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Mini Company History

Published: 24th Mar 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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The Mini came to be the greatest car ever made more by accident than design throughout its 41 year life. Born out of necessity from a austere post war Britain suffering badly from the Suez crisis of 1956, cheap. Economical transportation was the Mini’s chief priority when introduced in 1959. And yet 50 years on it’s better known for its classless appeal, cheeky image, fun driving a chequered history on both road and race track – and The Italian Job.

It’s hard to comprehend it now but when the Alec Issigonis’ Mini was launched in half a century ago it wasn’t received to great acclaim by the buying public. Not instantly anyway. For many, with its odd styling, front-wheel drive and those tiny silly wheels, it was far too advanced to be trusted. Motorists instead looked to other newcomers introduced that same year for dependable transport such as the Triumph Herald and the immensely sensible and conventional Ford Anglia 105E.

In fact, if luck hadn’t played a hand in the life of the Mini, the Midlands motoring giant may have gone under a lot sooner than it did. It cost BMC a huge amount even in 1959 days to design and tool up for this revolutionary car that by 1960 few people wanted; typical BMC unreliability had owners carrying out unpaid development work. Ford wondered how BMC could make such a revolutionary car for the money so bought a Mini, on the quiet from a BMC dealer, stripped it to the bones and costed it down to the last rivet.

Ford calculated that the British Motor Corporation was losing a tidy £5 on every Mini it sold and even suggested to BMC that both companies should up their prices by around £30 so both could make a decent profit. BMC declined – and the rest is history. What saved the Mini, and ultimately the company, were racing drivers and royalty! So good to drive was the Mini that many top F1 drivers used one as their personal transport and when GP car constructor John Cooper showed his modified wizard on wheels to BMC big wigs the Mini Cooper was born, which fortunately gave the car’s popularity an enormous boost. But perhaps it was Issigonis’ friend Tony Armstrong-Jones who really put the Mini on the map. The future husband of Princess Margaret (sister to the Queen), Lord Snowdon showed that the cheap and cheerful Mini was totally classless. With the Mini good enough for Royalty order books started to fill – and as the most significant decade in the history of the World evolved, the only cool car to own was the most significant one ever made – the Mini.

Ten years after launch, and almost singlehandedly starting the car accessory industry, the Mini also stole the silver screen limelight in The Italian Job although by now rivals were producing small cars as equally good to drive and certainly better equipped and more refined. Then another stroke of fortune in the form of another fuel shortage – even worse than the Suez crisis – brought the back to basics virtues of the Mini to the forefront again. Only this time around they were more appreciated. By now however, cash-strapped British Leyland had no money in the pot to further develop the Mini, which is why it stayed much the same throughout its production life. Ultimately that’s the reason it quietly became a classic; it’s a car that appeals to all ages because generations have grown up on the Mini.

With the Metro in the wings, the plan was to kill the Mini off in 1982 but 11th hour stays of execution became part of latter day Mini life as means of keeping the old design up to date to meet ever toughening emission and safety standards were always found and at minimal
cost as well. Quite simply Mini had become so woven into the fabric of our society that it seemed the design could go on for ever, even if by now only as a fringe fun thing. It couldn’t of course and after 5,387,861 were made, the final curtain call came on a sunny day in late 2000 at the Longbridge factory (witnessed by our editor).

But as you’d expect from Austin-Rover, even when this simple but historic job was handed to the gaffe-prone company on a plate, the bosses still made a pig’s ear out of a simple poignant ceremony. Mini was introduced to the world by BMC’s marketing man Tony Ball who had a more famous singing son called Michael (yes him). Who better then to send the 5,387,862 car, destined for the Gaydon Museum, off in style? Exactly… So why did Rover enlist Lulu instead, which in turn upset the bewildered Ball family who left the production line ceremony before it barely got underway. Could you see BMW, who is enjoying massive success with its modern interpretation of the original, making a similar balls up? That’s the car but what about the genius who designed it. Alec Issigonis became almost as much a household name as his wonder on wheels during the 1960s and 70s.

As with all geniuses he was a complex man who knew the importance of his own worth. Sometimes known as ‘Arrogonis’ he ruled the Engineering Department (aka The Kremlin) like the dictator he could be; the Mini was his baby and he resisted any suggestions to change it - even for the better. For example, he deliberately made the Mini so uncomfortable, with lousy seats and a bus-like driving position, because he believed that it kept the driver alert (he banned car radios for the same reason – goodness know what he’d have thought of mobile phones!) and was so against the deletion of his cheap and cheerful sliding windows, and those useful door pockets, that when he ordered a new Mini as his personal transport, he demanded the car to be converted back! Other stories of his eccentricity included forbidding any car that he hadn’t been involved in from his driveway!

While Sir Alec (Knighted in 1969) is best remembered for Mini, it should be remembered that he also designed that other loved classic, the Morris Minor, and the best-selling 1100/1300 ranges, which always outsold the Mini during its production run! But less liked cars included the ungainly 1800 and the Maxi, so when British Leyland took control of the ailing British Motor Corporation Issigonis became marginalised and side-lined before officially retiring in 1971.. His retirement present was just what he wanted – the
biggest Meccano set around! He died in October 1988 one month short of his 82nd birthday. Lord Snowdon gave him this tribute: “The Mini is a car that won’t die and it won’t die because of Alec’s genius”.

The Suez crisis of 1956 caused an implosion of the UK’s economy and BMC alone overnight axed 6000 workers. Sound’s familiar doesn’t it? Perhaps what we need is another all new Mini with equally fresh new ideas?

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