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AN AD in the January 1961 R&T got me thinking about the impact of the original Morris 850 in automotive history. This car evolved indirectly from the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. The Mini became a cult car in the 1960s. And, on a personal note, one of its offshoots, the Mini Moke, was destined to change my life.
The Morris 850 heralded in the January 1961 R&T was indeed a revolutionary design: “The Car with the Crosswise Engine.” Admittedly, transverse-engine front-drive cars had been around since the early 1900’s Christie. But the Mini, as it came to be known, deserved plaudits in 1999 when the Global Automotive Elections Foundation named it the second-most significant car of the 20th century. Good food for discussion here: 1st Ford Model T, 3rd Citroën DS, 4th Volkswagen Beetle, and 5th Porsche 911
From 1959 until 2000, the Mini was a product of British Motor Corporation and its corporate successors. Not to disparage either modern car, but today’s Mini is to the original as today’s Bugatti is to the automobiles of Ettore Bugatti.
Originally termed ADO15 (Amalgamated Drawing Office project 15), the Mini came about because of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. Like other Middle East conflicts, this one precipitated a petroleum scare that in turn brought gasoline rationing to Britain. Leonard Lord, BMC’s head, is said to have vowed to rid the streets of German competitors with a “proper miniature car.”
Alex Issigonis was in charge of ADO15. He and his team worked within the parameters of a box measuring 10 x 4 x 4 feet, with passengers getting 6 feet of the length. What’s more, the engine, necessarily mounted transversely to fit, had to be an existing design.
The Mini is the brilliant result. Other innovations included its engine and gearbox sharing a common oil supply, and a side-mounted radiator whose fan blew air into the low-pressure region of the left wheel well. This air had already passed around the hot engine, but, in fact, Minis were not known for sensitivity to adverse temperature.
The car’s suspension used rubber cones in lieu of heavier and more bulky metal springs. The Mini’s ride was not known for boulevard plushness, but the car handled like a four-place go kart.
Its original BMC A-Series overhead-valve four-cylinder engine displaced 848 cc and produced 34 hp at 5500 rpm. In time, variations displaced 970, 997, 998, 1071, 1098 and 1275 cc, this last one producing as much as 75 hp.
The Mini’s monocoque shell had exposed seams running down the A and C pillars and between the body and floor pan. The “everted” A-pillar seams provided extra room, perhaps an inch, in the Mini’s passenger compartment. These exposed seams also gave rise to a wonderful trivia question: What does a Mini have in common with a Bugatti Atlantic?
In November 1965, R&T gave an Austin-Cooper 1275 S a full road test. “Mini’s No Moocher” read the article’s subhead. “It has proven itself a terror in British saloon car racing and the past two years has been the overall and outright winner of the Monte Carlo Rally. It is an absolute blast to drive and you seldom see a Mini-Cooper S driver cornering without a grin of fierce delight.”
“In a manner of speaking, the performance of the 1275 S seems greater than it actually is.” R&T recounted its testing as “the most amusing 18-sec quarter that can be imagined, full of wheel tramp, judder, hop, tire squeals, strips of black rubber and the pleasant scent of smoked Dunlops. An 18-sec quarter in a big American sedan is strictly dullsville in comparison.”
I savored experiences with two Mini Mokes, the Mini’s automotive buckboard variant. Originally seen as a military vehicle parachuted with the troops, it didn’t take long to realize the Moke would be more appropriate for an army of Munchkins.
I owned a Moke during the 1970s when I lived on St. Thomas; a story about it was my R&T debut, in August 1973, and led to my eventual career at the magazine. Later, Wife Dottie and I drove my second Moke cross-country for another R&T tale: “Partway across the vastness of Delaware, I realized I had made a dreadful mistake,”
In retrospect, this trip was a blast as well, and the day after arrival we had Thanksgiving on the patio. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com. 2016
I remember riding around in one in New York with a friend. Is it true that BMC lost
money on each one it sold…?
In junior high, I saw the “Italian Job” movie and fell in love with the Mini. By the time I was in high school in the 1970s, I made sure my first car was a Mini. And I’ve owned at least one (often more) since then. They were, and still are, a huge part of my life.
Interesting to note the absence of the word “Mini” in the old advertisement, as BMC initially marketed the cars as the “850” in the US, while they were still using “Austin Seven” and “Morris Mini-Minor” back in the UK.
From what I understand, some time around 1962 or so, BMC astutely reacted to the British public’s widespread use of the nickname “Mini” when referring to the cars, and they officially adopted Mini as the model name for the iconic car. By the early 1970s, new parent British Leyland even made Mini its own separate automotive brand.