Fifty years in the life of a national treasure

Rachel Shields traces the chequered journey of one of the first Minis to emerge from the Cowley production line in 1959

Margaret Flux couldn't even drive her new Mini off the forecourt at Fowlers garage when she bought it in August 1959, but that didn't dull the excitement she felt. For the 55-year-old housewife, that little blue car represented freedom and independence; the chance to get out of the small village of Gurnard in which she lived and explore the rest of the Isle of Wight, to drive herself around without having to rely on her husband.

Across the country, the Mini was soon to take on a much wider significance. Driven up the Kings Road by stars such as the Beatles and Mary Quant, raced around the streets of Turin by Michael Cain in the 1969 film The Italian Job and even implicated in the 1963 Profumo scandal, the car quickly became a symbol of the swinging Sixties – a national treasure and a testament to British design and engineering.

On Wednesday it will be 50 years since the first Morris Mini was produced at Oxford's Cowley plant, during which time the car has turned from a "no-frills" run-around into one of the best-known vehicles of all time. "They are very much a people's car, completely classless. Everybody has had a Mini," said Bill Bell of "Superstars of the 1960s drove them, so for very little money you could drive the same car as a millionaire."

Designed by Sir Alec Issigonis for the British Motor Company (BMC), the car's modest style did not deter buyers. With rope door handles, visible seams and a tiny 848cc engine – reduced from 948cc with a petrol shortage in mind, following the Suez crisis – the Mini was aimed at a post-war public that was feeling the pinch. While more than six million Minis have been sold in the past five decades, of the 20,000 Morris Minis produced in 1959, only 140 are known to remain today. One of these is the car that belonged to Mrs Flux, the 484th to be made.

After passing her driving test, Mrs Flux drove the car until her death in 1976. It later passed to her grandson Mark King, who went on to become the bassist in the band Level 42.

"It was the first Mini on the island, so it attracted a lot of attention," Mr King said. "I used to whiz around in it, but not long after I passed my test the car failed its MOT, because the rear subframe had gone, so we sold it."

The car's next owner, fellow Isle of Wight resident John Claughton, thought he would recoup the £30 he paid for the car – and make a profit – by selling it for scrap. "When I realised it was one of the really early ones I decided to keep it," Mr Claughton said. Having been repaired, resprayed and retuned – at a cost of £500, the price of the vehicle when new – for a time it became the family's main car.

Like many drivers of classic Minis, the car's current owner, Ian Sims, who bought the car from Mr Claughton for £6,700 in January this year, admits that the attraction of a 1959 Mini lies more in its value as a piece of British history than its prowess on the road. "It is diabolical to drive," Mr Sims said.

Although the thoroughly British brand was taken over by German car firm BMW in 2000, the new Mini, launched in 2002, stayed close to the style of the original. This year, a new electric "Mini E" is unveiled.

A Mini History

26 August 1959 The Mini, designed by Alec Issigonis, is launched by the British Motor Corporation.

1960 The Mini Van and Mini Estate appear.

1961 The Mini Cooper S, with a top speed of 99mph, is launched.

1965 One million Minis sold.

1969 The Mini's fame is cemented by a starring role in The Italian Job with Michael Caine.

2000 BMW takes over the Mini brand, after buying the struggling Rover firm.

2002 The new Mini is launched.