Mini for the millennium echoes miniskirt heyday

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It was the first of its kind, a truly small car that could zip around the city streets and park in the smallest of spaces. The Mini, designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, became a symbol of the swinging Sixties when London was the hippest city in the world.

Thirty years later as the city is swinging once again and pundits from all over the world are proclaiming it the capital of cool, BMW has unveiled the new Mini, successor to the world's best-selling small car.

Launched on the eve of the Frankfurt Motor Show, the new Mini will be in production by 2000. The car was designed by Rover Group, the British subsidiary of BMW, and will be built at its Birmingham manufacturing plant.

It will be powered by a four cylinder engine being developed in a joint venture by BMW and the Chrysler Corporation.

The Mini of the Sixties came to symbolise the radicalism and fun associated with that decade. Its engineering and appearance paid no heed to established traditions and its popularity has endured to this day.

Although it was the brainchild of Issigonis, the impetus to produce it came from Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corporation, which had been formed in 1952 from the fusion of Austin and Morris.

Issigonis had worked for Morris since the Thirties and had designed the advanced Morris Minor of 1948. In 1956 Lord invited him back to BMC - the fuel crisis caused by the closure of the Suez Canal was at its height, and the response of the car world had been to produce the tiny bubble car which had only three wheels

"God damn these bloody awful bubble cars," said Lord at the time.

"We must drive them out of the streets by designing a proper miniature car."

He told Issigonis to design a car with the maximum interior space combined with the minimum external size and the Mini was born.

It was one of the first cars to be a front-wheel drive and was combined with a transverse engine, which was mounted directly above the gear box. This meant the engine and the gearbox shared a common oil supply which alarmed some critics at first but was later accepted.

He managed to make room for four passengers in an overall car length of just 10ft which has never been improved upon.

With a top speed of 72mph and easy handling, the little cars achieved instant popularity. It was taken up by the fashionable people of the time such as Lord Snowdon, Twiggy and John Lennon, as well as taking the starring role in the film The Italian Job with Michael Caine.

Nick Stephenson, design and engineering director of Rover Group, said the new model will be larger than the original car and will be targeted at wealthier consumer groups.

"Designing the new Mini for the new century is an awesome responsibility," he said.

"My team at Rover Group is thoroughly dedicated to producing a car that is a worthy replacement for an icon of the world's motor industry.

"Everyone can look forward to 2000 and a car that will set the adrenaline flowing in the veins of car enthusiasts across the world."

Car of the century

1. Gave the miniskirt its name.

2. Started life as a doodle on a cigarette packet by the original designer, Sir Alec Issigonis.

3. First British car to win the Rally

Championship in 1965.

4. Since production began in 1959, 5.3m have been built.

5. James Weatherley was jailed for 5 years for stealing red Minis.

6. Celebrity owners of minis included King Hussein of Jordan, all The Beatles, Princess Michael, Steve McQueen and Cliff Richard.

7. Peter Sellers had a Mini with canework body panels

8. The car was originally launched under two names: Austin Seven and the Mini Minor.

9. Starred with Michael Caine in The Italian Job.

10. Voted the Car of the Century in 1996 by Autocar

Louise Hancock