THE MORRIS AND AUSTIN MINIS
The XC9003 project, subsequently renamed ADO (for “Austin Design Office”) 15, proceeded very quickly. The first prototype was running by the early summer of 1957, less than three months after the project’s inception. In July, Leonard Lord drove the prototype and gave Issigonis his approval.
Preparing the ADO15 for production was brisk but troublesome. Despite the familiar engine, it was new territory for BMC. Issigonis’s contentious relationship with the production engineers only made things worse; he strenuously resisted any compromise of his design. The production car remained remarkably true to his vision, but emerged with a variety of serious flaws that would later cost BMC dearly. Pilot production began in early April 1959 and the new car met the press in mid-August, going on sale August 26.
At launch, the Mini was not yet called the Mini, and BMC marketed it as two separate cars: the Austin Seven (stylized “Se7en”) and the Morris Mini-Minor. Although it had been seven years since the BMC merger, the company still showed no inclination to consolidate the well-established Austin and Morris dealer networks. BMC lacked the resources to develop separate product lines for each brand, so it resorted to badge engineering, which reached new and ludicrous heights in the years to come. The ADO15 was typical: despite separate marketing campaigns, the Austin and Morris versions differed only in grille texture and badges.
The new cars’ names were familiar to British buyers. The Seven revived the name of Austin’s seminal prewar car, while “Mini-Minor” suggested a relationship with the still-popular Morris Minor. The “Mini” prefix was apparently suggested by former Morris president William Morris, Lord Nuffield. It was an evocative moniker and the Austin version adopted it officially in 1962 after an out-of-court settlement with Sharp’s Commercials, which had been selling a three-wheeled mini-car under that name. Issigonis’s new baby would be called “Mini” for the rest of its long life.
"WIZARDRY ON WHEELS"
Regardless of what badge it wore, the Mini quickly won favor with the motoring press. Most automotive journalists of the time believed strongly that bread-and-butter cars should be smaller, more sophisticated, and more fun to drive; the Mini was all three. Its arrival was almost as much of a sensation as the Jaguar XK120‘s had been 11 years earlier. While none of the Mini’s individual features was entirely new (save for its tiny wheels), it was a remarkable package. Even its size was a shock — it was not as tiny as the bubblecars, but it was a good deal smaller than any British family car of the time.
The Mini’s road manners were anything but dull. Issigonis felt that adept handling was an important safety feature even for a family car, so the Mini was exceptionally nimble. Its steering was quick and accurate, abetted by a usefully short turning radius. The stiff rubber springs gave good roll control and the short wheelbase and minimal overhangs meant a low polar moment of inertia. It was easy to flick out the tail and catching the resultant slide was just as straightforward. The Mini was not fast by any means, but its cornering ability shamed many contemporary sports cars.
At the same time, the Mini was remarkably practical. It could indeed seat four adults, although the seats were hard and the driving position far from ideal. It had room for a modicum of luggage, with many useful nooks and crannies for the storage of oddments. With its minimal curb weight and modest engine, the little car returned commendable fuel economy and was easy to park.
The icing on the cake was the price. Despite its sophistication, the base model started at £497 (around $1,400), undercutting the Ford Anglia — the value leader among low-priced British family cars at the time — by a substantial £93 (about $260). Even in Deluxe trim, the Mini was only £537 (about $1,500) at launch, a legitimate bargain.
The Mini’s low price and abundance of personality served it well because it was also flawed. Aside from the aforementioned fragile synchros, road spray could soak the front-mounted ignition coil and spark plugs, stalling the engine. On early cars, the body sills allowed substantial water infiltration, which required an costly last-minute redesign of the entire floorpan. Some of those problems were eventually addressed, but others, including high noise levels, rapid tire wear, and a choppy ride, remained endemic.
Despite its many positive attributes, the Mini’s early sales were not sensational. It was embraced by journalists, cash-strapped young people, and fashion-conscious urbanites, but working-class Britons were more skeptical. The typical British car buyer did not have quite the same expectations of automotive size and prestige as his or her American counterpart, but the Mini was fully 16.5 inches (42 cm) shorter than the smallest contemporary Austin and its adorable appearance was the antithesis of the Detroit-influenced English Fords and Vauxhalls of the time, giving a faintly comical air. It was definitely not for every taste.
THE MINI EXPANDS
By mid-1960, Mini sales had improved markedly. The calendar-year total for 1960 was nearly 117,000 units, quite respectable for a British car and a good deal better than the bigger Austin A35 the Mini had replaced. Sales increased by more than a third for 1961 and almost 50% for 1962.
Unfortunately for BMC, the Mini’s low price proved to be a ruinous miscalculation. After the Mini was launched, Ford of England bought several examples to disassemble and study. Ford’s cost analysis estimated that BMC was losing £30 (about $84) on every car sold. BMC management disputed that figure, although their own estimates suggested a profit of only £5 (about $14) per car, compared to about £50 (around $140) per car for the Ford Anglia.
Exactly how much money BMC actually made or lost on the Mini remains a subject of debate, but its margins were at best razor-thin. Any production delays or work stoppages — of which there were many — pushed it deep into the red. The Mini was not popular with dealers either, in part because it was more challenging to service than other BMC cars. Ironically, that proved to be a commercial asset; any profits the Mini earned probably came mostly from a thriving trade in replacement parts.
Hoping to expand the Mini’s volume enough to make it profitable, BMC added a host of derivatives, including a long-wheelbase estate, a commercial van, and a little pickup truck. There were also two upscale saloon versions, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet, with bigger engines, roll-up windows, and plusher interiors.
The standard Mini was progressively upgraded, as well, gaining improvements like Porsche-type synchronization for the gearbox and a splash shield for the ignition system. In early 1965, the Mini finally received Hydrolastic suspension, which improved ride at the expense of handling. A four-speed automatic transmission became available that fall.
The most famous and influential of the many Mini derivatives, however, was launched in 1961: the Mini Cooper.