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AUGUST 26, 1959 was a landmark in automotive design. The British Motor Corporation lifted the covers off the Morris Mini-Minor and Austin Seven. It measured only 10 ft long yet was capable of seating four passengers. Its top speed was over 70 mph. There was all-independent suspension, unheard of in a small car. The engine was mounted transversely to save space. Its handling was so superb that it would wind up being a multiple winner of the gruelling Monte Carlo Rally. And, it was one of the cheapest cars on the market.
Britain found itself at the pinnacle of automotive design that year. The Mini, as it became known, was the product of Alec Issigonis, who had already been behind BMCís top-selling Morris Minor. Issigonis had a reputation for advanced thinking and strong determinationóthe more someone told him something Ďcouldnít be doneí, the harder he worked at finding a solution. The Miniís birth came around in a similar way.
The fact the Mini is still with us 40 years later, and still built on the same production line as in 1959, is testament to the carís then-advanced design. While it appears outwardly anachronistic alongside the cars built by what is now the Rover Group, a division of BMW, the transverse engine, front-wheel-drive concept adopted by the Mini is copied by virtually all manufacturers.
Part of the Miniís longevity is in the simplicity of its design. The 1950s will be remembered more for fins and Harley Earlís attempts to sell glamour to Americans. It was in this environment that Issigonis bucked the trend by designing a car with an emphasis on clean lines and practicality. None of this meant that the resulting Mini looked unattractive, even if there was initial public resistance. Issigonis had done what all designers wish to achieve: created a packaging and engineering marvel that looked well balanced.
It is fair to note that Issigonis was not alone in creating well designed cars without the embellishment of the Americans. There was the Jaguar D-type, Citroën DS, Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, Alfa Giulietta Sprint, Bentley R-type Continental, Lancia Aurelia, Lotus Elite; but these, apart from the space-age looks of the Citroën, appear to be products of their time. The Mini is an evergreen.
With fewer considerations then, a certain bloodymindedness on the part of one could drive a project from beginning to end: Ferdinand Porsche did it with the Volkswagen Käfer, for example. Not that this is entirely absent today: in modern times, an "idea champion", such as Chryslerís Bob Gale, took the idea of a modern-day hot rod and encouraged his team to create the Plymouth Prowler.
Smyrna-born Issigonis had gone to work for Alvis in Coventry in the 1950s but Sir Leonard Lord at BMC persuaded him, in 1955, to return. Jack Daniels and Chris Kingham joined Issigonis and began work on XC9000, 1.5-litre rear-wheel-drive car. However, XC9000 was eventually put on hold, due to the Suez crisis of 1956.
When Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, Britain entered a fuel crisis. Tankers from the middle east supplying Britain had to go around South Africa, and petrol rose to 3s. 6d. a gallon. By 1957, Sir Leonard told Issigonis that BMC must introduce a small car. XC9003 was born.
There were restrictions, but that brought out the genius in Issigonis. An existing engine had to be used, so he chose the A-series powerplant, but mounted it transversely to save space. The gearbox was located underneath in the sump.
Issigonis literally got four chairs and drew a box around it to determine the size of XC9003. The compact engine design meant that 80 per cent of the carís length could be used for passenger space.
The first prototypes were on the road in October 1957, with a strong resemblance to the final product. There were detail improvements to the exterior, although underneath the skin, the engine was turned around 180 degrees to prevent the carburettor icing up and the suspension mounted on subframes.
The car was launched under two brands in 1959: Austin Seven, and Morris Mini-Minor. BMC's publicity material referred to the former as the 'Se7en'. Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf versions, with an elongated "finned" tail and a more formal grille, appeared in 1961.
The Mini-Cooper arrived in 1961 and went on to win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967. Its win in 1966 was disqualified on a technicality, but that only served to build up the model's mystique and appeal. Its greatest publicity coup to date was the Mini-Cooperís starring role in the 1969 Michael Caine-Noël Coward film The Italian Job, although British Leyland did not officially place the product in the film. While the film was not a great success outside Britain, in that country it cemented the little carís reputation for virtually the following three decades.
That same year, with the introduction of the Mk III Mini, the Austin and Morris brand names were dropped and Mini became a marque in its own right.
All was not well. The Mini was copied by others extensively throughout the decade and BL had no response. There was the Autobianchi Primula, which differed from the Mini by having its gearbox attached to the end of the engine. Fiatís own 128, Peugeotís 204 and Hondaís 1300 followed.
BLís belated response for 1970 was the Mini Clubman, putting a square nose on the once-cute front of Issigonisís original. It instantly ruined the style of the Mini, but fortunately the original style was retained for lesser models.
Changes within BL through the 1970s meant the Mini was, by the turn of the decade, offered as part of the Austin Morris range, and later, a product of the Rover Group. It took BMWís takeover of Rover for Mini to re-emerge as a separate marque.
Now with flared wheelarches, 12-inch wheels and a detuned Cooper 1.3-litre engine, the Mini will soldier on to 2000, when an all-new version arrives. Although the next Mini looks oddly like the old, BMW promises innovations, but it is unlikely, judging by its appearance, that the car will have the genius that only Issigonis and few others could deliver.