Mini Marvel

Britain's favourite little car is 40 this month, but much has changed since Alec Issigonis scribbled his famous design on the back of a fag packet. Who would have thought the tiny motor that defined the Sixties would end up very big in Japan?
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There is something discomfiting about the fact that we now make the Mini almost exclusively for Japan. It's like discovering that London Bridge is actually in an American desert, or that the Royal Family are of German descent. Surely the Mini, like ice-cream vans and traffic cones, is a part of the British roadscape fabric? Isn't it?

Well, not now. These days, nine cars are assembled each working hour at Rover's ageing Birmingham factory - and almost every one of them is then boarded on to a cargo boat bound for Tokyo, where the Mini continues to be the best-selling British car. As the Mini approaches its 40th birthday, on 26 August, it is sad to relate that it is this trade alone that keeps the Longbridge production line rolling.

"The fact is that, for Japanese people who love cars, owning a Mini is the fulfilment of a dream," says David Blume, who as the president of Rover Japan is the man largely responsible for the car's survival. Sixteen years ago he was sent to Japan to sort out the company's chaotic sales network there. Private importers were doing a roaring Mini trade, so Blume introduced the car officially in 1985. Within months, he'd sold 1,500 Minis to a clique of fanatics; today, he sells about 8,000 of the cars every year.

Back in this country, meanwhile - as enthusiasts prepare to invade Silverstone on 21-22 August to pay tribute to the classic Mini - designers are helping to shape a "new" version that will, it is hoped, drag the little car into the 21st century, and re-establish its popularity among buyers on this side of the world.

The irony, of course, is that car design today is all about teamwork and technology, consensus and computers. Yet the Mini, probably the most significant car design ever, made it from one man's sketch on the back of a fag packet to showroom reality in less than 36 months.

The 1956 fuel crisis was the catalyst. Public panic over petrol rationing had been answered by a succession of appalling, hastily designed "bubble" cars. The boss of the British Motor Corporation, Sir Leonard Lord, knew that there must be an alternative, and in a move that turned out to be a masterstroke he re-hired Alec Issigonis, the prickly, 51-year-old Anglo- Greek engineer who had previously been responsible for BMC's popular Morris Minor. Issigonis accepted the post of chief engineer, on condition that he could do exactly what he wanted.

Issigonis was a man used to getting his own way. He had worked almost single-handedly on the Minor, often during wartime blackouts, before being lured away to the luxury car-maker Alvis. And once he had garnered his reputation for being "right" about things, it often took just a thumbnail sketch and a carefully worded argument to wow a weary motor executive into committing to whatever he proposed.

The Mini took shape rapidly during 1957 around Issigonis's ground-breaking concept. He planned the smallest possible economy car that could carry four adults in comfort, siting the gearbox under the engine instead of behind it, using front-wheel drive, and mounting the engine across the front of the car. Tiny, specially made wheels and tyres, and space-saving rubber-cone suspension, were part of the package too. The whole thing came out at just 10 feet long. And the shape of the car? Well, the shape just sort of happened.

"This will cost millions of pounds to make," admitted a pensive Issigonis, when Lord tried out the prototype.

"Don't you worry about that," the boss bellowed, slapping his designer on the back. "I'll sign the cheques; you get on with getting the thing to work."

The Mini was at last revealed to the public in August 1959. It was badged Austin Mini Seven or Morris Mini-Minor, and the price was an unfeasibly cheap pounds 496. Despite cost-trimming measures, including sliding windows and the famous external body-welds, the car is thought to have been a drain on the BMC's resources for the first nine years of its life. Otherwise, it was the perfect reflection of its designer's vision.

Issigonis was a chain-smoker, so he included an ashtray. He liked dry martinis, therefore - legend has it - he designed the car's novel door- mounted bins to accommodate a row of bottles of Gordon's gin. And he hated listening to the radio while he was driving, so the Mini had nowhere to fit one in.

At first, the public was both impressed by and rather suspicious of the spartan Mini. But what no one had anticipated was that the car would be quite so enjoyable to drive. On the road it was a revelation, with go- kart handling, fantastic steering, and the kind of roadholding that meant it could out-manoeuvre many of the world's contemporary sports cars.

Issigonis deplored the idea of a go-faster Mini but, after driving the standard version, his friend John Cooper - the acclaimed F1 car constructor - twigged to its extraordinary handling and roadholding. He knew that there was a formidable racing car in there, just itching to get out. He put the idea for a souped-up Mini to BMC, who liked the sound of it. They needed something to make the Mini hip, because at the time it was far from quick-selling. So, in 1961, the two-tone Mini Cooper was launched. Now it was a real hot-rod, with a top speed above 87mph; later came the Cooper S, capable of 100mph and greased-lightning acceleration.

The Cooper's amazing, giant-killing performance made it a racing force to be reckoned with, and it swiped three victories in the Monte Carlo Rally. All of a sudden, the Mini's featureless, rotund profile was quite literally in Vogue, gracing many a fashion shoot and being driven around by celebrities including Peter Sellers, Margot Fonteyn and Ringo Starr. Before long, the little car had established itself as an icon of Swinging London.

And that's where the Mini stopped, a cocktail of brilliant thinking captured for ever in the Zeitgeist of the early Sixties, like a fossil sealed in a block of Perspex. It took a few years for production to snowball. Indeed, 1971 was the car's best-ever year, with 318,475 sold. But the design was left untouched; to modify it was too expensive, and to abandon it was unthinkable. The Mini was already 10 years old when it was immortalised in the cult Michael Caine movie, The Italian Job.

If you've never driven a Mini, then you've missed the opportunity to sample sheer motoring entertainment. Though it's cramped, noisy, of mediocre quality and dated inside, there's still little to beat a Mini's quick- witted reactions in a bustling urban jungle.

This is a car that, because of the sheer exhilaration of driving it, has escaped the axe that usually falls on cars when they get long in the tooth. It outlasted the Metro that was supposed to replace it in 1980. It survived the ignominy of Noel Edmonds driving the five-millionth example off the production line in 1986. It even outlived its creator, Sir Alec Issigonis, who died in 1988.

This time, though, there's no hiding-place. The old Mini will die soon, its engine being too old to pass emission tests any longer, and the all- new Mini, constructed with the help of the latest in design thinking, will take its place. The relaunch is being masterminded by BMW, the new owners of the Mini "brand", from its Munich HQ. This is probably a sensible move; it seems that the last nationality you should be if you are to appreciate the Mini is British. After all, it was pressure from Japan that led to the reintroduction of the Mini Cooper in 1990 (the original had been dropped in 1971), cashing in once again on the car's heroic sporting pedigree. It was a successful ruse: sales soared.

Rover Japan's David Blume admits that he's been closely consulted by the design team of the new car. "Japan is a key market for it, and `Cooperness' is very important here," he says. Japanese buyers spend an average of pounds 500 on extras and accessories, asking for black-and-white chequered roofs, Union Jack paintwork, and chrome door-handles and bumpers. Fashionable owners pay extra for a row of rally-style spotlights at the front - and one in five new Minis is ordered with a metal roof-rack identical to the one fitted to the 1967 Monte Carlo-winning Mini Cooper S.

In 1957, just as the Mini was crystallising, the French philosopher Roland Barthes compared cars to cathedrals. He said they were "the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image, if not in usage, by a whole population that appreciates them as purely magical objects".

It was a prophetic statement for the first Mini. Let's hope that it will also hold true for the car's next 40 years.