Tiny and Triumphant: The Morris / Austin Mini

The original Mini is one of a tiny handful of vehicles that are truly iconic, immediately recognizable even by people who know nothing about cars. It’s as enduring a symbol of sixties Britain as the Beatles and James Bond — a revolutionary little shoebox on wheels that rewrote the rules for compact cars. This week, we look at the history of BMC’s original Morris and Austin Mini.

1963 Austin Mini Cooper front 3q view

THE BUBBLECAR INVASION

Just as the first Big Three compacts of 1960 emerged from the “Eisenhower Recession” of 1957–1958, the Mini was born in crisis. In October 1956, the British and French governments made a secret agreement with Israel to retake the Suez Canal, which Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized that summer. Israeli armed forces advanced into the Sinai Peninsula to provide a pretense for an Anglo-French task force, dubbed Operation Musketeer, to invade Egypt, ostensibly to ensure the security of the Canal Zone. However, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower refused to support the invasion and exerted strong economic pressure on Great Britain to withdraw. The Musketeer task force sailed for home less than 10 days later, but the incident prompted Saudi Arabia to impose an embargo on oil shipments to France and the U.K.

The Suez Crisis and its aftermath nearly collapsed the British pound, brought a brief return to fuel rationing in late 1956, and devastated new car sales in the U.K. Overnight, panicked British buyers turned to tiny, German-made “bubblecars” like the Isetta, Messerschmidt, and BMW 600, which were smaller and more frugal than any contemporary British-made car.

1959 BMW 600 front 3q
The short-lived BMW 600 was an upscale bubblecar, an upgraded version of the Isetta. It’s only 114.2 inches (2,900 mm) long, powered by a 582 cc (36 cu. in.) flat-twin motorcycle engine.

The situation alarmed every British automaker, but it was of particular concern to the British Motor Company (BMC), the conglomerate formed from the 1952 merger of Austin Motors and the Nuffield Organization, which included Morris, MG, Riley, and Wolseley. BMC had controlled a sizable percentage of the British market before Suez and the new German invasion represented a serious threat. Aside from the business implications, BMC chairman Leonard Lord reportedly took personal offense to the bubblecars and was eager to create a competitive home market alternative.

ALEC ISSIGONIS

BMC’s chief engineer at that time was one Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis. Born in Smyrna in 1906, Issigonis was a British subject, but he and his mother did not move to England until 1923. Issigonis studied engineering at Battersea Polytechnic, where he famously failed the mathematics exam three times. After a stint as an engineer for Humber and some amateur racing efforts, he joined Morris in 1936 as a suspension engineer.

Although Issigonis was still relatively junior in 1943, Morris chief engineer A.V. Oak allowed him to design the company’s first postwar car, which emerged in 1948 as the Morris Minor. The Minor was a curious-looking car, but it was quite advanced for its time, with unitary construction, independent front suspension via torsion bars, and rack-and-pinion steering. It became one of Morris’s most-important products, selling almost 1.4 million copies between 1948 and 1971.

1961 Morris Minor 1000 pickup front 3q
One of the many derivatives of the Morris Minor was this compact pickup truck. This is a Minor 1000 with the 948 cc (58 cu. in.) version later used in some Mini derivatives.

The success of the Minor won Issigonis great favor with Morris management, who quickly learned that he could do great things if they stayed out of his way. Issigonis was as stubborn as he was iconoclastic and diplomacy was not among his strong suits. He did not suffer fools gladly and had an unapologetic loathing for styling and marketing.

Issigonis briefly left Morris in 1952, following the formation of BMC. Fearing that he would not enjoy the same autonomy under the new, Austin-dominated management, he went to Alvis, where he and Alex Moulton worked on a V8-powered luxury car using Moulton’s new Hydrolastic interconnected suspension system. That project was canceled in 1955 and Issigonis accepted Len Lord’s invitation to return to BMC as chief engineer.

At the time of the Suez Crisis, Issigonis was working on a new family sedan to replace the Minor. Code-named XC9000, its shape would have been immediately familiar to any later Mini owner, although it was a conventional rear-drive car. In March 1957, Lord asked Issigonis to put the XC9000 on the shelf and develop a new, smaller car to challenge the bubblecars. The new project was code-named XC9003.

TRANSVERSE ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE

By the mid-fifties, BMC had developed a reputation for conservative engineering and product planning. Len Lord had great faith in Issigonis, however, and gave him a free hand for the XC9003 project. The one proviso was that it had to use an existing engine — BMC did not have the money for both an all-new car and an all-new powerplant. At that, BMC did not have a lot of money, period; even before Suez, its financial condition had been far from robust. The tooling budget for the XC9003 was a modest £10 million, about $28 million at contemporary exchange rates, perhaps $220 million today.

Issigonis did not let the lack of capital dampen his ambitions. His goal for the XC9003 was to provide room for four adults in a car only 10 feet (305 cm) long and 4 feet (122 cm) wide. Such packaging made a conventional front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (FR) layout impractical; it would require either a front-engine, front-wheel-drive (FF) or rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RR) configuration, both of which were uncommon in Great Britain at the time. Citroën, of course, had used front-wheel drive since the mid-thirties, while some German and Italian automakers had opted for RR layouts, but most British manufacturers remained firm adherents of the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout.

BMC did briefly study rear-engine layouts in the late fifties, but Issigonis was convinced that front-wheel drive was the way of the future. The problem was packaging. Most early FWD cars, like the Citroën Traction Avant and the American Cord, had longitudinally mounted engines with the transmission mounted ahead of the engine — a bulky arrangement even with a four-cylinder engine. As a result, while FF cars were more efficient in their use of interior space than FR contemporaries, they were not necessarily any smaller.

1966 Austin Mini engine
The Mini’s ancient A-series pushrod four survived until the end, despite several abortive plans to replace or redesign it. Until the final Mk7 models of 1996–2000, the radiator and fan were side-mounted, which was compact (and saved the cost of developing a new cooling fan), but led to cooling problems in slow traffic and contributed to the Mini’s high internal noise levels. (Photo: “Mini Engine – Very clean” © 2006 Andrew*; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

Issigonis decided that the solution was to mount the engine transversely, a concept he had studied even before his sojourn at Alvis. A transverse engine would be much shorter than a longitudinal engine, but it presented an additional problem: where to put the transmission. The XC9003 was wide enough to mount the Austin/BMC A-series four between its front wheels, but it was not wide enough for both the engine and transmission. Issigonis considered cutting the A-series engine in half, creating an inline two, but the resulting twin was hopelessly gutless, even for an economy car. He finally resorted to mounting the gearbox in the engine sump, sharing the engine’s oil supply. It was a simple solution, albeit a daring one; engines and transmissions have very different oiling requirements and a compromise suits the needs of neither. Nevertheless, this solution reduced the powertrain’s total length to a mere 18 inches (460 mm).

The familiar Austin gearbox, a four-speed with an unsynchronized low gear, was far from happy in its new role. The prototypes routinely broke their synchronizers and there was neither time nor money to redesign the transmission before launch. As a stopgap, Issigonis turned the engine 180 degrees, using spur gears to drive the transmission. The additional gears reduced the load on the synchros, although the gearbox would remain a weak point of the early cars.

The XC9003 was originally slated to use the 948 cc (58 cu. in.) A-series engine, shared with the Morris Minor 1000, but prior to production, the engine was de-stroked to 848 cc (52 cu. in.). The smaller displacement reduced output to a modest 34 net horsepower (25 kW), but provided better fuel economy and better range from the tiny fuel tank, whose capacity was only 6.5 U.S. gallons (5.4 Imperial gallons, 24.7 liters).

Every aspect of the XC9003 was carefully designed to maximize packaging efficiency. Like the Minor, the new car had unitized construction, although front and rear suspension subframes were added late in the development process to reduce the stresses on the body shell. Inside, the seats were extremely upright, improving legroom without increasing the length of the cabin. Nearly every scrap of usable space was put to good use.

Mini Cooper greenhouse
As a cost-saving measure, early Minis had exposed door hinges and sliding windows. The use of sliding windows also saved enough space to allow capacious storage bins in each door, part of Issigonis’s original design specification. All Minis received concealed hinges and wind-up windows in 1969 with the introduction of the Mk3.

The XC9003 had rack-and-pinion steering and fully independent suspension: double wishbones in front, trailing arms in back with no anti-roll bars. The new car was originally supposed to have Alex Moulton’s Hydrolastic springs, but the scaled-down Hydrolastic suspension wasn’t ready in time, so compact rubber springs were substituted at the last minute. The Hydrolastic system would resurface several years later.

Perhaps the most noteworthy space-saving measure was the 10-inch (254mm) wheels. Their size allowed the wheelhouses to be kept as small as possible, improving packaging efficiency. They also reduced unsprung weight — an important consideration in a car whose sprung weight was barely over half a ton (454 kg). At the time, no manufacturer made wheels or tires that small, so Issigonis and Lord persuaded Dunlop to make some. There would later be an entire cottage industry creating wheels and tires for the little car.

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.

1959 Morris Mini-Minor front 3q
This car, 621 AOK, was the first Mini built at the Morris plant in Cowley, on May 8, 1959. Contrary to some reports, it was not the first Mini, which was an Austin Seven, built a month earlier. The first Austin no longer survives, but 621 AOK remains at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon. (Photo: “Morris Mini-Minor 1959” © 2007 DeFacto; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)

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.

Austin Mini Cooper front view
The first Minis had 848 cc (52 cu. in.) engines, but the original Mini Cooper had a 997 cc (61 cu. in.) version with big valves, a hotter camshaft, and two S.U. carburetors. The modifications produced 55 hp (41 kW) — a healthy 60% increase on the standard engine. The hot engine trimmed 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) to around 17 seconds, while a top speed rose from 72 mph (116 km/h) to 87 mph (140 km/h). The price for this was initially £679 7s 3d (equivalent to about $1,900).

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.

Mini  Cooper rear view
One of BMC’s missed opportunities with the original Mini was its failure to add a hatchback, which would have greatly increased the little car’s cargo-carrying flexibility. BMH explored adding a rear hatch in the late sixties, but the company was already losing money on the Mini and was reluctant to invest any more in a car that was supposed to be replaced within a few years. Alec Issigonis’s abortive Mini successor, the 9X, would have had a hatchback, but was canceled in 1968.

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.

1967 Riley Elf front 3q
The Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet were more expensive versions of the Mini with longer tails, a unique vertical grille, and wood interior trim. They were 8.8 inches (224 mm) longer than the Mini and from 1963, had a bigger, 998 cc (61 cu. in.) engine; the latter became optional on Mk2 Minis in late 1967. Both the Elf and Hornet were discontinued in 1969, replaced by the Mini Clubman. This is a 1967 Mk3 Elf.

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.

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.

Austin Mini Cooper badge
John Cooper received a modest royalty of £2 ($5.60) per car for the use of his name, which was well known and highly respected in the racing world in the fifties and sixties. His mid-engine Cooper 500 had been a force to be reckoned with in Formula 2 and Formula 3 throughout the fifties and Australian driver Jack Brabham had driven a Cooper T53 to two consecutive Formula 1 world championships.

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.

Mini Cooper dash
With a price tag of about £680 ($1,824 U.S.), the Mini Cooper was a good deal more expensive than a standard Mini. In addition to its hotter engine and front disc brakes, the Cooper had an upgraded interior with leather upholstery and a new instrument cluster with water temperature and oil pressure gauges.

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.

1965 Austin Mini Cooper 1275S front 3q
The Cooper 1275S was added in March 1964. Priced at £778 (about $2,180), it had a 1,275 cc (78 cu. in.) version of the A-series engine with 76 gross horsepower (57 kW) and the bigger, more effective 7.5-inch (190mm) front discs introduced on the 1075S. The 1275S was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 12 seconds with a top speed of about 97 mph (156 km/h).

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.

Mini Cooper rear 3q view
The Mini’s enviable racing success was not earned through sheer speed; even the Mini Cooper S in which Paddy Hopkirk won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally was capable of only 100 mph (161 km/h). The Mini’s principal virtue was that once it was up to speed, it seldom needed to slow down; it could be thrown about with both enthusiasm and precision.

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.

1969 Austin 1100 Mk2 front 3q
In 1962, BMC introduced the Austin/Morris 1100, known internally as the ADO16. Also designed by Alec Issigonis, was essentially a bigger Mini with a 1,098 cc (61 cu. in.) engine, Hydrolastic suspension, and front disc brakes. It was more expensive than the Mini and somewhat more profitable, at least for dealers; it was one of Britain’s best-selling cars until the early seventies. (Photo: “Austin 1100 Mk 2 two door 1098cc July 1969” © 2009 Charles01; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license)

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.

1966 Morris Mini-Minor Traveller
The Mini estate bowed in September 1960 as the Austin Seven Countryman and Morris Mini-Minor Traveller, priced at £623 (about $1,750). Both rode an 88-inch (2,235mm) wheelbase compared to 80 inches (2,032 mm) for the standard Mini. The wood framing is real, but purely cosmetic; starting in 1962, the estates were available without it, which reduced the price by £91 (about $250). (Photo: “Morris Mini Minor Traveller 1966” © 2006 DeFacto; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license)

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.

Mini Cooper front wheel
The Mini’s unusual 10-inch (254mm) wheels provided low unsprung weight, but the tires inevitably wore quickly, particularly if drivers indulged in the kind of cornering antics on which the little car thrived. Some Minis received 12-inch (305mm) wheels starting in late 1974 and they eventually became standard across the line. Early Coopers, like this one, had 7.0-inch (178mm) Lockheed front discs, which did not work well. The Cooper S substituted 7.5-inch (191 mm) discs, which were far more effective. By the eighties, all Minis received 8.4-inch (213mm) front discs.

MINI MK 3

The Mk3 Mini, known internally as ADO20, arrived in the fall of 1969. Although the Mk3 received luxuries like wind-up windows and internal door hinges, other changes were aimed at reducing manufacturing costs: Trim was simplified and the complex and expensive Hydrolastic suspension was discarded in favor of rubber springs. The model range was also streamlined, abandoning most of the badge-engineered variations and establishing Mini as a separate marque with Mini 850, Mini 1000, Clubman, Clubman Estate, 1275GT, van, and pickup models.

The Mini’s basic design was now more than 10 years old, but its popularity continued to grow. By 1971, annual production had topped 300,000 units and BLMC celebrated the sale of the 3 millionth Mini in October 1972. Newer rivals like the Fiat 127/Autobianchi A112, and Renault 5 had moved the game on technologically, but the Mini was now a known quantity and its personality still compensated for many of its shortcomings. The energy crisis that followed the OPEC oil embargo in late 1973 only enhanced the Mini’s appeal. For a time, it was the only BLMC product to sell in reasonable numbers.

1980 Mini Clubman
The Mini Clubman, launched in 1969, was styled by former Ford designer Roy Haynes, who joined BMH in October 1967. It was intended as a less-expensive replacement for the Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf, featuring a longer nose and the 998 cc (61 cu. in.) engine. Production of the Clubman saloon ended in 1980, the estate in 1982; this is a 1980 model, based on the 1976-vintage Mk4 Mini. (Photo: “Mini Clubman 1980” © 2008 DeFacto; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Those strong sales were not particularly welcome news to British Leyland management because the struggling conglomerate had still not managed to make the Mini profitable. After the cancellation of the Cooper, Lord Stokes admitted that British Leyland was losing £20 (about $50) per car and the production shortfalls during the energy crisis only made things worse. Worse, the Mini was now stealing sales from other, more profitable models, leaving BLMC in an ugly position: they couldn’t afford to cancel the Mini, but the more cars they sold, the more money they lost.

Work began in early 1974 on a Mini replacement, code-named ADO88, but its development was extremely protracted. BLMC’s precarious finances led the Labour government to nationalize the struggling automaker in 1975 in order to forestall either collapse or foreign buyout. Development funds were naturally very scarce and the ADO88 program wasn’t approved until October 1976. Badged miniMetro, it didn’t go on sale until October 1980.

MINI IN TWILIGHT

By the time the Metro appeared, Mini sales had fallen to about half of their early-seventies peak, but the Mini was still selling too well to cancel. Like Ford’s Capri, it was well past its prime, but buyers still regarded it with great affection.

In 1981, British Leyland reorganized its passenger-car divisions into a new Austin Rover Group (ARG). Austin Rover decided that the Mini’s sales didn’t justify the cost of any significant updates, but declared that it would remain in production for as long as it sold. Just as Ford did with the Capri, ARG pruned the model line and offered an assortment of special editions to prop up its still-limited profit margins. The Mini Cooper returned in 1990 and remained part of the Mini lineup until the end.

By the early nineties, the Mini was a niche item, no longer a mass-market car. What little advertising Rover Group (as ARG was now known) bothered to give it traded heavily on nostalgia with appearance packs designed to evoke past glories. Despite the Mini’s quintessential Britishness, the home market now accounted for only about a quarter of sales. Another 25% went to Japan, where the Mini had become a cult object. The Mini was long gone from the U.S. market; it had never really caught on in America and British Leyland had made no attempt to certify it for federal safety and emissions rules.

1993 Mini Cooper front 3q
Mk6 and Mk7 Minis had 12-inch (305-mm) wheels and the big 1,275 cc (78 cu. in.) A-series engine; fuel injection became optional in October 1991, giving 63 horsepower (47 kW). Late-model Minis were quieter, more comfortable, and faster than their predecessors, but were still rather crude by modern standards. Top speed was about 90 mph (145 km/h) while 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took around 12 seconds. (Photo: “1993 Mini Cooper” © 2006 Dan2k625 at English Wikipedia; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

The Mini was coasting toward a natural death when BMW acquired Rover Group in 1994. BMW director Bernd Pischetsrieder (remarkably enough, a distant cousin of Alec Issigonis) saw the Mini brand as one of Rover’s greatest assets. He authorized a final update of the existing car to meet the latest European safety, emissions, and drive-by noise regulations and began development of an all-new Mini for the new century. Although BMW divested itself of Rover in May 2000, it retained ownership of the Mini brand.

The final Mk7 Mini remained in production until October 4, 2000, expiring about six months before the introduction of BMW’s all-new MINI. The Mini outlived both its erstwhile successor, the Metro, and its creator: Sir Alec Issigonis died in 1988. Total production of all Mini variants was 5,387,862, and we doubt BLMC, Austin Rover Group, Rover Group, or BMW made much of a profit on any of them.

Profitable or not, the Mini was a watershed vehicle. It had few direct imitators (discounting BMC/British Leyland relatives like the 1100), but it redefined what a small car could and should be. The Mini was a challenge that no automaker in that segment could ignore, although its competitors’ responses varied widely. Fiat technical director Aurelio Lampredi decided he could do Alec Issigonis one better, resulting in the Autobianchi A112/Fiat 127, which became the template for almost every modern supermini. Ford and GM measured BMC’s losses and made a deliberate decision not to follow the Mini, leaving them to play catch-up in the seventies. The Mini Cooper, meanwhile, was the spiritual ancestor of a whole genre of sporty little cars. There were sporty small cars before and after the Cooper, but few that approached its cultural impact.

Alec Issigonis has taken a lot of criticism in the past four decades for the Mini’s high production costs and lackluster financial performance. Issigonis was notoriously inflexible and the Mini was undeniably more expensive to produce than a conventional car, but we think the fact that BMC and British Leyland couldn’t figure out how to make money on such a popular product says more about the company than the car. BLMC eventually admitted that setting a price £25 or £30 higher probably wouldn’t have hurt the Mini’s sales and would have transformed it from a liability into the asset it should have been. (Indeed, BMW’s positioning of the new MINI as a “premium” subcompact has been very successful.)

Furthermore, if Issigonis hadn’t been so ferociously stubborn (and Leonard Lord and George Harriman so cooperative), we suspect the Mini would never have made it to production and today’s automotive market would look very different. Some people might prefer it that way, but we think a world without the Mini would be a poorer one indeed.

FIN


NOTES ON SOURCES

Our sources included Keith Adams, “Drawings & prototypes,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 25 March 2010, “miniMetro,” AROnline, 12 February 2009, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 26 March 2010, “The Issigonis 9X,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 26 March 2010, and “The Whole Story: BMC>Rover History,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 19 June 2009; Keith Adams and Ian Nicholls, “Mini: The development story,” AROnline, 14 February 2010, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 27 March 2010; “Alec Issigonis,” Design Museum – British Council, Design in Britain, 2006, designmuseum. org, accessed 23 March 2010; “Austin Mini Cooper, Saab 850-GT,” Car and Driver Vol. 9, No. 1 (July 1963), pp. 68-73; “Autocar road test 1918: Austin Mini-Cooper S 1,071 c.c.,” Autocar 12 April 1963, pp. 608-612; John Baker, “Wolseley Hornet,” Austin Memories, n.d., www.austinmemories.com, accessed 27 March 2010; Richard Brenner, “Auf Widersehen, Pet: The Last Mini,” CAR December 2000, pp. 102-104; Chris Bishop, ed., The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare (London: Amber Books/Barnes & Noble, 2004); Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); Roger Carr, “Car Carshow Classic: 1960 Austin Seven (Mini) – The Future Started Here,” Curbside Classic, 16 December 2014, www.curbsideclassic. com/ curbside-classics-european/ car-carshow-classic-1960-austin-seven- the-future-started-here/, accessed 16 December 2014; Mike Covello, ed., Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946–2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); “Early history of the Morris Minor,” The Minor Site, 2001, www.theminorsite. co. uk, accessed 23 March 2010; Matthew Field, commentary, The Italian Job, writer: Troy Kennedy-Martin, director: Peter Collinson, producer: Matthew Field, U.K.: Oakhurst Productions, 1969; DVD, Paramount Pictures, 2003; “Hasta La Vista, Mini,” CAR December 2000, p. 217; “History of the Minor: A Car Is Born,” Minor Mania, n.d, www.minormania.com, accessed 23 March 2010; Ray Hutton, “Mini Happy Returns,” Car and Driver Vol. 35, No. 2 (August 1989), pp. 73–78; “John Cooper,” The 500 Owners Association, n.d., www.500race. org/ Men/ Cooper%20John.htm, accessed 25 March 2010; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Donald Neff, Warriors at Suez: Eisenhower Takes America into the Middle East (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983); Ian Nicholls, “The Mini Clubman,” AROnline, 31 December 2009, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 27 March 2010 and “The Mini Cooper,” AROnline, 16 May 2009, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 25 March 2010; Paul Niedermeyer, “Curbside Classic: Austin Mini – Yesterday’s Mini, Today’s Micro,” Curbside Classic, 16 May 2011, www.curbsideclassic. com/ curbside-classics-european/ curbside-classic-1959-week-mini- yesterdays-mini-todays-micro/, accessed 16 May 2011; David Phipps, “Mini-Cooper S vs. [Ford] Falcon Sprint,” Car and Driver, July 1964, reprinted in Falcon Performance Portfolio 1960–1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998), pp. 94-98; John Pressnell, The Mini (Shire Library) (Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd., 2004); Graham Robson, Cortina: The story of Ford’s best-seller, Second Edition (Dorchester, England: Veloce Publishing Ltd., 2008); “The Autocar road tests: 1843: Austin Seven Cooper,” The Autocar 20 December 1961, pp. 663-666; The Italian Job.com, n.d., www.theitalianjob. com, accessed 27 March 2010; “The History of Mini,” MiniWorld, 2009, www.miniworld. co. uk, accessed 27 March 2010; Craig Wash, “Mini Mark! Part 5: Mini Cooper 1961-1971,” Rugby Classic Mini Owners Club, n.d., www.rcmoc.org.uk/ bitsnbobs/ files/ minimk_Coopers.pdf, accessed 25 March 2010, and the Wikipedia® entries for for “Mini,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMC_Mini, accessed 25 March 2010, and “The Italian Job,” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Italian_Job, accessed 25 March 2010.

Historical exchange rate data for the dollar and British pound came from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 British Pound, 1948-2007” (2007, fx.sauder.ubc. ca, accessed 2 January 2010) — in general, we assumed a rate of $2.80/£ through 1968. Exchange rate estimates represent the equivalency of the dollar and the sterling, not U.S. retail prices. Please note that exchange rates listed are approximate and are provided for informational purposes only — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on historical currency trading, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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  1. Very well written article. Incidentally, this site, Aronline and TTAC is my top three car sites on the net. I really like all the extensive research that goes into all of the articles on this site, it’s truly a watershed of hard facts and knowledge. Good work, really good work.

  2. Superb writing…really enjoy your site…thanks! Always learn something new when I visit.

  3. i would like to get more picture of modify and non modify mini…how many more does BMC has produce.

  4. My Dad bought a new Morris Minor ‘woody’ in 1959.

    It was black, and I remnember him taking me and my brother to Death Valley seperately for camping trips in it.(Not enough room for all of us at the same time!)

    The two-lane highways back then were a real adventure, especially in something like the Morris, and I vaguely remember leaving early from our camping trip because it got so bloody hot.

    Dad finally sold the Morris and got a ’61 Falcon wagon and the family did a lot of trailering and camping in that.

    I liked the Morris, and one like ours is undoubtedly the most collectable version today.

    I never knew that Issigonis was the designer.

    Great site, BTW.

  5. in the sentence "Badged miniMetro, it didn’t go on sale in October 1980.".

    Great article and site – engages pretty much all my interests.

    1. Oops! Yes, at one point, the sentence read, “…finally arrived in October 1980,” and when it was restructured, it lost an article or two. Fixed.

  6. This site rocks.

    I had to look up the 9x, which is of course @ Austin Rover Online.

  7. Nearly every BMC model launched after the ’50s seemed to suffer the same problems.
    The Mini, 1100/1300, 1800, Maxi, Allegro and Princess cars were not developed properly before launch, none of them had a decent gearchange and had poor transmission reliability, apart from the Maxi and Princess they had an awkward driving position, and all models had below par build quality.
    Poor build quality became an issue for the Rover, Triumph and Jaguar cars as well, although only Rover had anything like a decent reputation in their pre British Leyland forms.
    Appalling management and irresponsible trade unions both contributed to this sorry situation.
    I read in Sir Micheal Edwardes book “Back from the brink” that soon after he was appointed managing director of the company he asked his department heads for costings and profit margins for the models in production.
    NOT ONE OF THEM HAD ANY IDEA, it appeared they simply built the cars and assumed if they left the factory in reasonable numbers a profit was being made.
    The Mini is a good example of poor planning, it was priced to compete with the ancient flathead engined Ford Popular which had long amortised its development and tooling costs.
    It was never going to sell any cars to someone thinking of a small Ford, they might look at a Morris Minor or Austin A35 instead.
    Perhaps if more development had been done with a profit margin built into its price structure who knows what might have been?.

    Roger.

    1. Roger,

      In regards to your last point, isn’t that really what Leyland did with the Metro? Same old pre-flood A-series engine, same gearbox in the sump, Hydragas suspension, similar packaging, but modern styling, a hatchback (which the Mini should have had much sooner), and a lot of canny production engineering so they could actually build the cars without losing money on them. It was such an obvious development that one really has to wonder why BMC/BLMC didn’t launch such a car in, say, 1970 — they had all the pieces, and British Leyland would have weathered the ’70s much better if they’d had a volume product on which they made more than a fiver per car.

  8. I believe Sir Alec Issigonos did have a replacement for the Mini in at least in blueprints by the end of the ’60s. It was rather like the Metro launched ten years later, at least in concept, and looked somewhat similar, probably more due to the dictum of “form follows function” than anything else. It’s hard to tell most modern superminis apart from any distance as they all have the same function to fulfil.
    Leonard Lord and Issigonis didn’t see eye to eye on many things, as with GM and Ford top executives politics played its part as well.
    Internal politics is a major factor in the various trials and tribulations of any large corporation, be it shipbuilding, banking, or vehicle manufacture.

    By that time of course British Leyland was in complete confusion, money being siphoned off from Leyland Trucks to prop up the ailing and infighting car divisions.

    By 1970 British Leyland was under threat from European makers as well as domestic rivals Ford UK, Vauxhall and Chrysler UK. Japan had given notice that reliable cheap cars could be made, although they only had a toehold in the marketplace at the time.
    But I think it fair to say the only car to compete directly with the Mini was the Hillman Imp, a rear engine design that rivalled the Minis excellent handling along with its cramped, noisy interior and lack of luggage room, other cars in its price range included the Renault 4, Citroen 2CV, Fiat 500 and Skoda 1000. The Renault was more reliable, more comfortable and had more room for passengers and luggage, but was a bit more expensive, slower and not fun to drive, the Citroen was a bit too quirky for British mass appeal, the Fiat even smaller and more cramped without good road manners, and the Skoda was an Iron Curtain anachronism.
    Early Imps were notorious for water pump falures and it also hadn’t been properly developed before its launch. If anything it was even less reliable than the Mini so the Mini had its niche at the bottom of the pile more or less to itself.
    Perhaps for that reason, as well as no spare funds for developing a direct replacement it was left to soldier on for so long. By the time it went out of production it was selling purely because it was a Mini, it was no longer cheaper than its rivals which had long ago overtaken it as a fun to drive car.

    Roger.

    1. Around the time of the merger, Issigonis did come up with the 9X, which had a hatchback and some other updated touches. What the later Metro had that I’m not sure the 9X did was the attention to cost engineering. After the merger, Leyland hired a lot of ex-Ford people, who had the built-to-cost thing down to a science compared to BMC. Not all of those people stuck around long, of course, but those lessons did eventually filter down to the Metro. Issigonis was brilliant in many respects, but given his feelings toward stylists and marketing executives, one imagines he would have been very reluctant to compromise his designs on the say-so of cost accountants or production men. The speed with which the BLMC board moved Issigonis out of the technical director post suggests that Stokes wasn’t having any of that.

      I haven’t gotten to the Imp yet, nor any of the other Roots Group products, but I’ll be dealing soon with the first Fiesta and Ford’s own approach to this market.

  9. Hi.. Just a small incorrect detail.. Bottom of page 2 “in October 1967, the new Mk2 models received luxuries like wind-up windows and internal door hinges.” Those changes didn’t actually happen until the Mk3 model of ’69.
    Personally I think of that as the end of the pure Mini design.. The large door bins, facilitated by the sliding windows, would take half a week’s shopping.
    Another simple genius Issigonis feature lost to styling on the later Minis was the gravity-hinged rear numberplate holder, so you could drive with the boot (trunk) lid open full of luggage and still have the illuminated plate visible. Between that and the door bins the Mk3 probably had half the luggage capacity of a Mk1 or Mk2.
    Great site and great writing! Keep it up! :)

    1. Thanks for the correction — I’ve amended the text.

  10. I don’t believe the 948cc version of the BMC A series engine was every used in the Mini. Minis began with an 850cc then jumped to 998cc (a big bore version of the 948) and numerous other A series displacements over the decades with 1275cc being the largest, beginning in about 1967 with the Mini Cooper S.

    1. The text doesn’t say otherwise, though — it just says, “The XC9003 was originally slated to use the 948 cc (58 cu. in.) A-series engine, shared with the Morris Minor 1000, but the engine was subsequently de-stroked to 848 cc (52 cu. in.).” I suppose it could be clearer that it meant the change was made during the development process, not in production.

  11. Minis were originally equipped with 850cc engines, the Cooper models had 998cc and 997cc engines, one a long stroke unit, the other a short stroke, (I don’t know which was which). The 998cc engine in detuned form was put in the Wolesley Hornet and Riley Elf models and the Mini 1000 from 1968. Cooper S models had a choice of 957cc, 1071cc and 1275cc engines. The smaller sizes were presumably for competition classes, with as short a stroke as could be made from the A series design.
    In the mid ’70s the 1098cc version from the Austin 1100 and Allegro was fitted to Clubman models.
    The A series started life as an 803cc unit in the Austin A30, growing to 948cc, 1098cc and 1275cc in various rwd models. The crankshaft was rather different in fwd applications, instead of a flange with a bollted on flywheel they had a tapered spigot extending out and the flywheel was pressed on to it.

    Roger.

    1. Thanks for the info, Roger!

    2. The 997 was the long stroke version, after about 2 years of Cooper production the 998 was introduced, a larger bore shorter stroke engine. Despite only a 1cc difference in displacement and the same official HP rating it’s a much nicer revving engine.

      Cheers, Jim

  12. The Mini is one of those cars that deserved a lot more updates and development over the course of its long production life including 4-door (see AROnline) and hatchback variants (albeit with the 4/5-door initially limited to the 848-998cc engines in order to not steal sales from the BMC ADO16 1100/1300) as well as Rover Metro/100-style hydragas suspension.

    Also had the Mini been widened and lengthened by 2-inches / 50mm each way , it would have been possible to produce an A-Series or even a K-Series Mini with an end-on gearbox in place of the gearbox-in-sump layout as mentioned in the Minki I/II projects. – http://www.austinmemories.com/styled-29/index.html

    The 9X was said to be potentially cheaper to build and more profitable then the Mini, its only failing being that it was a clean sheet design at a time when British Leyland was formed.

    Mini: The Definitive History by Jon Pressnell has a lot of useful information on stillborn projects to update the Mini, during development a prototype Mini did use the 948cc A-Series which made the Mini too fast at 90 mph and as a result a decision was made to fit the Mini with 848cc version of the A-Series, the other short-lived alternative being to revive the 803cc engine.

    On the A-Series engine there were plans from the early/mid-1950s to develop an all-alloy A-Series that soon became serious in the late-1950s prior to problems at BMC during the 1960s precluding further development, the intention being to reduce the weight of the existing 120kg by half which to put in perspective is around a similar weight to the all-alloy Reliant OHV at 58kg with the Imp OHC coming in at 77kg. – http://mk1-performance-conversions.co.uk/experimental_dept.htm

    http://mk1-performance-conversions.co.uk/experimental_dept.htm

    1. Meant to say “….to reduce the weight of the existing 120kg A-Series by half..”

      Anyway more information on the all-alloy A-Series project can be found in Post War Baby Austin’s by Barney Sharratt.

    2. I think the basic dilemma was that because the Mini wasn’t very profitable even when it was selling well, it was hard for BL to justify putting a lot of their scanty capital into it, even if the result would be a cheaper-to-build (and thus more profitable), more modern car. They eventually did, more or less — that’s essentially what the Metro was — and would have done so sooner had they not been watching their financial life flash before their eyes in the mid-70s. (The development of the Metro began well before it actually appeared.)

      1. Obviously they could have costed the Mini better during development and charged a bit extra at BMC (possibly with Joe Edwards replacing Leonard Lord instead of George Harriman) though the likes of the Maxi and 1800/2200 underperforming and not being properly developed certainly did not help either.

        Also upon BL being formed the main priority was to rationalize projects from overlapping marques and attempt to help Morris/Austin perform better in the mid-range sector.

        Still with the amount of money (from millions to tens of millions) BL spent on still-born projects (a few of which were Mini-replacements), would have likely been better spent on further improving the Mini.

        While the Metro was originally intended to be a Mini replacement, it never quite achieved its objective and was more compromised and characterless then it needed to be, such as not receiving front/rear-interconnected hydragas suspension from the outset (instead of later appearing in the Rover Metro/100) and being limited by the gearbox-in-sump layout.

        1. The latter was probably the biggest miscalculation from a mechanical design standpoint. Hydragas had its pros and cons (the French managed better ride and better handling with conventional hardware), but having the gearbox in the sump meant they were limited to four speeds long past the point where rivals offered five-speeds at least as options.

          The entire history of BL in some ways boils down to an ongoing mismatch between money and ambitions, leading to evolutionary changes when they needed new models and new models when they’d probably have been better off fixing or updating the existing ones.

          1. The Gearbox-in-Sump layout also limited the potential of the 1275cc A-Series Turbo which was capable of 120-130 hp before it was detuned to 94 hp in order to preserve the life of the gearbox.

            Both BMC and Leyland could have made better decisions which would have removed the need for both to merge to create BL.

          2. Well, Leyland was doing okay before the merger (which is why the government pushed for it). How well Standard-Triumph, Rover, and Alvis would have done remaining independent is an interesting question, but they were better-positioned for success than BMC was. They needed to improve quality control and rethink their export strategy — especially with regard to the U.S. — but they had competitive products that were selling well and a more coherent product development plan. It wasn’t a perfect plan, particularly considered with the benefit of hindsight, but there was a plan, which was a good start.

  13. With BMC, they needed to quickly rationalize and discontinue low-selling marques such as Wolseley and Riley as well as resolve simmering in-house conflicts between Austin and Morris. Also the success of their FWD products outside of the UK was dependent on Britain joining the EEC in the early-1960s where high tariffs prevented BMC from capitalizing on the success of the Mini, 1100/1300, etc in EEC markets.

    Morris and later BMC were also unable to make the most of the Morris Minor’s success and develop it into a true rival to the Volkswagen Beetle. Such as spawning OHV and larger engined variants (with postwar 1140-1466cc XP-engined versions being sold alongside the MG T-Type in the US prior to using 948-1275cc A-Series / 1.2-1.6 B-Series engines), Gerald Palmer-styled sporting models with proposed all-independent suspension and even utilizing a form of the FWD Minor prototype along with potentially a early-60s Marina to rival the mk1 Ford Cortina.

    Though as with other cars he designed including the Mini, Alec Issigonis did not really care to improve existing models even his own preferring instead to constantly build innovative cars (ideally from a clean sheet of paper), hence the lack of development.

    Leyland meanwhile though it was relatively better positioned compared to BMC had Triumph and Rover overlapping with each other with both marques having already invested tens of millions into new products and engines, whereas Leyland would have been better off acquiring Jaguar to sit above Triumph (with Rover going to BMC).

    1. Sir William Lyons went with BMC because he was afraid their acquisition of Pressed Steel would otherwise hurt Jaguar badly, so the latter wasn’t terribly likely. I don’t think assembling Triumph, Rover, and Alvis into a coherent divisional structure was really all that dire an issue, particularly WITHOUT having Jaguar in the mix. (Having to coexist with Jaguar made a mess of Rover’s plans for a good decade, as we’ve seen.) As for Rover and Triumph, Rover didn’t have smaller, cheaper cars or sports cars (I’ve never been sure how serious they were about the P6BS as a real production possibility) and the P8 and its mooted Alvis spin-off were well upmarket of anything Triumph was contemplating. Triumph was of course planning to put the Stag V-8 in the 2000/2500, although it’s entirely possible they would have simply dropped that plan; as it was, the V-8 was seen as a disruption to production of the more numerically important slant-four. The major overlap at the time Leyland bought Rover was in the 2-liter class, and since the P6 and 2000 so dominated that market, the need to decide how (or if) to resolve that conflict was still some years out. They probably would have wanted to rationalize the two lines eventually, although the necessity of that really depended on how well they could have kept the cars competitive against the Germans after 1972. Compared to the morass of problems facing BMC in terms of product development and brand overlap, that doesn’t strike me as impossibly onerous.

      1. Rover were serious about the P6BS (initially intended as an Alvis before later becoming the P9) and P8 projects, they also looked into the smaller P10 project to replace the P6 that after the P8 was cancelled grew to become the SD1.

        Though it is not practical given Sir William Lyons motivations, the rationale behind Rover going to BMC and Jaguar going to Leyland is to allow Rover to grow as a luxury marque without the interference of Jaguar and Jaguar in turn feeling less threatened by Triumph (whereas Jaguar under BL had to deal with both Triumph and Rover).

        1. I know the P6BS was badged as an Alvis, but looking at the car, it’s hard to see a real business case for it, given that none of these companies was rolling in surplus capital. It was an interesting exercise, but it’s hard to look at it without thinking, “Why?”

          I don’t think Jaguar pre-BL was threatened by Triumph. The only mooted Triumph product that was arguably a direct threat to Jaguar was the Stag, and we saw how that turned out. Post-BL, of course, there was a clash with Rover in terms of positioning, which lasted well into the development of the 800. Triumph was an issue mainly insofar as BL expected the three to share generally inadequate resources, since the mainstream brands were nominally supposed to be the priority.

          1. The mid-engined P9 was intended as a glamorous range-topper to take on the Porsche 911 and utilized components from the P6, along with the P8 saloon it loss out due to the Rover management being timid together with the BL board being dominated by Jaguar man who viewed the P9 as a rival to the E-Type and later the XJ-S.

          2. Sir William’s defensiveness over Jaguar’s position aside, I think passing on it was the right decision. I have a hard time seeing it finding a market — it was too much of a brand stretch for either Rover or Alvis. Of course, all this is far afield of the Mini!

  14. Issues with body suppliers seem to have played a role in the downfall of many automakers!

    Sir William Lyons went with BMC, as Aaron explains, because BMC had acquired Pressed Steel. As Aaron relates in the Triumph TR4 history, Standard-Triumph bought Mulliners Ltd. because BMC had bought Fisher & Ludlow. Jowett of Bradford, England, stayed in business but stopped making cars because their body supplier, Briggs, had been bought by Ford UK. Packard lost Briggs as a body supplier and had problems because of it. The Hudson Jet was unprofitable partly because of issues with Murray, the body supplier. (Again, I have AUWM to thank for my knowing this.)

    What’s ironic about this, at least with respect to British Leyland cars, is that BL was unmanageable because it was so sprawling, with so many subsidiaries.

    Finding alternate sources for spark plugs/shock absorbers/gaskets must be much easier than finding them for body shells.

    1. While he went with BMC in Sir William Lyons autobiography, it is mentioned that had Leyland’s Sir Henry Spurrier not retired in 1963 Lyons would have voluntarily had Jaguar become part of Leyland since Lyons respected Spurrier.

      In retrospect it would have been interesting exploring that path by having Leyland effectively become Jaguar-Triumph where both marques compliment each other instead of overlapping (as was the case with Triumph and Rover), with Rover remaining either an independent concern or part of BMC (managing to recover somehow).

      Going back to the Mini while liking the 9X and related ADO16-replacing 10X projects, BMC would have been better off taking an evolutionary approach by updating both the Mini as well as ADO16 (with the latter perhaps even spawning a shortened ADO16-derived variant in between both models called the Super-Mini).

  15. A wonderfully written article on one of my favorite cars (Cooper 997 owner since 1992).

    I’m going to nitpick a bit, in all the time I’ve been involved with Minis the engine was turned around (carbs facing the firewall) to prevent carb icing. The gearbox survival angle is interesting, although I’m not sure how much a bit of extra slop in the drivetrain by the intermediate gear will prevent transmission damage.

    And the floor pan leak issue was supposed to be a problem with production workers overlapping the floor pan pieces incorrectly. Was that the truth, or the engineering department deciding to blame the assembly line workers rather than admit they made a mistake?

    All my Minis are MkIs, they truly are larger on the inside than the outside. I did realize early on in my ownership that in a bad accident it’d be simpler to just crush the car with me in it to make my casket. Thanks to Alec Issigonis for the great handling that has saved me to date!

    Cheers, Jim

    1. Blaming assembly line workers for failures of engineering or management was a time-honored tradition of the British car industry, so there’s that.

      The Mini was not well-designed from a manufacturing standpoint — that is, its assembly required too many operations of too great a complexity — which clearly had a cost in assembly quality as well as labor costs. That sort of thing is really beyond the scope of lineworkers. It’s like if a fast food restaurant supplied each half of each hamburger bun in two pieces that the employee was supposed to assemble in preparing each burger, and then complained that the results were sloppy and took too long.

    2. The leaky floor pan of the original pre-February 1960 Minis was absolutely Issigonis’ error. Charles Griffin’s account tells how Issi was very keen on the Mini being exported as CKD kits to the developing world where it could be built with minimal mechanised tooling. That’s partly why the Mini was remarkably ‘hand built’ even by the standards of the 1950s. It was also one of the reasons for the external body seams because they made the panels self-jigging. Part of this was that Issigonis really wanted the floor pan to be the lowest part of the shell, with every other panel spot-welding onto it. “Consider a chap building a garden shed,” he told Griffin, “first he lays down his floor, then he puts up the sides, then he bolts the sides together and the sides to the floor.”

      So the Mini’s heel and toe panels both spot-welded onto the upper suurface of the floor pan. That’s fine for the heel panel, but it left huge unsealed gaps between the spot welds on the toe panel through which the airstream of the car would push rain water and road spray in quite incredible quantities – enough for the cabin to be three inches deep in water within a couple of hours of moderate wet-weather driving.

      The solution, handled by Griffin (because by this time Issigonis was wrapped up in the ADO16), was to redesign the toe panel so it welded to the bottom of the floor pan rather than the top, thus blocking the gap. Apparently Issigonis was predictably angry that his vision had been distorted, even though BMC never had any intention of undertaking low-tech CKD production as Issigonis envisioned (another example of him designing the car he wanted, rather than want his employers or their customers, needed).

      The Mini’s overly-complex body structure and spot-welded construction means they most of them still leak like sieves. My March 1960 Austin Se7en, even though it has the ‘fixed’ floor pan, still fills with water via the sills and the A-pillars.

      As for the 9X, I believe it really showed that Issigonis had learnt his lesson. I’ve looked over the surviving example in the metal and it’s a beautifully simple car. It has less than half the number of components as a Mini. Moulton’s ingenious but complicated suspension is ditched in favour of MacPherson struts at the front and torsion bars and trailing arms at the back. The all-alloy through-bolt construction engine is a thing of beauty and promised so much (all the more surprising given how dire Issigonis’ other engines were – the Alvis V8 he designed was hopeless and the BMC E-Series was a mess). No more transmission in the sump, but instead mounted in a seperate casing behind the engine. The 9X design (both platform and drivetrain) was scaleable – the prototypes were 3-door ‘Mini’ size, but Issigonis also designed a larger 5-door ‘ADO16’ size and there was room in the design for a bigger ‘ADO17’ size. The engine design scaled from 750cc 4-cylinder to 2.2-litre 6-cylinder.

      The 9X’s weakness was that while it would have been cheap to build and cheap to own it would have incurred massive setup and tooling costs because it was a completely clean-sheet design. BL simply didn’t have the resources even if the managerial and political will had been there.

      1. Cheers, Jack — I hadn’t know the roots of the original floorpan issue, although I know the Mini’s marginal profitability had much to do with it being overly complicated to manufacture and assemble.

        Your final graph, of course, is essentially the epitaph of British Leyland in the ’70s and ’80s. They knew they were barely making money from the Mini and were greatly dependent on it commercially, but they couldn’t afford the cost of reengineering it to make it cheaper to build until the extremely belated launch of the Metro.

      2. You mention the through-bolt construction of the 9X engine. Did this influence the later Rover K series engine?

        1. I’m sure the 9X influence was there on the K-Series, although I don’t think it was direct. The 9X itself drew on the original Austin Seven engine of 1924 (an engine that Issigonis was very familiar with given his time spent building Seven-based racing specials). I said in my original comment that the 9X was all-alloy, but it wasn’t – like the Seven engine it had an aluminium alloy head, a cast iron block and an aluminium alloy crankcase all held together in a ‘sandwich’ by through-bolts. It had some other typically Issigonis features – the alternator was built into the flywheel, after he was convinced to give up his original idea for magnetic segments bonded into the rubber timing belt and passing through a pick-up gate like some weird power-generating tape player!

          The K-Series was born from Charles Spencer King’s ECV3 project in the early 1980s. That car had a purpose-built 1113cc engine which was, in principle, a smaller all-alloy version of King’s multi-valve Triumph slant-four but with three cylinders. It required through-bolt construction to gain the required strength and rigidity with low weight (the whole engine weighed just 85kg ‘wet’).

          So the 9X did not directly feed into the K-Series but 9X engine prototype units were still kicking around Longbridge in the early 1980s – Issigonis’ three 9X-engined ‘gearless’ Mini development vehicles were there and they built a six-cylinder 9X Metro in 1985. I’d be very surprised if the knowledge of the 9X and its construction wasn’t common currency in the engine design office at Longbridge and so was an obvious solution to the requirements of the ECV3 engine and then the K-Series.

      3. Jack

        Have read elsewhere there were concerns about the 9X’s gearbox layout during a comparison test, though the 9X still compared very well in other respects.

        Is there any truth to claims the 9X engine basically a downscaled E-Series in some respects given certain similarities between the two engines? Alleged there were said to have been similarities between the E-Series and Volkswagen EA827 (as well as the downsized EA111) engines, with the Volkswagen engines giving a hint as to what a well executed E-Series could have become.

        Also find it curious there was still scope in the 9X/10X project for a larger ADO17 “11X” replacement and 2.2-litre 6-cylinder, where can one find more information about such proposals?

        In the case of the 2.2 6-cylinder 9X unit, are you referring to the 9X gearless prototype that featured a larger 1.5-litre displacement version of the 9X engine? Was that the largest displacement the 9X 4-cylinder was capable of or could it have been stretched to displace 1.6-litres?

        It is also said that Issigonis planned for the 9X engine to feature twin-cams had it reached production.

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