however, ended abruptly in July 1956 when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and transferred control from the European-friendly Suez Canal Company to the state-owned and operated Suez Canal Authority. Britain and France reacted to this monumental loss of control over the majority of Europe’s oil supply by joining Israel in an invasion of Egypt in an attempt to remove President Nasser from power and regain control of the Suez Canal.
While what would become known as the Suez Crisis was ultimately unsuccessful, the most important development of this crisis for our purposes (and will mercifully get me back to the subject of classic cars) occurred when Egypt imposed an oil embargo against the invading nations. In response to this embargo and the quickly skyrocketing fuel prices, Britain, much as they did during World War II, instituted a system of fuel rationing where each motorist was limited to using only four gallons of petrol each month.
Due to the newly imposed fuel rations and resulting desire for more fuel efficient modes of transportation, sales of “bubble cars” that could squeeze over forty miles from a gallon of fuel, like the Peel Trident and BMW Isetta, took off. While incredibly fuel efficient, due to their size and use of motorcycle engines, these microcars could only seat two occupants, were quite noisy, incredibly unsafe, and offered an uncomfortable and underpowered ride that few car enthusiasts could stomach.
Enter British Motor Company (BMC) President Leonard Lord, who believed that if the British motoring public truly needed a small, fuel efficient car to endure the nation’s precarious hold on foreign oil, this car should be “a proper small car” and not the “bloody awful bubble cars” that he felt should be driven “off the streets.” As a consequence of this firm belief, Lord instructed Sir Alec Issigonis to design a car that would be compact and economical, yet be able to seat four people comfortably while also being easy to drive. The results of this instruction were the 1960 Morris Mini-Minor and Austin Seven. Though it took a bit of a diversion for me to get back here, it’s just as I said above, the original Mini was born from a somewhat more aggressive version of the “anything that is worth doing is worth doing right” mantra.
While Lord absolutely held the right attitude, it took a tremendous amount of ingenuity on Issigonis’s part to make his boss’s ambitious directive a reality. The greatest challenge that Issigonis faced was working out a way to comfortably seat four people in a car that Lord mandated could be no greater than ten feet long, but had to contain a passenger compartment that was at least six feet long. The manner in which Issigonis met these remarkably tight design restrictions was truly innovative and has become the standard.
At this time, most cars were rear-wheel-drive and utilized a longitudinally-mounted engine and transmission at the nose. Such an arrangement required a great deal of space, which was a luxury Issigonis simply did not have. He responded to this challenge by turning the traditional setup on its head and making the Mini a front-wheel-drive car that had a transversely-mounted engine at its nose. Moreover, in order to keep the width of the car down, Issigonis developed a new transmission that was unique in that it sat underneath the engine and was so tightly mated to the engine that the two shared a common source of oil for lubrication. This arrangement not only eliminated the need for a transmission tunnel that normally protrudes into the passenger compartment, but also helped Mini owners conserve oil, which was incredibly valuable at this time. The combination of a front-wheel-drive system, transversely mounted engine, and this unique transmission setup enabled the Mini’s entire drivetrain to occupy a mere two feet of Lord’s ten foot long car. This meant that Issigonis could devote a whopping eighty percent of the car’s remaining length entirely to the passenger compartment.
Which is exactly what Issigonis did by implementing a two-box body design that eliminated the traditional “third” box for a trunk. To offset this drastic reduction of luggage space, Issigonis dove into the minutiae of the Mini to wring out every possible cubic inch of storage space he could. For example, Issigonis placed the hinge for the boot lid at the bottom of the car to allow the car to be driven with it open so that the tiny car could manage to transport fairly large and much longer items. Additionally, he convinced Dunlop to design and manufacture ten-inch wheels for the car, simultaneously minimizing the amount that the wheel wells intruded into the passenger compartment, while also enabling the Mini to achieve a top speed of 72.4mph, which exceeded, yet another one of Lord’s design mandates, this one being that his “proper small car” be able to reach 70mph.
Issigonis, again in the name of increased storage space, decided to place large bins alongside each of the four passenger seats. This decision, however, forced the Mini to eschew traditional wind-up windows in favor of sliding windows, because the doors were too thin to accommodate both a storage bin for the front passengers and a wind-down window. Issigonis went with this alternate window design, rather than simply ‘bulking up’ the Mini’s doors, because lighter doors helped to save weight, which improved fuel efficiency and drivability, and also because of Issigonis’ personal bias against American-built cars’ thick doors. According to John Cutler, a member of the Mini design team, Issigonis often said that “you could build a whole car out of the metal the Americans used for one door”.
Lastly, the Mini utilized compact rubber cones instead of conventional coil or leaf springs at each of its four wheels. This rubber cone arrangement, designed by Dr. Alex Moulton, held many advantages over the more traditional suspension setups. For one, this arrangement was much more compact than a traditional setup, which saved even more valuable space in Issigonis’ design. Additionally, the Mini’s rubber cone suspension implemented a rising variable spring rate that changed under different compression and vehicle loads, allowing the Mini to adapt brilliantly to changes in weight. This was exceedingly significant considering the fact that a full passenger load often doubled the Mini’s gross weight. Most importantly, especially for us Petrolisti, the independent rubber cone suspension at each of the aforementioned small wheels combined with the placement of these wheels at the corners of the car’s body provided the Mini with its renowned, go-kart-like handling.
And that is the origin story of the original “Mini.” It was the result of Issigonis being remarkably successful in not only reaching, but going above and beyond, each and every one of Lord’s ambitious design directives.
The 1960 Morris Mini-Minor/Austin Seven matched the “bloody awful bubble cars’s” fuel economy by attaining 36.2mpg while offering far more interior space and two additional passenger seats. Further, Issigonis’s car was easy to drive, its suspension could handle even the most neglected roads, and offered more than enough power (34bhp, 44lb-ft) for a car of such diminutive size.
Most importantly for the Mini’s legacy, Issigonis’s design innovations combined to create a car that handled remarkably well and was fantastically entertaining to drive. It was this aspect that attracted the legendary John Cooper to Lord’s new car. Issigonis and Cooper’s initially reluctant collaboration would eventually lead to the creation of the Mini Cooper S, which would become a motoring legend by earning a reputation for being a ‘giant-killer’ by defeating far more powerful cars on the way to countless rally wins, including the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967.
When all was said and done, Leonard Lord’s attitude toward bubble cars combined with Alec Issigonis’s ability to innovate, created a truly revolutionary giant-killer that was a delight to drive, while also being cheap, economical, and fuel efficient. This formula produced the best-selling British car of all time and has since been imitated by just about every automaker since.
Like I always say, “anything worth doing is worth doing right.” And I think Lord and Issigonis would agree.
Thank you to My Mini Revolution Paris for allowing us to photograph their car.