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07 May, 2009

Small but beautiful

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The first model broke down if it went through a puddle – and the clutch burned out after 500 miles. But tomorrow the Mini celebrates 50 years as a design classic. Jon Henley goes for a spin in the latest Cooper S and meets other aficionados of the ‘strange little car’

Shortly after I passed my driving test, on the way to a mock A-level exam, I wrote my mother’s Hillman Imp off, skidding into the rear of a stately Humber owned by a gentleman friend of the widow of the inventor of the jet air engine (it’s a long story). This hormonally challenged moment of madness had two immediate consequences. One was that I forfeited the £200 my gran had left me in her will. The other was that our family acquired a Mini.

It was a white Clubman Estate, and it was a dreadful car. It rusted faster than you could say British Leyland, all down the sills and across the bottom of the doors. The clutch was iffy, especially on hills. The electrics were terrible. It drank oil, and grew moss in unexpected places. Undeniably, though, it had character – and it was the car of my first independence. The car of quite a lot of firsts, come to think of it. So despite its failings, I remember it with affection (and if Anne from the lower sixth at St Mary’s is reading this, some embarrassment).

It was nothing like the MINI I’m in now. For starters, this MINI is in capitals, at the request of its makers, who are not Austin or Morris or British Motor Corporation (BMC) or British Leyland or Rover, but BMW. They have lent it to me for the weekend because tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the day the first official production Mini, 621 AOK, rolled off the production line. That Mini was a bare and basic 850cc Morris Mini-Minor, boasting a top speed of 72mph. At its launch the following August, it would have set you back £496 after tax.

The MINI I have for the weekend is a 1.6-litre turbocharged Cooper S. It’s electric blue with a white roof, an interior at once funky and plush (all retro-styled instruments, smart black trim and concealed lighting), traction control (whatever that is), a sexy Canadian lady on the satnav and a small but alarming button marked “Sport” that I don’t dare touch. It has a top speed of 140mph, and does 0 to 60mph in seven seconds. It is, warns the man from BMW cheerfully, “a bit quick”. And it wouldn’t leave you much change from £16,000.

For the real aficionado, though, this MINI isn’t a real Mini at all. “It’s a nice car,” says Jean Harper, 62, gazing at it warily. “But it’s a bit big, isn’t it? A bit luxurious. It’s not a real Mini.” A real Mini is one like the gleaming red classic Cooper S parked out in Jean and her husband Graham’s garage near Stone, which the photographer and I reached after a couple of hours’ flying up the M1 and along the M6, merrily bringing out the worst in every boy racer we encountered.

The Harpers’ spotless sitting room is about the only Mini-free zone in the house. Everywhere else is laden with Mini mementos and memorabilia; the trophy room from the couple’s rallying days is a veritable shrine. Jean and Graham, 69 this year, met at a now-defunct Staffordshire BMC dealership called Barker and Shenton. He was the parts manager, she was secretary to the service manager. Their 33-year marriage, they reckon, can be counted in “probably 20” Minis.

Graham remembers the rumours before the launch. “We knew this strange little car with the engine mounted sideways and tiny small wheels was coming. Then in late August we got a phone call, and 11 of us from the garage went over to the main dealership in the Potteries to drive them back in time for the big day.”

It took a few miles to get used to, but he knew straight away it was “a bit special. It was terribly basic – you had a speedometer, a wiper switch, the lights and the ignition, and that was about it. Sliding windows, two bits of wire to open the doors. The heater was extra – we had to fit that in the garage – and there was no radio. But I was 19 and a bit of a go-kart racer already; I gave it a bit of stick, like, and thought, ‘Wow, this goes.’ They handled amazingly well from the start. You could really whip them round a corner.”

The great British motoring public, accustomed to the staid Morris Minor and the tank-like A30s and A40s of the day, took time to warm to the idea. “The Mini struggled in the first 12 months,” says Graham. “We couldn’t shift ’em. People couldn’t get their heads round it. And it had lots of teething problems – it leaked, for a start. They’d overlapped the inner wings on to the floor pans wrong, so water just poured into the front footwells from underneath. You could have two inches sloshing around in there when it was wet.”

Plus no one at BMC had thought to cover the distributor, so “as soon as you drove through a puddle, the engine stopped”. And the clutch oil seals were dodgy, meaning “the clutch always went after about 500 miles”. The car came out, Graham reckons, “far too soon. It was the first customers who ended up doing the development, really.”

The Mini was indeed a bit of a rush job. Its legendary designer, the charming, autocratic, gin-and-tonic fuelled Alec Issigonis, got the call to come up with a people’s car, a British equivalent of France’s 2CV, Germany’s Beetle or the Italian Fiat 500, in December 1955, and the first hand-built version was being tested as early as February 1957. A few months later the plain-speaking boss of BMC, Sir Leonard Lord, was moved enough to utter a phrase beloved of Mini-owners everywhere: “Build the bloody thing.”

Safely down at the bottom of the M1 again (like its predecessor, the present-day MINI sticks to the road, even if the words most often heard on this little odyssey are, “Oops, we’re doing 95 again”) in the swanky MINI showroom on London’s Park Lane, I’m at the launch of Simon Garfield’s Mini: The True and Secret History of the Making of a Motorcar, one of a rash of commemorative books out this year. John Hawkins, who joined BMC in 1962, is standing beside 621 AOK (buffed to within an inch of its life), marvelling at the inspired genius of the design.

“Issigonis twisted the engine through 180 degrees, so it was running across the car, and he put the gearbox underneath it,” he says. “He wanted 80% free for the passengers and luggage. Loads of storage in the hollow doors and under the seats. Yes, there were teething problems, but it was a brilliant concept. The proof is, it’s been copied by pretty much every small car since.”

Peter Tothill, 82, a retired BMC production engineer, and Roy Davies, 74, a former vehicle proving engineer, also profess to a flush of parental pride. “You weren’t really conscious of it at the time, because you just had your head down, working,” says Tothill. “But you look at it now and you think, it was really so very different, in almost every way. Issy’s attitude was just, ‘I’ve designed it, now it’s up to you to build it.’ And it was all done without computers or robots or anything like that.”

Davies remains astonished by the car’s subsequent career. “It was designed as a shopping car, a car for the district nurse. But it ended up as a car fit for a queen. Of course, it really began to take off when the rally boys got hold of it.”

That, everyone seems to agree, was the turning point, propelling the Mini from cheeky urban runaround to an icon of the 60s and arguably the most successful British design product ever made. The qualities Graham Harper identified on his first drive – the size, the handling, the simple fact that “there was nothing on the road in those days, absolutely nothing, that handled like a Mini” – intrigued the racing fraternity.

A man called John Cooper, whose immensely successful formula one racing cars were driven throughout the 50s, was among the first to spot the Mini’s potential. Tuned up, it would go like the clappers. A few alarmingly fast miles up the M40, sitting in a 16th-century farmhouse in Buckinghamshire with a spanking new Cooper S in the driveway and an exceedingly precious older one under a humidity- and temperature-controlled bubble in the garage, Paddy Hopkirk, who won the Monte Carlo rally in a Mini, recalls the first time he got his hands on one of wizard Cooper’s cars.

“Must have been 62, I reckon,” he says. “I’d joined BMC to drive the big Healeys, but someone came along with a Cooper and that was it. It was magic, a unique car. Transverse engine, front-wheel drive, small – you could corner 20mph or 30mph faster than one of the big Fords or Jaguars. They’d be faster on the straight, of course, but you could get ’em on the curves and hold them off afterwards. Bloody uncomfortable seats, though. I told Issigonis they were uncomfortable, and he said that would stop me falling asleep in them.”

Hopkirk’s – and the Mini’s – first big race success was in the automobile Tour de France in 1963. “The Mini became very chic in France very quickly after that; it was considered much smarter to pick your girlfriend up at the Eiffel Tower in a Mini than in a Jag.” But it was his 1964 Monte Carlo win that really established the car in the British public’s imagination.

“Rallying was a huge deal in those days,” Hopkirk says. “You were driving for your country, and this was a British car, made in England. What’s more, it was a little cheap family type of car that just about anyone could buy. So it was front-page news when we won the Monte, not just on the sports pages. I got telegrams from the Beatles, from the prime minister. Magazines came from New York to interview me.”

The Cooper was an ad man’s dream: it transformed a housewives’ shopping car into an object lots of British males would give their eyeteeth for. But there were other reasons for the Mini to catch on. In his highly readable new book, Mini: an Intimate Biography, Christy Campbell quotes the then transport minister, Ernest Marples, informing a senior civil servant: “I must set an example and be seen to be modern. I have almost decided to buy a Mini Cooper.”

It was, according to journalist Nicholas Tomalin writing in 1963, ideally suited to “conspicuous thrifters”: the new 60s generation who lived in what Tomalin called the “scampi belt” and the gentrifying inner cities; people who liked their possessions to be simple but stylish, minimalist but hip. An early ad ran: “The in-car as different as the people in it.”

Pretty soon, Lord Snowdon and Sir Hugh Casson were driving around in one. Celebrities piled in: all four Beatles drove Minis. Twiggy loved hers, as did Joanna Lumley and Marianne Faithfull. Spike Milligan, Harry Corbett (of Sooty fame), Norman Wisdom … The Mini was the car to have. On-screen sanctification came in 1969 in The Italian Job.

“I fell instantly in love with it,” says Britt Ekland, reached in Sweden on her mobile from a lay-by, of her then-husband Peter Sellers’ extravagantly modified Mini. “I bought his Wood & Pickett conversion from him when we divorced in 1969, and I’ve owned a Mini every single day of my life since then. I have the last Mini Cooper S ever made.”

The car’s principal attractions, Ekland says, lie in its “incredibly appealing” shape, immense practicality (“it helps if you have a sunroof, to slide the bigger suitcases through”), good fuel economy, and that “it makes you smile. You can have Rolls-Royces and Ferraris and Lincoln Continentals – Peter had a Continental you could have parked two Minis inside – but a Mini just makes you laugh. It’s such fun to drive.”

The Mini, Ekland notes, is “just about the only survivor of the swinging 60s”. The fact it’s still around is tribute to the genius of Issigonis’ idea; in its later years the original Mini – which went through 137 versions and 41 years of continual production, rolling off the line more than 5m times – hung on despite all that British Leyland could throw at it: charmless redesigns, unreliable engineering, rusting sills.

“My abiding memory of the 1973/4 model,” says a friend, “was that you could open the door and even start it with an ordinary Yale house key. Or any key small enough to fit in the ignition. Amazing, really.”

BMW got it, though. The Bavarian carmaker’s MINI, unveiled in 2000, was given a lukewarm welcome by the press and met with a volley of vitriol from tens of thousands of Mini devotees. But it has won over all but the most diehard of purists, and proved a stunning commercial success: more than a quarter of a million new MINIs are now sold every year, including an astonishing 60,000 a year in America, which never really understood the original.

Up in Staffordshire, Jean Harper reckons it’s in the blood. “There’s just so much affection for this car,” she says. “You go on the London to Brighton rally and there’s dozens broken down by the side of the road and everyone’s just laughing; these are Minis, people expect them to break down. You’d forgive them anything. Even now, I see a Mini and it’s: Ooh look! A Mini! Even after all these years, there’s still that rush of enthusiasm. It’s a lovely car, really.”

• A British Mini Club rally to celebrate 50 years of the Mini will be held at Himley Hall, Dudley, on Sunday

Four wheels good: ten little facts about the Mini

1 Issigonis’s first design sketch for the Mini was drawn on a napkin in Switzerland.

2 In 1961, racing driver Stirling Moss was banned for a year for speeding in a Mini, allegedly while testing it for a Sunday paper.

3 In 1964, BMC tested a 2.3-litre Mini with engines at both ends. It was so fast development was dropped.

4 Rumour has it Issigonis designed the door bins in the original Mini to hold a bottle of gin and several tonics. Or maybe it was just pints of milk.

5 How many people can you fit in a Mini? The record is 66, apparently.

6 Longest Mini convoy? 269 cars.

7 Joanne Westlake was the fi rst person to be born in a Mini.

8 Actor Kevin Spacey once paid $130,000 for the last classic Mini Cooper to be built.

9
Most famous death in a Mini? Marc Bolan of T Rex, who was in a crash in a 1275 GT.

10 The breathtaking escape through the Turin sewers by gold bar-filled Mini Coopers in The Italian Job was filmed in Coventry.

(Source: Mini: An Intimate Biography)

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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