kilometer magazine

celebrating european cars and motorcycles


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22 July 2010

The tale of the iconic Mini — the original, not the new one — is one for which many books could and have been written. One that could consume every tired The Little Engine That Could, Tortoise and Hare, and David vs. Goliath analogy in the world, and one that involves more forward-thinkers than one could fit in, well, a Mini. Seriously, how loveable does a car have to be to carry on basically unchanged for forty years?

Every major car-producing country seems to have its own legendary car for the people; Germany has the VW Beetle, France the Citroen 2CV, Italy the Fiat 500. Japan’s contribution to motoring for the masses is the Honda Civic, and if you think America has nothing to offer history, perhaps you’ve forgotten that the Ford Model T was the original economy car.

The British, they gave us the Mini, likely the most loveable of them all. However, while the Brits would love to take credit, most people know the Mini actually came from the mind of a Greek man, Alec Issigonis. His revolutionary ideas, like a transverse-mounted engine with a gearbox inside the sump (and lubricated by engine oil,) sparsely trimmed interior focused on space, and wheels mounted far out at the corners to expand the passenger compartment, are what made the Mini — sold initially as the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor — an instant hit when it debuted in 1959. That wheel placement, along with a lack of weight, is what also made the Mini such an entertaining and competitive drive.

Not everything revolutionary about the Mini was well received though. A few years into production, an oddball suspension concept developed by Issigonis and Alex Moulton called “Hydrolastic” used liquid-filled damping tubes between the wheels, but was criticized for complexity, a choppy ride, and for being a pain to repair. Not that the basic suspension wasn’t odd enough — it used rubber cones inserted into the subframe instead of traditional coil springs.

Most modern enthusiasts can’t even mutter the name Mini without also affixing the word Cooper. In fact, it adorns every one of the BMW-build Minis of today, but that wasn’t the case originally. A right proper Englishman named John Cooper, who just so happened to be a world-class race car builder, put a 997 cc Formula Junior engine in a Mini and tried to gain factory production support for what was certainly the first hot hatch (sorry, GTI). Issigonis refused to help, however, because his intention was to build a modest commuter car, not a sports coupe. In fact, it’s said that Alex Issigonis tried to prevent performance variants from happening at all.

Undeterred by Issigonis’ stubbornness, Cooper continued his push and eventually got the attention of British Motor Corporation managing director George Harriman, who not only granted him the 1000 production cars necessary for homologation, but also a small kick-back for every car sold. 24,860 first-generation Mini Coopers later, the arrangement proved lucrative for all parties.

Engine displacement for the Cooper, and with it, overall performance, grew through the early 1960s. And its racing pedigree reached a fever pitch when Paddy Hopkirk, the third huge name in the Mini story, won the 1964 Monte Carlo rally outright. This was the moment when the Mini went from a well-received compact car to a true giant killer.

From that point, the Mini story gets far too complicated to cover in this space, but we’ve provided a few good resources for further reading at the end of this article. The next few decades would involve numerous improvements and variants, including pickups, vans, off-road vehicles, and a few mistakes as well. The ubiquitous Mini even became a movie star in the Italian Job, cementing its status as an icon despite a lack of support from the factory. In a brilliant move typical under British Leyland ownership, the movie company was unable to negotiate a deal directly with Mini’s owners to feature their cars in the blockbuster, and instead was forced to source its Minis from a cooperative dealer in Switzerland. Needless to say, the car was the star, and its role in the film made the basic transportation look fashionable and chic.

For us, the story picks up where the original Mini’s life ends. The car you see here and, incidentally, the one we spent a whole day driving around Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks outside of New York City, represents the end of the line. It’s a 2000 model year Knightsbridge, one of four different “Final Edition” variants and one that was only sold outside England. It features larger, wider wheels and fender flares, an upgraded interior, a canvas roof, and the gold paint. This particular one started life as a company-owned marketing vehicle in Germany, but when BMW announced plans for the new Mini, this example was brought over for US product planners, executives, and marketing types to try out. It has lived at BMW USA headquarters since then and has just shy of 12,000 kilometers on the clock. Its combination of low miles, fuel-injected engine, Knightsbridge options, and evolutionary improvements means this should be one of the nicest, best-performing Minis in existence.

First impressions indicate why the British have such a reputation for questionable build quality. The metal trim ring that runs the circumference of the roof shakes loosely in its place, as though merely resting on the car’s head like a crown. Inside, the steering wheel is fixed at an unfortunately school bus-like tilt angle, and it’s also canted off to one side. The parking brake handle has no sort of trim piece covering where it comes through the carpet at all.

Still, 51 years after this car debuted, Issigonis’ space efficiency concepts still impress. Compared to a 2010 Mini Cooper, the original rides on seventeen fewer inches of wheelbase and measures twenty-six inches shorter lengthwise, two inches shorter in height, and eleven inches skinnier from side to side. Despite some major differences in external dimensions, the passenger space isn’t painfully small, and really only the width is overtly noticeable compared to its modern descendant. Sure, space is tight — to create adequate foot space, the gas pedal is actually behind the heating unit, just about at the center of the car — but the most cramped spaces seem to be under the hood (especially with a fuel-injected 1.3-liter under there) and in the trunk, er, boot.

We aren’t going to lie and say that from some certain standpoints, the Mini isn’t actually a wretched little car; it is. (Blasphemy!) Even this most refined of Mini engines is loud and coarse, the manual transmission sloppy. The suspension doesn’t so much soak up bumps as leap between them. The thin seats aren’t comfortable in the least, and the entire car feels like it was built by a gang of drunks on top of a pub’s pool table.

But that’s also at the heart of what makes the Mini so endearing. This lack of pretenses means the car has to be appreciated for its core strengths, namely handling and efficiency. Think about it. No one praises the VW Beetle for its great stereo, the Fiat 500 isn’t loved because of the high-horsepower figures those Italians are known for, and hell, the Ford Model T doesn’t even have a gas pedal. While your 2010 Kia Forte might have an iPod jack, most Twentieth-century basic transportation was a very sacrificial affair.

That doesn’t matter once we throw the Mini at its first curve; it also doesn’t matter that even after dropping two gears, the 63-hp motor is still wheezing to make it up a winding incline. It might not deliver much, but the little motor proudly and eagerly screams at full bore all day long.

Controls in the Mini are so direct, operating one is less like driving and more like pulling puppet strings. The view in every direction is clear through large windows, and with the small dimensions the whole car seems to be right beneath you. Pull one string and the car instantly responds and goes left. Pull another and it goes right. Brake and throttle response are similarly immediate, and the four-speed manual demands constant attention to its notchy, long throws. Even if you want to be bored, this car won’t allow it. Minis crave attention from their drivers.

They command attention on the street, too, at least here in America where only about 10,000 were sold through the ‘60s. It’s magnetic. People flock to it like it’s the world’s smallest Bugatti.

And so, we’ve found the core of the Mini’s appeal. It’s a small, simple means of transportation that doesn’t remind its owners they aren’t rich, one that wins over newcomers with its welcoming smile and keeps them around with its personality. It defied the odds, becoming a sales success not just for British citizens worried about rising fuel costs, but also for driving enthusiasts, race car drivers, and impassioned fans as far away as Japan and here in the States. Not many cars endure for four decades and fewer still (only one that we can think of) go on to inspire a thriving brand based on, initially at least, one single vehicle.

If you ask other enthusiasts what cars they’d have in an ideal ten-car dream garage, you’ll probably hear things like Cobras, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Mercedes-Benz roadsters, and other exotica. But we’re willing to bet that a good portion of us would be more than happy to have a well-kept, white-stripes-over-red-paint Mini Cooper sitting among all the V12s and carbon fiber. We know we would.

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