The years immediately following World War II were not very kind to the British car industry. Its manufacturers were strained nearly to the breaking point by more than a half decade of armed conflict that left factories in rubble, resources constricted and the labor force testy to get theirs after so many years of sacrifice.
Out of this cauldron, an amalgamation of two proud and venerable manufacturers - Nuffield Motors and Austin - resulted in the creation of British Motor Corporation in 1952. To say the transition was an uneasy one is putting it mildly.
Up to the point of the merger, the two companies had fought tooth and nail for the lower and middle end of the British car market, Austin with its Seven and successors and Nuffield with its Morris line. Perhaps because of this, the company decided to keep its dealership organization much as it had been before the merger, and into this competitive maw it sent a collection of "badge-engineered" cars bearing both Morris and Austin nameplates.
Many of the models produced by the new amalgamation were far from inspired, and charges continually flew that Austin and Austin dealers were getting the best of the new vehicles, while Morris dealers were stuck with the dregs. Cars like the Morris Oxford and Morris Cambridge seem to confirm this sentiment, even though Leonard Lord, chairman of BMC and former head of Austin, denied the charge.
When one adds to this steaming pot labor unrest and "featherbedding" and then throws in the Suez Crisis, which resulted in a petroleum shortage in Britain, you have the background for either abject failure or unexpected success. It was in this difficult situation that Lord turned to Alec Issigonis to design a car that would compete with the high-mileage German imports, which were then plaguing BMC sales.
That he went to Issigonis in the first place was a good sign, since the engineer had deep Morris roots. Born in Izmir, Issigonis didn't journey to Britain until he was 15 years old, but he quickly adapted himself to British life. He attended Battersea Technical College, and then worked as a draftsman for a wide variety of engineering projects until he joined Morris Motors. Assigned to work on suspensions, he did so brilliantly, putting together a unique arrangement for MG.
Soon after World War II, Issigonis stunned the British motoring scene with the Morris Minor. Among the advanced features of this model were the 14-inch wheels on which the small car rode, considered quite small in that era.
With Suez creating an immediately need for a more fuel-efficient model, Issigonis received very direct orders: design the smallest car capable of carrying four adults and luggage and do it using an existing BMC engine.
With the task well-defined, Issigonis pulled out some of the notes he had made on a stillborn sports sedan he had designed for Alvis and went to work. The emigre's long experience was in suspension design was especially important in the Mini project, because the planned car was so small that a full load of passengers could double its weight. This, of course, provided a challenge to the suspension, which had to provide acceptable ride and handling whatever the load.
Conventional springs were unable to accept the load variation parameters without long suspension travel, which would have added height and weight to the car, so Issigonis went to his never-used Alvis scheme or using rubber cones as the springing medium. Because the spring rate of rubber changes with compression, the Mini was able to deliver and acceptable ride and sporty handling not matter how many people were aboard. (Adding passengers did play havoc with the power-to-weight ratio, however.)
Issigonis also pulled a page from his Morris Minor philosophy in the wheel and tire selection for his tiny car. Startlingly, he specified 10-inch wheels, a unique size for a passenger car, and a size that sent Dunlop engineers scurrying to develop a new tire. The method in choosing to go-kart-sized wheel-tire package was to limit the wheelwell intrusion into the limited passenger space. As an added benefit, the little wheels gave the car an original stance.
For his powerplant Issigonis reached into the BMC parts bin and pulled out a rather unremarkable 950 cubic centimeter four cylinder. Much more remarkable was the way Issignonis situated the engine, because, while it was radical then, it has become conventional practice today.
Rather than mounting the engine longitudinally and sending the power through a driveshaft to a rear differential and thus to the rear wheels, Issigonis decided to mount the engine transversely. Since the under-1-liter engine was much shorter that the width of the car, the only real trick to making the idea work was locating the gearbox under it. Further space- and weight-savings were achieved by having the gearbox share the engine sump. Power was transferred to the front wheels using a constant-velocity joint, invented by Hans Rzeppa, that had previously been used on submarines.
With all this trickery in place, Issigonis was able to shrink his engine compartment to just 18 inches. Overall his Mini, complete with seats for four people, was just 120 inches long. In comparison, the two-seat Mazda Miata, one of the shortest cars on the road, is 155 inches long.
When Issigonis showed off his creation to Lord in 1958, the BMC chairman had only two suggestions: make the car 2 inches wider and drop the engine's displacement from 950 cc to 848 cc. Lord felt the prototype car was actually too fast, not the usual criticism one has of an economy car.
Even before launch, controversy surrounded the car when it was rumored that it would be introduced as an Austin, leaving Morris dealers out in the cold. That controversy was obviated by coming to market with both Austin and Morris versions of the car that differed in badges only. The Austin Seven and Morris Mini Minor were introduced to the public in August 1959, and both press and public response was positive. Although one of the cheapest cars available in the United Kingdom, the Mini, as it was dubbed, built a following and reputation that far exceeded its price.
That reputation leapt ahead still further when John Cooper, whose racing machines had captured Formula One championships in 1959 and 1960, approached BMC Lord with the idea of fitting the Mini with their heavily massaged 1000 cubic centimeter Formula Junior engine. Lord accepted the idea and the Mini Cooper was born in 1961.
Through the years as British Motor Corporation went through a merger to become British Leyland, led a stumbling existence under that moniker, and then became Rover Group, which is currently owned by BMW, the one constant remained the Mini. Currently, an Asian revival has perked up the sale of Minis worldwide and, nearly four decades after it was introduced, the little Mini has proven to be one of the biggest successes of all time.