Once upon a time, when the UK was an engineering and manufacturing powerhouse, British Leyland Motor Corporation was the 4th largest motor manufacturer in the world. It was a company cobbled together by the Labour government and intensely loss-making. Arguably the greatest icon to ever come out of this abomination of a corporate, the Mini, was designed by a Greek immigrant.
The world of Brexit and UK nationalism is a political minefield more treacherous than a modern gender discussion. A classic car wiring diagram seems easy compared to this stuff, which is perhaps why the wise among us choose to rather survive the modern world by hiding in the garage.
These are complicated times we live in. Sometimes you need a simple car (by today’s standards) to put a smile on your face. Miles, the little yellow Mini you see before you, does a pretty good job of that.
As we drive along in this nippy classic having a fantastic time, we sadly remember that producing icons and generating profits don’t always go hand-in-hand. Realistically, the only car manufacturer that has managed to achieve that over several decades has been Ferrari. The rest of the world’s most interesting car manufacturers have a checkered past that would really upset their accountants from time to time.
British Motor Corporation, as it was known in the 1950s before becoming British Leyland after a merger in 1968, is one of the best examples of this. The likes of MG, Jaguar, Triumph and Austin were all included in this stable, yet it would end up as an embarrassing corporate failure for the Brits.
This gorgeous little ray of sunshine may have been part of the problem – it was famously estimated by Ford (after buying and dismantling one) that BMC lost £30 on every Mini sold. Losing money on iconic cars isn’t unusual, but selling over five and a half million loss-making icons is.
Of course, we can’t be sure that Ford was being honest here. Corporate rivalries are generally ugly. However you cut it though, Ford is still around today and BMC isn’t.
The situation wasn’t helped by a Labour government in the UK that insisted on mergers and acquisitions in the British car industry. When Commies start behaving like investment bankers, be afraid. Be very afraid. That’s not political commentary – it’s historical fact.
Nevertheless, the classic car enthusiasts among us (you’re on the wrong website if that’s not you) can only smile as we consider the wonderful cars that came out of the unholy recipe of a Labour government and high-risk capitalist transactions.
The most universally loved of these cars must surely be the Mini. Just look at it.
The 1956 Suez oil crisis gave the world two tiny cars that have crept into the hearts of basically everyone with eyes and any degree of passion in their veins. The Brits built the Mini and the Italians built the Fiat 500. They are both adorable and remain huge brands to this day, with modern equivalents continuing to fill our streets with some degree of retro charm.
If you peel away the Mini’s great looks, you’ll find one of the smartest car designs of all time. The transverse engine layout was used in Soviet tanks in WWII to save space in the hull for occupants. Although the Mini is the furthest thing imaginable from a tank, the concept is the same.
You might expect a gang of dwarves to climb out of a classic Mini when you see one for the first time, but the reality is that even tall adults can sit comfortably. The designers even thought about luggage, with a quirky rear number plate housing that drops the number plate down to be visible even when the boot is open. This lets you drive around with suitcases out the back of the car, provided you don’t live in a wet or crime-ridden country (which rules out 90% of the world).
The Mini’s build quality got off to a rocky start in 1959. The first few thousand Minis had a significant flaw in the welding of the floor which rewarded the pioneering owners with wet feet. Not ideal.
This was clearly forgiven though, as the Mini gave the average petrolhead in the street kart-like handling and impossibly good value for money. The use of compact rubber cones instead of conventional springs provided some damping, but more importantly gave sufficient rigidity to make the Mini a handling icon. The positioning of the wheels on the corners of the car helps too.
Speaking of which, the 10” wheels are always a shock to a Mini newbie. They truly are tiny and required special tyres to be developed by Dunlop at the time. Astonishingly, the Mini’s designer Alex Issigonis actually wanted 8” wheels! Dunlop said no, which is probably a good thing.
Miles is a 1966 Austin Mini Mark I that carries a 1000 badge and a 1275 heart. The car was built at Austin’s Blackheath plant near Cape Town in South Africa. The car’s welcoming smile up front is complemented by a raspy growl out the back, much like your grandfather after a substantial Christmas meal.
Everything about cornering in this car is a joy. The front disc brakes have been upgraded and the suspension system isn’t standard either. Strong braking, negative camber and a kerb weight of just 635kgs all make for an excellent package around your local traffic circles.
The true potential of this car is etched in history thanks to a certain John Cooper and his engineering abilities. He helped the little car win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967 in addition to a host of other motorsport accolades. Finding an original Cooper or Cooper S is a lot harder than making a few modifications to a base Mini to try and replicate the performance of the famous homologated cars. The increase in displacement to 1275cc, the same as the Cooper S, makes a substantial difference.
The extra power, combined with the iconic dashboard design with dials in the centre, does mean that your wife will shout at you when you get too feisty. Luckily you can just claim that the speedo isn’t very accurate anyway (it isn’t). This car is so wife-friendly though that you’ll likely spend most of your time arguing over who will be driving…
That’s the true magic of the design. We have yet to come across someone who doesn’t smile when they see a classic Mini in this condition. The appeal is so wide that everyone from school kids to taxi drivers seems to approve. If we believe Ford’s version of events then BMC’s accountants may not have approved of the Mini, but the rest of the world does.
If you still aren’t convinced that you need one, it’s worth noting that all the Beatles had Minis. All You Need is Love, after all. This Mini delivers plenty of it.