Small wonder: The mighty Mini celebrates 50 years

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Fifty years ago this week, the Mini was born. But the pride of Britain's car industry – cheap, cute and groovy – became a symbol of all that was wrong with it.

Walking around the scrap yard that is the British motor industry, you wonder how it came to be that the nation that gave the world the most innovative small car of all time also ended up with no indigenous major car producer of its own.

The business pages tell us that the remaining, foreign-owned bits of our car industry are under renewed threat, their fate to be determined in boardrooms in Tokyo, Munich, Detroit, Turin and Mumbai rather than Coventry or Birmingham. Jaguar and Land Rover's future is uncertain; MG Rover is gone; the new Mini is made by BMW. Yet when the British Leyland Motor Corporation was formed forty years ago to unite famous names such as Austin, Morris, Rover, Triumph, MG and Jaguar, and Mini too, it was the fourth largest car maker in the world, before it collapsed and suffered a long, humiliating dismemberment. Our national champion became a national joke, our technological masterpieces museum pieces, our Mini a bloated shadow of its former self. How did all this come to this?

The answer lies in the truth about that most innovative small car of all time - the Mini. Most of the stuff written about this car in the 50 years, tomorrow, since the first one came off the production line is perfectly true, if somewhat hackneyed. It is great to drive; it is a design classic; it was revolutionary; it was classless and is much loved. But it was not a profitable car, and, for all its innovations, indeed often because of its innovations, nor was it a perfect one. I loved mine too, but I was only too well aware of how it played its own small part in the downfall of the British motor industry.

We have to face facts. If the Mini was so marvellous, how come the famous works that made so many of them – Longbridge, a plant once considered so advanced that the Japanese travelled here to learn about making cars – is today being bulldozed? The other factory, at Oxford, is now owned by BMW, and making a car that shares only a name and some retro design cues with the original. Longbridge is to make way for another shopping centre, as if we needed one, with a few outdated MG TF sports cars being made on the side by the Nanjing Motor Corporation. It is a sorry vista. Yet on 8 May 1959 it was the British Motor Corporation that saw its future roll off the production lines for the first time, a chubby faced baby car that would change the world, easily the best thing ever to come out of Brum. It was the pathfinder for a further 5,378,775, and a template for pretty much every small car that followed.

A few prototypes had been knocked up before, but 621 AOK, a white Morris Mini-Minor, was the first series production example, and is now display at the Motor Heritage Trust museum in Gaydon, Warwickshire, a standing monument to much that went wrong as well as right with our car industry.

Standing that is, but not moving around a lot: the folk at the trust are a pretty game bunch, and usually don't mind letting journalists out in their, fair to say, priceless possessions, 621 AOK included. However, there is a special problem with the first Mini, as I found when I tried to get my test drive in it, on a wet day. You see, they don't let Mini Number 1 out in the rain. This is not mere fastidiousness. The first few thousand, the "fifty niners" as they're known to Mini aficionados, had their floors welded the wrong way, and they thus let in water. It tells you a good deal that this fairly major flaw was not discovered quickly simply because the summer of 1959 was gloriously long and hot. The Mini's evolution had been rushed. As the sun shone on the pastel-shaded consumerism of Macmillan's era, the trials of the British Motor Corporation's new Austin "Se7en" saloon (a short-lived tribute to the original 1920s baby Austin), were conducted on dry roads. So when the first Minis were delivered to customers in the correspondingly long and wet autumn, they got damp carpets and wet feet. An unfortunate tradition that was to become all too common in our car industry – letting the customers finish off the engineering development work – was also born. The warranty claims were considerable and costly. It was a bad omen.

Still, despite my missing out on 621 AOK, I do know how a "classic" Mini drives, because I owned one for 14 years. As it happens, mine leaked too, though it was only a dribble, from the corner of the windscreen where it hadn't quite been sealed properly, and also from the top of the driver's door, for the same reason.

Eventually the rubber door seal fell off and had a habit of tripping me over when I got out, not exactly Michael Caine, more Mr Bean, I fear. When my car, a 'primula yellow' City E variant registered CCL 471Y, was put together in 1982 they hadn't changed the Mini that much in the intervening quarter century and four million or so cars.

That was part of the problem: they hadn't actually fixed all the "teething troubles". I think this is the ugly truth about the Mini. It didn't really work that well. Maybe I was just unlucky, but I'm not so sure. I learned a great deal about car engineering at any rate, as AA men and back street mechanics took me through, yet again, some Mini weakness or other. In the rain it would cut out alarmingly, because the ignition parts were put at the front of the engine, where they got wet in the rain, and I learned the combination of throttle, gear and ignition that was needed to get it going again on the move, even on a roundabout. They all did that. WD40 was the answer. The bearings in the front wheels would always wear out quickly, because the rubber seals didn't stay on, or split, fairly predictably, as they'd been doing since 1959. The exhaust fell off all the time, because they never stopped the engine rocking back and froth. I discovered that in decades they had never managed to stop the engine spraying oil on the clutch at high revs. The battery in the back was secured with a bit of cardboard; when you went over a big bump one of the terminals would fall off, and the car lost electrical power. A paving slab cured that. I found that all Minis rusted rather badly in the same places, and needed new sub frames at the back every ten years (this is when they usually get scrapped). The brakes and the lights were unreliable. The speedo was approximate. The only parts of the car that didn't need to be replaced during my time with it were the steering wheel and the radiator. Minis are also easy to nick, which is what eventually happened to mine, and I still miss it. Minis inspire love, but not always respect. I could see then why people might prefer a duller but more dependable Ford, Volkswagen or Toyota.

Which is what increasingly happened. Everyone else, it seems, let the British make their costly mistakes and only then copied the Mini idea, rendering it less austere, more practical, with a hatchback, safer and more durable and reliable. By the 1970s the Renault 5, Fiat 127, Ford Fiesta, Nissan Cherry and VW Polo and Golf took up where the Mini should have left off. None of those models have the same cult status, but those companies are still with us.

The Mini never made enough cash for its producers to follow suit. British Leyland's Italian operation rebodied the car into a pretty hatch, but for some reason it was s never taken up by the parent company, a lost opportunity. True, in due course we got the Mini-Metro, "a British car to beat the world", paid for by the taxpayer. It was based on and was supposed to replace the Mini, but it too suffered from a lack of development and profitability. The Mini outlived its in-house rival by a few years, just as the original snub-nosed version outlived the 1970s 'Clubman' restyle and various other cosmetic experiments such as the Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf, which had curious little wings and extra boots on the back and trad chrome grilles on the front.

As I say, though, the Mini was loved. I was seduced by mine. I had never liked the idea of owning a Mini much, mainly because in the 1980s it was becoming a bit unfashionable, and because I instinctively disliked anything that Noel Edmonds could be a fan of. For me, the Mini had grown itself a tidy beard, and that would never do. I also considered Mini owners a bit smug. Still, the second-hand choices available to me as a skint graduate were scant, and having kicked the tyres of a tired Peugeot and a tatty Talbot, I took a two year old Mini round the block. Suddenly it was 1959 again, and I knew how those first customers must have felt, though my feet stayed dry. It was just fun to drive, more fun than anything I'd driven before or since: Fun because it would go round corners so well, its lightness, front wheel drive and rubber suspension making it more sure footed than any supercar; fun to find out just how small a gap in the traffic you could squeeze it through, fun to see just how fast you could make it go up the M1, fun to see how much gear you could get in it.

Spike Milligan, who owned them all his life, used to tell a story about how he'd overtake tycoons and Arab princelings in their Rolls-Royces in his second hand Mini and shout back at them "60 quid, second hand". It always had that cheeky air of a car that had cheated the system. I forgot about Noel Edmonds and treated mine like a motorway rep's Sierra or Cavalier. I moved flats in it, travelled 100,000 miles in it and attended weddings, births and funerals, mostly on time. But every time I glanced at the great big Smiths speedometer in the middle of the 'dash' (there were no other instruments), I knew I was driving around in yesterday's story. And it did let me down rather a lot.

Yet, difficult as it was to believe even then, and even more now, when the remarkably few remaining on the road look quaint, the Mini was a shockingly modern affair when the first one came off the production line half a century ago. Ownership then was the patriotic and the modernist thing to do. Like nuclear power, the Hovercraft and Concorde, the Mini came to symbolise a British faith in technology - and a failure to turn that faith into money.

The Mini was one of the most advanced pieces of engineering in the world, but one of the biggest commercial flops. The accountants at the Ford Motor Company couldn't understand why such a complex machine was being sold for such a modest price; at under £500 the Mini was the cheapest car on the market then, beaten only by Ford's own ancient Popular, which was a throwback to the 1930s. Ford bought a Mini, took it to Dagenham, dismantled it and pronounced it a commercial disaster, estimating a loss of £30 per unit. In the darkest days of British Leyland Ford execs felt so sorry for their counterparts that they would offer secret advice on pricing the Mini, not always heeded. The Mini thus created a famous motor industry saying still current today – "mini cars make mini profits".

For such a breakthrough the British Motor Corporation should have been charging a premium. The Mini did things that had never been done before, or done so successfully at any rate. The Austin and Morris badges the Mini wore were the most old fashioned things on it. All the extravagant things you may have read about it are right. The Mini was "wizardy on wheels" as the Daily Sketch said, and it would seat four people and their luggage in an amazingly tiny space, a Tardis-like achievement that today's hatchbacks cannot rival. (It's worth pointing out that Dr Who's Time And Relative Dimensions In Space machine didn't arrive until 1963, so maybe the time lords were inspired by the Mini, rather than the other way around. The Daleks were equipped with Mini indicator lights on their "heads", and if you ever met one you could read "Lucas. Made In England" quite clearly, Lucas being the once-famous British electrical components manufacturer.)

The Mini's Dr Who, designer Alec Issigonis, was an asylum seeker whose family came to England during the Greek-Turkish massacres after the first world war. He was a brilliant man, trained as a draughtsman who thought freshly, perhaps because of his unconventional origins. This immigrant with an unpronounceable name gave us some very British cars - the Morris Minor and Austin 1100 as well as the Mini, or Sputnik as it was known during its gestation (like the Russian space probe, the early mini prototypes were also highly advanced and painted bright orange). At the peak of his fame Issigonis was given a knighthood. His inventiveness was compared to da Vinci's mechanical premonitions of helicopter flight and the like. In 1970 the Royal Academy staged an exhibition of his sketches.

With the Mini he had an abiding principle in the front of his highly inventive mind; that a small car needed to give over most of its space to people and their luggage. So he had the idea of getting rid of the drive train that usually sent the power to the back wheels, and ate up room in the cabin, and gave his car front wheel drive; he turned the engine round to make the bonnet shorter; he put the gearbox that would usually be placed on the end of the engine, and would thus make his car too wide, in the sump, where the engine oil lived; he put the wheels at the extreme corners of the car to maximise space, and he made them unprecedented small – 10 inches, supposedly because he held his hands that far apart when the engineers asked him how large they should be. Thus the wheel arches did not intrude much into the car. The Mini had rubber cones instead of spring suspension, which worked remarkably well. The interior was equally functional.

The Mini was not 'styled' – Issigonis abhorred the notion, equating it with the gigantic, wasteful American cars of the time. As it happens the car was referred to the British Motor Corporation's stylists in Italy, Farina, who advised them not to change a thing. It was, in Issigonis' conception, a "charlady's car", but it drove like a sports car, and when John Cooper created the Mini Cooper, it became a very successfully one. Peter Sellers, The Italian Job, Lord Snowdon, classless icon, Monte Carlo rallies, Lulu, Twiggy, the Beatles, you know the rest.

Issigonis was the problem. 'Arrogonis' was an autocrat, and his success with the Mini cowed his colleagues and nominal bosses. He usually got his way. But his philosophy worked less well on his larger cars, such as the now-forgotten Austin 1800, and they flopped as spectacularly as his Mini and 1100 succeeded, easily outclassed by contemporary Fords, good looking and comfy. His approach was uncompromising, but disastrous; "I design cars without any prompting from my employers to suit what they want for sale. I thought I knew better than the market research people what the public wanted. As is shown in the results".

Up to a point, Sir Alec. His bigger cars were too spartan, a bit ugly and, again, as unreliable and fault-ridden as the Mini, and the public didn't want them. The profitability started to go out of the British car industry, and the end was only a matter of time, though it was a long while coming. There were plenty of other underdeveloped and legendarily flawed British cars to follow, such as the Triumph Stag, the Allegro and the TR7. But, at this distance the truth is becoming clearer; that our favourite car, the Mini, a complex, underpriced and often unreliable piece of machinery, marked the beginning of half century of decline. The BMC would have been better off making a boring little car than a fascinating one.

Loved and popular as it was, the Mini's five million mostly unprofitable sales have to be set against the Toyota Corolla's score of 32 million and even eight million Renault 4s, both the Mini's rough contemporaries and much more financially rewarding cars for their makers.

It is ironic that BMW, one of the motoring world's most conservative companies, has wound up with one of the most revolutionary brands. At least their Mini is watertight.

Mini celebrities: The stars and their cars

Jeffrey Archer

"I got my first of four Minis 30 years ago," says the Tory peer, from behind the wheel. "Taxi drivers often shout 'You've fallen on hard times, Jeff' but I say the Mini has no equal. My last one, a beautiful crimson Wood & Picket, lasted 17 years before I bought a new Cooper in charcoal grey last year. If I had become mayor of London I would have shrunk every parking space to Mini proportions – that would have kept the big cars out. I have a Mercedes for motorways but always smile when I'm overtaken by a Mini."

Peter Sellers

Money was no object for the Goon when he asked luxury coachbuilders Hoopers to pimp a Mini with Bentley headlamps, wicker doors and electric windows. The cost: £2,600. Sellers later gave a Mini to his second wife Britt Ekland.

George Harrison

All the Beatles had Minis. Harrison got his Cooper S in 1965 and soon gave it a psychedelic makeover for its starring role in the 'Magical Mystery Tour' film. Ringo's was an early hatchback big enough to take his drums.

Madonna

In her brief incarnation as a rapper, she dropped a lyric about her car, inspired by her drive to the studio where she recorded 'American Life'. The inspirational line was: "I drive my Mini Cooper. And I'm feeling super-dooper."

Paul Smith

When snow paralysed London in February, Smith drove his Mini to work, via the pool for his daily 5am swim, to find nobody there. The keyless fashion designer, who created a limited-edition Mini in 1998, did business from behind the wheel.

Mary Quant

Credited by some with inventing the mini skirt, she was apparently inspired by the car because, she has said, "Neither is any longer than absolutely necessary." Her limited- edition Mini (1998), boasted zebra-print seats.

Elijah Wood

Perhaps the modern version of the pint-sized car appealed to the Hobbit in Elijah Wood, the star of 'The Lord of the Rings'. He has been seen driving around LA in a black Mini Cooper and is one of many Mini motorists in Hollywood.

Lord Snowdon

Princess Diana and the Duchess of Kent are among several royals to have driven arguably the only classless car. Snowdon used to chauffeur Princess Margaret in his Mini, which he fitted with special sliding windows to protect his wife's hair.

Spike Milligan

So besotted was he with Minis - he was the first celebrity to buy one - that he reportedly refused a fee to appear in a TV ad for the car. The comedian can still be seen cavorting around in the car on YouTube.

Jenny Agutter

The 'Railway Children' and 'Spooks' star got a Mini as her first car, a meeting which sparked a love affair that only ended when the actress became a campaigner for public transport.

SIMON USBORNE



For more on minis, see www.miniworld.co.uk

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