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Mini Mk1 (1959 - 1967)

Last updated 19 November 2014


Model Timeline

March 1957
Mini plans were first drawn-up

The Mini was conceived in response to a crisis in the Middle East. The upshot of this was that all oil supplies from the Middle East would need to be transported in giant oil tankers around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, as the Suez Canal was well and truly closed. This resulted in oil shortages and the renewed popularity of small cars in Europe.

Due to the Middle East crisis, petrol rationing returned to the UK in December 1956 and people began to clamour for more economical means of travel. The sales of 900-1000cc cars quadrupled in the period from 1956 to 1957, while car sales in the wider market slumped. German bubble cars began to appear on these shores, and although they may have been awful to drive, with questionable safety, they did achieve more than 40 miles per gallon, which was the most important statistic a car could boast in those petrol-starved times.

Mini One of the earliest sketches for the Mini design as penned by Alec Issigonis. Note how the car changed remarkably little between concept and production.

The Suez crisis came at a turbulent time in BMC’s history, when the company was grappling with the very real problem of trying to reinvent itself. Alec Issigonis had been working on a front wheel drive Morris Minor replacement, with transverse engine and end-on gearbox, before he was seduced away from the newly-formed BMC in 1952 on the promise of developing a supercar for Alvis Motors. This did not work out for Issigonis, and a call from Leonard Lord at the end of 1955, inviting him back to BMC, could not have come at a better time. Newly back in the fold, Issigonis built a small team of engineers – most notably Jack Daniels, his old associate from the Minor days – and resumed his work for the company.

In a parallel response to Herbert Austin’s disgust at the proliferation of motorcycle/sidecar combinations on UK roads thirty-five years previously, Leonard Lord viewed the popularity of bubble cars with the same distaste. As Lord informed Issigonis in March 1957, “God damn these bloody awful bubble cars. We must drive them off the streets by designing a proper small car”. At this point the emphasis of BMC’s new car development programme was changed from replacing the Minor to producing something new and smaller: a car designated XC9003.

Mini One of the first ‘Orange Box’ prototypes from 1957. (Picture: Ian Nicholls)

Issigonis brought Chris Kingham over from Alvis to join Daniels, and these three men set about defining the Mini. Kingham and Daniels were both extremely gifted engineers who not only made many of Issigonis’ ideas happen, but also helped keep his feet on the ground, without tying him down. The entire team comprised these three, four draftsmen and a brace of student engineers. For project ADO15 (the car’s code name was changed when development was moved to the Austin HQ at Longbridge), there was absolutely no question of this being a high budget affair – and yet the demands that Lord placed on these men were extraordinary.

Issigonis had proved with his work on the original Minor replacement he was working on before his misadventure at Alvis that he could package an engine and gearbox into a space that occupied only two feet of the car’s entire length. He could achieve this by mounting the engine transversely, which would give massive benefits in terms of packaging efficiency, but it created the problem of how the engine and gearbox would be accommodated across the car’s width; as the Mini was intended to be a narrow car, the engine with the gearbox mounted end-on would be very difficult to fit between the wheels, whilst maintaining useful steering lock. One way of shortening the engine/gearbox package was to chop off two cylinders from the A-Series engine, creating an in-line, two-cylinder engine of roughly 500cc displacement. The end result was a gutless and rough engine, which was certainly not man enough for the job required.

Just when Issigonis decided to mount the gearbox beneath the engine as part of an in-sump arrangement has now escaped into the mists of time, but this arrangement was incorporated as part of the first Mini mock-up. Not only did it have the now-famous in-sump gearbox, but it also included special Dunlop-developed 10-inch wheels and tyres, Alex Moulton’s rubber suspension and the familiar Mini shape in almost the form in which it was launched, the styling being a scaled down version of the XC9000, a mid-sized Farina replacement that was in the early stages of development.

These three innovations were certainly the making of the Mini, and it is all the more remarkable to note that the conception of the car was such a rapid process: Work on X9003, the original code name for the ADO15 Mini began in March 1957 and by July 1957 the first prototype was running. Another one of the Mini’s design team was John Sheppard, who later described what it was like working for Alec Issigonis: ‘He knew what he wanted and he made sure he got it. He’d come round holding an ounce weight and say, “Have you saved that for me today?”. Weight was very critical. The Mini had to be 10ft long – no more, no less. He was very pedantic like that and very domineering. When it went into production, it was a quarter of an inch over 10ft long. That really annoyed him.’

Issigonis and his team were eventually able to make the Mini 100lb lighter than the existing Austin A35. The emphasis on weight saving probably helped to ensure the resulting car remained competitive in the fuel economy stakes for a long time to come and set a benchmark that proved difficult to beat, as later British Leyland engineers were to find out.

July 1957
BMC management signs-off the Mini for production

It was on 19 July 1957 that BMC chairman Leonard Lord and his deputy George Harriman first drove the prototype Mini around the Longbridge complex and the former told Alec Issigonis to ‘build the bloody thing.’ The long accepted version of events, The Mini Story by Laurence Pomeroy published in 1964, dated this event as July 1958. Documentary evidence has now emerged to reveal that the decision to push ahead with the ADO15 project was taken a whole year earlier. The first prototype was soon joined by a second car. The two cars, disguised with Austin A35 grilles, were known internally as the ‘Orange Boxes’ and were based at Cowley for these preliminary trials. The engineers from Morris Motors, Cowley, were headed by Charles Griffin, who would play a significant part in the Mini story and all the later front wheel drive cars that would spring from it.

At night they were thrashed around a well-used test route that Morris test drivers relied on for new car development, taking in a circuitous route through the Cotswolds. During the day, they were driven at the local disused airfield at Chalgrove, circulating around the badly maintained perimeter taxiway. In 500 hours, the cars covered 30,000 miles and this process highlighted weaknesses in the design at that stage. It was at motor show time in October 1957 that BMC’s joint managing director George Harriman teased journalists, telling them that the corporations market researchers had discovered that consumers did not want bubble cars, but a low priced, fully engineered car. He was quoted as saying, ‘Obviously if the corporation can produce such a car which will sell more cheaply, they will do so.’

Mini Someone literally took a padsaw to a Mini to produce this, but it shows very eloquently just how efficiently packaged it really is. The passenger area accounted for an unprecedented 60% of the car’s length, a tribute to the intelligent design.

From the airing of the first prototype, to the car’s launch in August 1959, only a few major mechanical changes were made; a reduction in engine size from 948cc to 848cc was ordered as a direct result of the fact that early prototypes had been clocked at over 92mph, which was considered far too fast for the market the Mini was aimed at. The new capacity was arrived at by reducing the stroke from 73mm in the 948cc version to 68mm in the final 848cc incarnation.

At this time, the engine was rotated through 180 degrees to face the bulkhead, so that the carburettor was now to the rear of the engine, instead of at the front, where it tended to ice up in cold conditions. According to John Cooper, the real reason why the engine was reversed, however, was that Mini prototypes kept destroying their synchromeshes after about 100 miles. Issigonis was reportedly very upset that this change was required because the car was faster in its original form. Why the engine was rotated, rather than Austin designing a more durable synchomesh can be put down to two factors: time and money – or more correctly, the lack of it. So, carburettor icing was cited as the reason for this reversal of the position of the engine, but the response of John Cooper to this suggestion was that it, ‘was a load of bull!’

Interestingly, the whole point of the re-orientation and the resultant introduction of the transfer gears was to allow for much smaller gears, which produced much less inertia, meaning that there would be less stress on the gearbox’s synchromesh. Testing had shown that even with this fundamental alteration, the Austin A35 synchromesh would not be up to the job, but because the development of the Porsche baulk ring Synchro would not be complete by the planned launch date, they went ahead with the A35 system, anyway!

Another myth perpetuated by Laurence Pomeroy was that the width of the car was increased by two inches, in order to improve accommodation for passengers and engine alike. In fact two inches was taken out of the rear track for purely aesthetic reasons. It was also found as a result of all that flogging round Chalgrove that the body shell around the suspension mounting points was breaking. This led to the suspension being changed so that the rubber units would be mounted on their own subframes, front and rear, in order to lessen stresses on the structure, at the expense of weight and cost.

Wheel size was an ongoing issue at the time and when the Mini finally appeared, few critics saw the significance of this new, smaller design of road wheel – most were convinced that they could not work. Issigonis had furthered the development of the small car by working with Dunlop to produce a road tyre of record-breaking diminutiveness, a process that he had begun with the Morris Minor. At that time, the Minor had the smallest tyres of any volume production car – when Giacosa had conceived the FIAT 500, for example, he had asked Pirelli to produce special tyres to fit on 15in wheel rims. The industry average at the time was a much larger 16 or 17in rim size.

The question of wheel size was very important because the smaller the wheel, the smaller the wheel arch, meaning less intrusion into the passenger compartment. At the start of the Mini project, Issigonis had approached Dunlop, as he had done with the Minor, to develop a new type of tyre that would sit on a wheel that was 4.20 x 10in – almost wheelbarrow dimensions – and Dunlop managed to develop a suitable tyre for the car. The tyres that finally appeared on the Mini were 5.20in in width, rather wider than the prototypes’ 4.80in tyres, and it was as a direct result of the car’s unexpectedly good performance that this change was made.

Mini 1959 Morris Mini-Minor: pure, unspoiled Mini. Along with the Austin Se7en, this car caused an absolute sensation when launched during August 1959. People took a long time to latch on to the fact that something so small could accommodate four fully-grown adults and their luggage.

As with all of the next two generations of the corporation’s cars, Alex Moulton was responsible for suspension system. In the Mini, he designed all-new rubber suspension units to replace the spring units that were employed in conventionally suspended cars. Moulton made great use of the variable rate properties provided by using rubber as a springing medium – the advantage being that in a small car, the weight difference between fully-laden and driver-only was proportionally greater than it would be in a larger, heavier car. These rubber cones were smaller than conventional spring/damper units, which meant that Moulton’s system also had significant packaging advantages.

March 1958
Prototype testing topped 50,000 miles

By March 1958 the first two X9003 prototypes had amassed 50,000 miles apiece and the decision was taken to build ten pilot production cars, each differing in detail to the previous example as the design evolved. The ADO15 Mini proved to be a difficult design to productionise and this was a cause of friction between the production engineers and Alec Issigonis. Indeed as early as October 1958 development engineers were having trouble with water leaks and persuading Issigonis to modify his design was proving problematical.

When BMC managing director George Harriman was shown the first pre-production Mini he was not impressed with its bland, plain and austere appearance. He is alleged to have said to Issigonis: ‘What a bloody mess! We’ll never sell that. Spend another few quid on it Alec, and jazz it up a bit. Put some chrome plate on it or something.’

The pre-production Minis had a plain metal front panel with slots stamped in it for a grille, as seen in BMC’s original 1959 promotional film. Dick Burzi’s styling department duly obliged their superiors by adding a grille and other chrome embellishments to the Mini. The original metal grille was later used on the commercial variants of the car.

May 1959
Mini production began at at Cowley

It was on 8 May 1959 that Mini production began at Cowley when Morris chassis numbers 101,102, 103, 105, 106, 107, 108, 110, 111, 112 were all built. Bizarrely 104 and 109 were built a few days later. Morris Mini Minor chassis 101 was registered as 621 AOK. So why the confusion ? One can only assume that in February 1965, when the millionth Mini was produced in the aftermath of the second Monte Carlo rally win, that BMC’s PR machine simply made the understandable mistake of assuming Morris 101/621 AOK was the first car of all and it and Alec Issigonis posed outside Longbridge with a 1965 model for PR photographs that have appeared in the printed media ever since. In fact Morris 101/621 AOK was the sixth production Mini. By the time the error was realised it was too late to backtrack and Morris 101/621 AOK has now become the official first Mini.

By June, 100 cars a day were being built, in order to build up dealer stocks in preparation for the launch in August. In total, the gestation of this car from the instigation of the ADO15 project to its launch was two years and five months. This achievement was all the more remarkable when one considers that the Mini did not follow any other car’s design concepts and was a totally new idea that was implemented in a totally new way.

The first public admission that something new was on the way came on the 17 June 1959, when BMC chairman Sir Leonard Lord revealed some details of the forthcoming cars. He stated that these cars had been through extensive trials and had taken three years to develop. New buildings had been erected and new plant and equipment using the most up-to-date methods installed at a total cost of well over £10m. At the same time it was also revealed that the Austin A40 and Morris Minor would remain in production. The Daily Express newspaper quoted Sir Leonard directly as saying: ‘The most up-to-date methods in the world are being used in the production of the new models which will come out at the end of August.’

Those who think that industrial action was something that resulted as a consequence of the formation of British Leyland will be surprised to read that the situation in the UK car industry in 1959 was as bad as anything that occurred in the 1970s. 1959 Was a terrible year for strikes. The launch of the Mini was endangered by industrial action at the Morris Motors plant at Cowley, where on 15 July 1959, BMC dismissed Mr Frank Horsman, senior shop steward at the factory. Cowley was soon brought to a halt by strike action in a scenario similar to that of two decades later involving Derek Robinson and Longbridge, and it was August 13th before normal working resumed. With launch of the Mini only 13 days away, it was a close run thing.

August 1959
Mini launched to the press

Issigonis and the Mini at its launch in August 1959. Issigonis and the Mini at its launch in August 1959.

When the press first got their hands on BMC’s new car on the 18-19 August 1959 at Chobham in Surrey, they were not shy to praise it; the Mini’s unique personality, exceptional space efficiency, relatively good performance and tenacious front-wheel-drive handling meant that it was a sure fire hit with the critics. It swept aside the conservatism that was rife in the corporation and the perception of BMC in the public’s eye was changed indelibly.

In a sense the press were driving the personalised car of its designer. Because Issigonis didn’t wear a seatbelt or listen to the radio, they were not designed into the Mini, but as he was a chain smoker the car did have an ashtray. The seats were pushed as far forward as possible and set in an upright fashion resulting in the infamous ‘bus driver’ position so beloved of motoring writers and found on later Issigonis cars and even the Metro of 1980.

August 1959
Mini went on sale in the UK

Launch day itself was the 26 August 1959. This was also the day that the car the Mini was replacing, the Austin A35, went out of production. Perhaps this was because launch day had been brought forward from the 2 September at the last minute. According to Derek Robinson, more of whom later, whereas the A35 had been produced at a track speed of 20 cars per hour at Longbridge, the Mini was produced at a rate of 30 cars per hour. Because BMC had separate dealerships for its component companies, there were two different variants of the ADO15 at launch, the Austin Se7en and the Morris Mini Minor.

At one stage during ADO15′s development, it was referred to as the Austin Newmarket, partly because it was aimed at a new market and because BMC had a track record of naming its cars after places: Oxford, Cambridge, Somerset and Westminster come to mind. The initial production target was 3000 vehicles a week, divided equally between the Longbridge and Cowley plants. The Fisher and Ludlow plant was already geared to produce 4000 bodies a week. Preliminary plans had been made for the cars to be constructed by the Innocenti firm in Milan. Some 2000 of the new cars had already been sent abroad and they were displayed in motor showrooms in nearly 100 countries.

The word ‘mini’ is now an everyday part of the english vocabulary, but was it in regular use before the ADO15 arrived on the scene, and who came up with the name ‘Mini’ for the car? One assumes ‘Mini’ is a shortened version of either ‘minimum’ or ‘miniature’? Between 1948 and 1966, Bond built the three wheel Minicar with a motorcycle engine, so BMC were not the originators of the word ‘Mini’. According to Thirty Mini Years, the 1989 official Rover souvenir booklet to mark the car’s 30th birthday, it was none other than Lord Nuffield, BMC’s Honourary President who pushed for the adoption of the name ‘Mini’.

Lord Nuffield, who allegedly always referred to Issigonis as ‘that foreign chap’ was quoted as saying, ‘I have a hunch that “Mini” may well prove to be the catchword of the next decade.’

Of course the other issue with the Mini that must be addressed is whether it made or lost money for its maker. The price for the base model of the world’s most advanced family car was £496.95 – astonishingly low. According to some historians, Austin had based the pricing of its cars in the pre-BMC era by mirroring what Morris charged. Austin supremo Leonard Lord believed that William Morris was the master in cost control and simply assumed that Longbridge’s cars cost a similar amount to manufacture. With the formation of BMC, the corporation now looked at Ford for its pricing policy. It appears that BMC simply decided to sell its new baby at a similar price to the sit-up-and-beg Ford Popular, which ceased production in 1959.

Mini Minimalist interior: although this is a 1967 Morris Mini-Cooper ‘S’ MkII, it is still an extremely functional design. This Mini received a remote gearchange and more comprehensive instrumentation over the original. Note the sliding windows and huge door-bins – made obsolete a year later by the later wind-up- windows Minis (known as the ADO20).

In its first year of production, the Mini overtook the Morris Minor as the corporation’s bestseller, but it was not all plain sailing for the Issigonis box. The initial problem, as far as UK sales were concerned, was that the Mini was considered too clever and too small for the typical customer that Leonard Lord had designed the car for. Many buyers were from the “blue collar” end of the social spectrum and adjudged the Mini as not for them – how could a car so small have room for them and their families?

January 1960
Mini Van was launched

In January 1960, the Mini Van was launched. Weekly production at the time was 3000. 1960 Was the year the Mini really took off, some 116,677 leaving the factories and already selling better than the Austin A35 at its peak. By September, 1960 BMC was claiming that weekly Mini production had now reached 3300.

January 1961
Mini Pick Up launched

In January 1961 the Mini Pick Up arrived on the market. However the Mini’s immunity to the recession ended and production was now down to 2000 cars a week, although this was still higher than most British cars at the time. By February business had picked up and it was soon back to normal. BMC’s Australian subsidiary began producing Minis in March 1961, known locally as the Morris 850. The antipodean Mini was produced at BMC Australia’s Zetland plant in a suburb of Sydney. In BMC’s annual report for 1960-61, the company stated that Mini production had risen by 62% in the period, despite an overall drop in production for all vehicles of 10%.

Mini The Riley Elf (along with its brother, the Wolseley Hornet) was the first of two attempts (the second, being the Clubman, pictured below) to extend the Mini concept by lengthening it: the structural modifications to the Mini were all aft of the B-pillar, where out back a saloon-type boot was added. One advantage of the Riley (and Wolseley) front-end treatment, was the full-depth radiator grille, which allowed for improved under-bonnet access when compared with the standard item.
September 1961
Mini-Cooper launched

The Mini-Cooper, launched on the 20th September 1961, eventually went on to become part of motoring folklore, amassing countless rally wins, particularly in the Monte Carlo, where the Cooper performed remarkable feats of giant killing. On the road, the Mini-Cooper was also a remarkable success, becoming the performance car for a generation; but considering the car was such a success, it seems all the more sad that the BMC-Cooper arrangement was never made official, and John Cooper only earned a £2 royalty payment (plus reasonably healthy retainer) for the use of his name on each one sold. However, on the back of the success of the Cooper models, and the countless celebrity endorsements, the rest of the range received a shot in the arm in terms of sales success.

October 1961
Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf launched

12 October 1961 saw the announcement of two more variations on the Mini theme, the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet. These were the posh Minis with Riley the slightly more upmarket. According to LJK Setright they were designed, ‘…to appeal to those small minded snobs who found the idea of a Mini intriguing but the name of Austin or Morris offensive and the evidence of austerity.’ Jeff Daniels wrote, in 1980, harshly of the cars. ‘The Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf are awful reminders of what happened when every BMC dealer and marque manager demanded his version of the Mini.’

April 1963
Mini-Cooper S launched

On 2 April 1963, the Mini-Cooper 1071S was announced. On 7 May it was revealed that weekly Mini production had reached 5500. On November 22nd 1963 BMC released a financial statement, with chairman George Harriman outlining a rosy future.

BMC had become dependent on volume to pay its way in the world and attaining the desired production would prove problematical. The Mini’s most successful year as far as UK sales was early on in the cars life span. 134,346 Were sold in Britain in 1963, followed by 123,429 in 1964. It never came close to matching these figures again.

September 1964
Minis fitted with Hydrolastic suspension

September 1964 and BMC revealed details to the press about the new Hydrolastic Minis. Hydrolastic was to be fitted to the mainstream Minis to give that big car ride, or so BMC believed its potential customers thought. The fitment of Hydrolastic suspension to the Mini was and is controversial. Did it improve the car, or was it a costly diversion? Certainly many BMC engineers felt it was not worth the effort on a car which had dubious profitability.

Hydrolastic appeared to improve the ride of the Mini, but impaired the handling. Also BMC engineers allegedly altered Alex Moulton’s suspension settings.

February 1965
1,000,000 Minis built

On 3 February 1965, the millionth Mini was produced, which conveniently dovetailed with the second Monte Carlo win, enabled BMC’s publicity machine to exploit the situation. It had become a mini world, where small was beautiful. No one could possibly have imagined that a decade later the Mini’s manufacturer would be effectively bankrupt.

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