Mini marvel turns 50

2009-07-29 00:00

FOR once I’m actually beginning to feel old. No, it’s got nothing to do with old bones — rather the fact I well remember the birth of the British Mini that caused such a stir back in England in 1959. Well, that and the fact I was faced with my first real-life crisis: having to sit my 11-plus exams during those cold winter months the northern hemisphere is renowned for.

Elsewhere, at around the same time, eyes of the world were on Cuba, and the start of what was to become known as the “Cold War”, with threats of the serious kind see-sawing between America and Russia, with Britain acting as referee.

Nearer to home, incoming Conservative prime minister Harold McMillan had just trounced Labour’s Hugh Gaitskill in one of the biggest majority elections ever held in Britain — before or since. Just outside Oxford, about an hour’s drive from London, things were about to really take off for the British Motor Company (BMC) with the announcement of an all-new car called the Mini Minor. Designed by Alec Issigonis, this radical car was tiny, but could accommodate four adults thanks to its revolutionary transverse engine configuration, and with a wheel in each corner of the bodywork, this was the British secret plan to take glory away from the Volkswagen Beetle — a car that was selling in exceptional numbers wherever it was marketed.

Two Minis were available in either Morris or Austin form. The timing of these twins proved just about perfect. Issigonis, who was of Bavarian-Greek extraction, knew what the British buyer wanted, having been the man responsible for designing the highly successful Morris Minor, only this time he had the complete backing of the head of BMC, Leonard Lord, who said: “We need a proper, really useful miniature car — surely we can do better than replicate a bubble-type contraption!”

Peter Sellers had one, Brigitte Bardot, Cilla Black, George Harrison and Twiggie all loved theirs — naturally the males had to have the 998cc Mini Cooper version — while soccer star George Best owned the very best: the 1071cc Cooper “S” variant.

In the UK right now, a classic Cooper “S” made between 1963 and 1969 will sell for £10 000. If you have a good one here in South Africa, name your price! The Mini had rivals in motor circles but very few gained true silverware at international motoring events such as the Monte Carlo Rally in the hands of Paddy Hopkirk and John Cooper.

BMC were pioneers in producing various derivatives of the standard Mini. Between 1961 and 1982 the factory produced 58 000 pickup versions for global consumption — with a large percentage of them destined for South Africa. There were also vans, shooting brakes (complete with external ash-framed coachwork), and, if you really wanted to be different, why not go for the Minimoke — a sort of open-topped, cross country vehicle that was really adept at going up and down sand dunes — when this wasn’t frowned upon and now ultimately legislated against.

Think Mini and most fans of the marque will remember with much affection the film The Italian Job. Trick driving, stunts that showed up Italian cars above and below ground — a classic movie made famous by the British actors Michael Caine, Noël Coward and Benny Hill.

Today the brand is owned by German car company BMW, but still built in the UK. Hopefully this great little car will continue to celebrate many more birthdays; much kudos to one of the greatest cars ever to see the light of day. And if you still don’t believe me, here’s a thought: King Juan Carlos of Spain came under fresh scrutiny earlier this month for owning more than 70 cars. His favourite? Yes, you’ve guessed right...a blue Mini — the first car he ever bought.

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