JOHN COOPER WORKS
With the Mini’s excellent road manners, it was clear early on that it could be a strong racing contender in the under-1,000 cc (61 cu. in.) classes. Indeed, some private teams began racing the Mini as soon as it appeared; Sir John Whitmore won the 1961 British Saloon Car Championship in a Mini-Minor.
In 1960, Alec Issigonis was approached by his old friend John Cooper, a well-known racing driver and race builder. Cooper and Issigonis had known one another since Issigonis’s racing days — Issigonis had even let Cooper drive a pre-production Mini months before launch. Cooper suggested that the Mini would do well in Group 2 touring car competition and asked Issigonis if BMC would be willing to build 1,000 suitably modified cars for homologation purposes. It would be a fairly minor investment for BMC and the potential publicity value was considerable.
To Cooper’s surprise, Issigonis was adamantly opposed to the idea, preferring the Mini to remain an unpretentious people’s car. Cooper went over his friend’s head to BMC managing director George Harriman, who was far more easily convinced. Cooper and Harriman struck a deal to build a special Mini carrying the Cooper name, which went on sale on September 20, 1961. Starting price, tax paid, was £679 7s 3d.
The press, unsurprisingly, loved the Mini Cooper even more than the standard car. The Cooper was still not especially fast except compared to a standard Mini — top speed was around 87 mph (140 km/h) — but the modifications served to amplify everything that was entertaining about the basic car. The Mini Cooper was infectiously fun to drive even at moderate speeds (which felt much faster than they were) and sacrificed only a modest amount of the Mini’s economy, although super premium fuel was now required.
The Cooper was a great success, eventually accounting for around 20% of all Mini sales. It did wonders for BMC’s image, particularly following its victory in the 1962 British Saloon Car Championship. The Cooper even won over the skeptical Alec Issigonis, perhaps its hardest-fought victory. John Cooper subsequently persuaded George Harriman to authorize a 1,071 cc (65 cu. in.) version with 70 hp (52 kW). Dubbed Mini Cooper S, it was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 13 seconds with a top speed of up to 95 mph (152 km/h). The 1071S, as it is commonly known, was offered for only a year, but Patrick “Paddy” Hopkirk and Henry Liddon drove one to victory in the 1964 Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo.
The 1071S was replaced in 1964 by new 970 cc (59 cu. in.) and 1,275 cc (78 cu. in.) versions. Timo Mäkinen and Paul Easter used the latter to win the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally and nearly did the same in 1966. Unfortunately, all three Mini teams were disqualified for technical violations, although French race officials overlooked similar infractions on the part of the winning Citroën ID. Undaunted, BMC returned in 1967, allowing works drivers Rauno Aaltonen and Henry Liddon to claim the Mini’s third and final Monte Carlo victory.
Just as important to the Mini’s growing reputation was its starring role in the 1969 caper film The Italian Job, in which a trio of Mini Coopers tears through the city of Turin, outmaneuvering hapless Italian pursuers in amusing and sometimes improbable ways. It was not a great movie, but the onscreen action perfectly encapsulated the Mini’s cheeky spirit. Ironically, BMC’s marketing department had participated in the film project only grudgingly, but it was the best advertisement the Mini would ever receive.
THE DAWN OF BRITISH LEYLAND
By the mid-sixties, the Mini was fast becoming a cultural icon. It was both humble and irreverent and its racing exploits gave it an aura of tongue-in-cheek patriotism that perfectly suited the tenor of the times; it might as well have been created for a contemporary Richard Lester film. Unsurprisingly, it became very popular with celebrities, including John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Marianne Faithfull, and Peter Sellers. By the end of the decade, there were innumerable Mini-based kit cars and an array of aftermarket parts to rival the flathead Ford.
Despite such celebrity, it was gradually dawning on BMC management that the Mini was not making any money. The Mini cost more to build than some of the company’s bigger cars and efforts to boost production volume were stymied by constant strikes at both BMC plants and those of its suppliers. By 1965, BMC’s total revenues had increased by more than a third from 1960, but the company was no longer making a profit. A 1966 merger with Jaguar to form British Motor Holdings (BMH) only made things worse; BMH lost some £7.5 million (about $21 million) in the first half of 1967 alone.
The prospect of a BMH collapse was not politically appetizing, so the Wilson government pushed for a merger between BMH and Leyland Motors, which had already absorbed Standard/Triumph and had recently merged with Rover. In 1968, BMH and Leyland merged to form the British Leyland Motor Company (BLMC), with Leyland’s Sir Donald Stokes as chairman and former Triumph director George Turnbull as the general manager of the new Austin Morris division.
The arrival of Sir Donald (Baron Stokes from 1969) brought many changes to the former BMC organization, few of them positive. Although by most accounts Lord Stokes was an exceptional salesman, the vast and unwieldy structure of BLMC would have daunted even the most effective manager. The corporation had a vast assortment of brands, many of which were direct competitors, and ambitious plans for rationalization repeatedly stalled for lack of funds. Furthermore, British Leyland’s relationship with its workforce remained antagonistic and the strikes only increased.
Lord Stokes did not share Leonard Lord and George Harriman’s faith in Alec Issigonis, who had become BMC’s technical director in 1961. Although Issigonis was undeniably brilliant, he was not an easy man to deal with by corporate standards. Even before the Leyland merger, there was a growing perception that he was too much of a blue-sky thinker, out of touch with economic realities and the needs of the marketplace.
Issigonis’s planned successor for the Mini, the 9X, was canceled in 1968. Lord Stokes moved him to a research position and appointed Standard-Triumph technical director Harry Webster as Austin Morris chief engineer. BLMC officials remained publicly solicitous of Issigonis, who was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1969, but he was increasingly marginalized. Sir Alec retired in December 1971 and while he remained in a consulting role until the mid-eighties, his active participation in product development was effectively over. The last vehicle developed under his auspices was the five-door Austin Maxi hatchback, which appeared in the spring of 1969.
Another casualty of the Leyland merger was the Mini Cooper. Despite its considerable prestige value, the Cooper was de-emphasized after 1968 and discontinued entirely in July 1971. Lord Stokes saw no reason for a company the size of British Leyland to employ consultants like John Cooper and was unhappy about paying royalties, however modest, on a car that was losing money. A new 1275GT model took the Cooper’s place in the Mini lineup, but the famous name disappeared until 1990.