Friday 18 October 2019

Mini revolution

It's the car pioneered in post-war Britain and immortalised in The Italian Job and by John Cooper in the Monte Carlo Rally. The mighty Mini looms large in automotive history, writes Geraldine Herbert

Carmel Breheny pictured with her Mini Countryman. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Carmel Breheny pictured with her Mini Countryman. Photo: Gerry Mooney

From Twiggy and the Beatles to Steve McQueen and the girl or boy next door, everyone had a Mini. But the origins of this diminutive icon lie in post-war austerity and fuel shortages. As petrol rationing following the 1956 Suez Crisis worsened, fuel-saving German microcars or 'bubble cars' were becoming a popular sight on UK roads. With tiny engines, the three-wheeled fuel-sippers could be licensed as motorbikes and qualified for minimal motor tax. Infuriated by these small imports, Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corporation, vowed to make a proper car to compete with them. Sir Alec Issigonis, a passionate automotive engineer with a reputation for advanced thinking and strong determination, was given the task to develop a truly innovative car. It had to be spacious enough to carry four passengers with superior fuel economy, compact dimensions and all at a very affordable price.

In just six months, Issigonis transformed a scribbled sketch on the back of a cigarette packet into a revolutionary design that was to become the blueprint for the modern small car. Innovative for its unibody, front-wheel drive and transversely mounted engine, the first production model, the Mark I, rolled off the assembly line in August 1959. Measuring just 3.05 metres long and selling at a price of £496, the Mini was a no-frills small car perfect for families with small budgets. But it was by no means a runaway success and the public remained unconvinced. It was the British racing legend John Cooper who transformed both the car and its reputation. Adding a more powerful engine, bigger brakes, wider tyres and a few decorative tweaks, the Mini Cooper was born. Winning the Monte Carlo Rally three times between 1964 and 1967 secured the legendary status of the brand.

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John Cooper in the Monte Carlo Rally
John Cooper in the Monte Carlo Rally

The Mini's popularity soared in Ireland, too.

"I fell instantly in love with it," says Marie Kavanagh, 72, a retired fashion buyer. "A friend who was into hot-rod racing and interested in becoming a motor mechanic encouraged me to try one of his hyped-up Minis. That day changed my life and my love affair with the Mini began. I learned how to do change the oil in the engine myself and I even entered some women's races, winning the odd time.

"As a young independent woman at the time with a busy career in the fashion industry, it was a symbol of my work motivation and my style."

But Cooper turned the small economical car not only into a racing legend but into a Sixties icon. As Cool Britannia was leading the way during that decade, the Mini was the car of choice for rock stars, actors, royalty, writers and designers.

The Mini
The Mini

But for generations of Irish teenagers, the Mini was not just the chic car of London's Swinging Sixties, but their first car.

Pamela Blake, a radio producer and self-confessed petrolhead has spent most of her summer following rallies around Ireland in her Mini.

"I bought my first car in 2007 and still have it - it's a 1989 Austin Mini. I grew up with a car-mad dad," says Pamela. "His love of vintage and old cars rubbed off on me, so when the time came to get my own car, it had to be a classic, small, cheap to drive and fun car. Hence the Mini!"

However, quality and reliability was not a Mini strong point and they were known for misted-up windows and fractured exhausts.

"Owning a classic Mini says a couple of things about me," adds Pamela. "I can appreciate great design and an important slice of motoring history, but it also says I'm patient ­­- you have to put up with no boot space, breakdowns, using a choke and having only four gears."

Annie West, an illustrator and cartoonist, was working in Pinewood Studios in London when she bought her first Mini.

"It was a 1982 Mini Clubman estate I bought in Windsor ­­- my very first car. It was a bit of a jalopy but I loved it," she recalls.

"I was working in Pinewood Studios. Coming back from the canteen, I offered three huge electricians a lift, thinking I was great. There were these killer ramps in Pinewood and as I went over one of them, the electricians, me and the whole subframe fell out right in front of the entire cast and crew of the Batman movie. It was like a clown car!"

Over time the Mini has grown and it's no longer sold as an economy car, but it still easy to park and simple to drive.

Ken Elliot, chief instructor at Mondello Park, currently uses Minis as training cars for their Early Drive programme. He remembers his own Mini fondly.

"I was 18 years old and I owned a Mini 1000," he says. "It was overpriced and rotten. It had holes in the floor and the subframe moved under braking. I loved it though. I bought it because it was available and I assumed it was a good solid car. It wasn't. My insurance on it was £905, which was nearly half my wages."

But despite the problems of older models, Mini enthusiasm is contagious.  Today's Mini brand is owned by BMW, who reinvented the iconic car and brought the brand into the 21st century. The modern interpretation is no longer cheap and cheerful but still small, fast and cool. By retaining much of the original charm and that rich British heritage and yet still managing to meet the needs of a new generation, sales of the Mini have gone from strength to strength. In the years under BMW's control there has been an endless number of model variations, including the first SUV Mini - the Countryman. It may have received a lukewarm reception by the Press, but it went onto be one of the best-selling cars in Mini's entire line-up.

Carmel Breheny, a freelance marketing and business consultant is one of its many fans.

"I now drive a Mini Countryman Exclusive 191 model. To me it's not just a car, it's an icon," says Carmel. "When the Countryman came on the market a few years ago, the first time I saw one, it was love at first sight. So I bit the bullet, downloaded the online brochure and placed my order. Taking delivery of my very own bespoke Mini was a magical moment for me. I have contemplated sleeping in it, I love it so much."

Over the years the Mini has maintained a link to its past and while it has evolved and aged, the key to its success has been just how remarkably adaptable it has proved to be. There have been estate cars and delivery vans to sporting Minis and even crossovers, but the fundamentals remain the same - they all have been fun to drive. To mark the icon's 60th anniversary, there's even an electric Mini.

The Mini has always inspired devotion and Neil Kavanagh exudes a passion for the cars and currently owns a 1964 Mk1 Cooper S race car, a 1969 Mk2 850 and a 1967 Mini Marcos race car.

Asked what makes Mini so special, he says: "Nostalgia. Minis put a smile on everyone's face. They are the 'classless' car. They're cute, but have real racing pedigree. Children love them. Parts are easily available but, most importantly, everyone has a Mini story."

Sunday Independent

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