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Mini Cooper

Mini Cooper Published: 15th Feb 2019 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Mini Cooper
Mini Cooper
Mini Cooper
Mini Cooper
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Stuart recalls how it transformed small car appeal 60 years ago

After four years on the staff of The Autocar I was sent on my first car launch adventure. Go to Chobham (Surrey) and report to the FVRE (fighting vehicles research establishment – later given different names). Unlike today’s super safety concepts, there was no preliminary briefing, no signing of disclaimers or compulsory wearing of crash helmets. I was simply given a key and told the number on the windscreen which would identify the car allocated to me.

I knew from our description in the summer of 1959 that the starter button was on the floor, but some may have had dificulty finding it, and I wondered what would happen if you drove through flood water. I was soon amazed at the speeds that other journalists were driving this little car and for a few laps I was humiliated by being overtaken repeatedly. But gradually I gathered confidence in its remarkable handling, especially through the long bends of the hill course, known as ‘the snake’. I returned to the office full of praise for the new little car, the Morris Mini-Minor from BMC.

A new way of motoring

It brought a lot of new thinking to car design, not only by having the engine mounted transversely and driving the front wheels, but in such matters as the rubber coated wire strap for opening the door, rubber springs for the suspension, the sliding windows, and the amazing concept of a common lubricant for both the engine and the gearbox which was integral with it. Ten-inch tyres were also a novelty, and tyre manufacturers had to gear up production for the new size. BMC boss George Harriman invited the Minister of Transport, Harold Watkinson, to Longbridge to see the motoring revolution which was about to be unleashed on the public.

Autocar felt that this very novel car needed something dramatic in the way of a long launch test, and the idea was mooted for it to be driven around the Mediterranean. It promised to be an exciting trip which I would dearly have loved to go on, but the task fell to Assistant Editor Ron (Steady) Barker and a relatively new arrival on the staff, Peter Riviere.They had to go through an enormous amount of preparatory work, obtaining visas and a host of injections, and set off with a bit of a air, flagged away from the Royal Festival Hall by Jack Brabham on 26th August 1959.

It was a bold undertaking in a car that had only just been launched, and although there were some inevitable problems the Mini stood up to it all very well. Its only modifications were a sump shield and an additional 5½ gallon fuel tank. Chief problems concerned the rubber rear suspension and the snag which was to plague owners of early Minis, ignition failure in wet weather. Occasional loss of coolant was caused by a poor radiator filler cap.

The car was provided on loan by BMC, and was the dearer of two versions on sale, the standard model at £350 and the De Luxe at £378. These prices were swollen by Purchase Tax to £497 and £537. Initial names were the Morris Mini- Minor and the Austin Seven but these were soon dropped and Mini became the universal name as well as bringing a new word into the language.

The team’s first problem with officialdom came in Turkey when it was spotted that Barker had inadvertently declared the wrong amount of travellers’ cheques. A fine of a whopping £93 was threatened, or they could drive back to Mersin, 165 miles, and attend a higher court. This involved a lot of wasted time, but after many hours the court waived the fine and they were able to drive back to the frontier. The journey from Beirut to Alexandria in Egypt had to be taken by boat with the Mini on the deck, but worse news was to find that the border between Tunisia and Algeria was closed to all road traffic, so they tried to go round by boat. After wasting nearly a week trying to arrange this, they took the better option of chartering an aircraft for the short distance towards Algiers, costing £145. Seats were removed from the C47 and the Mini was manhandled up a ramp to go into the aircraft.

The tour took four weeks and covered 8197 miles at an average economy of 35.95mpg, and oil at 280 miles per pint. After return to the factory the car was completely stripped to the last nut and bolt and all wear measured, showing that it had stood up to this extreme test remarkably well. THe story of their adventures ran over several issues with the heading Mediterranean Mini-go-round.

Not an immediate hit

Sales of the Mini were slow at first, perhaps because people still had memories of the 1956 oil crisis and the rash of often horrid little economy runabouts generated by the fuel shortage, but soon the Mini caught on when actors and eminent personalities were seen to be running one. People who bought a Mini felt the need to emphasise that it wasn’t a question of saving money. Mr Stevens, director of the Cheltenham car firm Kingscote & Stevens told me: “I live up in the hills and we get a lot of snow, so I have to have front-wheel drive.” Calveley Trevelyan, retired steel director and founder of Auto-Sleepers motor caravans, downgraded from his Aston Martin to a Mini, and explained to me: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Very soon, too, drivers took advantage of the Mini’s nippiness and manoeuvrability, sometimes adding to the aggravation after cutting someone up or diving into a tiny gap between two cars by displaying a notice on the back window reading: ‘You’ve just been Mini’d’.

A story which may be apocryphal but perhaps has some origin in fact concerns a Rolls-Royce driver who was carefully backing his Silver Cloud into a kerbside parking space when a Mini nipped into the bay. The driver jumped out, tapped on the window of the Rolls-Royce and said: “To do that, you’ve got to be young and with it.”

Furious, the Rolls-Royce driver, with Reverse still selected, took his foot off the brake and trod heavily on the accelerator. There was a horrendous crunching noise. Turning to the now devastated owner of the Mini, he said: “To do that, you’ve got to be old and rich.”

Enter the cooper

With its widely praised roadholding and handling, the Mini called for more performance, which was met just two years after its initial launch by the introduction of Cooper versions in September 1961. Tuning for performance was all the rage in the early 1960s and the Mini made a huge impact on the market. Cylinder heads came o, ports were enlarged and polished and two SU carburettors took the place of the single one.

Rally successes also helped to champion the Mini Cooper, and there was a phenomenal demonstration of the car’s potential in the 1961 Targa Florio when a Mini Cooper with tuning by Downton Engineering finished second in the 2-litre prototype class. The company run by Daniel Richmond was the most successful of the tuning experts, and in last year’s August issue of Classic Motoring, Paul Moran told how he, had by chance, come across a Downton-tuned Mini Cooper. In December 1961 Autocar had Downton’s latest Mini Cooper for test. I did the test with Ron Barker and we were amazed at its performance, especially when it returned a mean maximum speed of 103mph. We were so impressed that we went to the nearest post office and sent a congratulatory telegram to Daniel. The test report was headed Mini-Ton-Bomb.

The Mini revolution spread across the world, with more and more manufacturers saving space and weight by mounting the engine transversely with front-wheel drive. As stated earlier by Mr Trevelyan, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” They’ll never be another car like it.

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