In 1990, my wife JoAnne and I traveled to England for a wedding. Afterward, we toured the UK for another four weeks in a rented Mini Mayfair. The car was an absolute joy to drive—peppy, tight, responsive, roomy and thoroughly comfortable. Tooling around England, the thought struck me how much the Mini had transformed the automotive world. For most of motoring history, roughly 1910 through the 1980s, the typical motorcar had its engine up front and its drive wheels aft.
The world began to see glimmers of change after World War II, when cars like the Volkswagen Beetle, with its engine and transaxle in the rear, became popular. But when the British Motor Corp. Ltd. (BMC) introduced the first Mini in 1959, motordom took a turn in an entirely different direction.
In the Mini, the engine and transaxle stood crosswise under a stubby hood and drove the front wheels. With no driveshaft, the floor could be flat. Tiny 10-inch wheels stood at the extreme four corners, reducing wheel-well intrusion. Some 80% of the Mini’s footprint provided space for people and cargo.
Alec Issigonis, the Mini’s father, had previously engineered the Morris Minor. The Minor—simple, rugged, lightweight and economical—promptly became a bestseller, with 1.36 million produced between 1948 and 1972. The success of the Minor gave BMC’s chairman, Leonard Lord, the confidence to ask Issigonis to create the most efficient, roomy, easy-to-produce small car possible. One of the few givens was that it use an existing BMC engine. Working with only two other engineers, two student engineers and four draftsmen, Issigonis’s team had cobbled together a prototype by mid-1957, and the Mini entered production in August 1959. In addition to its packaging advantages, it also introduced a number of secondary innovations.
For example, Issigonis placed the transaxle inside the engine oil pan, with a common lubricating system. He turned many body weld seams outward so they didn’t intrude on interior space. The Mini’s doors used simple external hinges and sliding windows. Inside, by eliminating the door panels, the hollow doors could be used for storage. The suspension, engineered by Moulton Developments Ltd., used rubber cones instead of steel springs. Issigonis hinged the decklid at the bottom to expand trunk space,
The Mini Cooper and Cooper S came about through a friendship between Alec Issigonis and race-car builder John Cooper. Competition versions dominated the Monte Carlo Rally in the mid-1960s, and an Austin Mini Cooper S won the American Road Race of Champions three years running, 1968-70. And for decades, private entries have been winning rallies and races all over the world.
By the mid-1970s, the Mini’s sales and racing successes—plus its overall engineering logic—inspired a totally new generation of cars with fwd and transverse engines. VW introduced the Golf/Rabbit in 1974; Chrysler launched the Omni/Horizon in 1978. General Motors released its X-Cars (Chevrolet Citation et. al.) in 1980, and Chrysler’s K-Cars (Plymouth Reliant etc.) arrived in 1981. Ford of Europe developed the Mini-like Fiesta in 1976 and transferred that technology to the full-sized Taurus and Sable for 1986. Even Cadillac adopted fwd with crosswise engines by the mid-1980s as had, of course, most Japanese and European automakers.
Today the world’s highways teem with fwd/transverse-engined cars, which currently outsell those with the previously “typical” layout by a considerable margin.
The Mini remained in production for 40 years, from 1959 to 2000. Approximately 5.3 million were sold, and although dozens of versions popped up over time, the last car looked almost exactly like the first. Minis and their variants were assembled not only in England but in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Portugal and Spain.
About the Author
Michael Lamm was born in London, England in 1936 and grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Mike attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon from 1954-1957, then switch to Columbia University in New York, graduating in 1958. In 1959, he became editor of Foreign Car Guide, a magazine about VW Beetles. In 1960, he became managing editor of Motor Life magazine and later managing editor of Motor Trend. In 196, he moved to Popular Mechanics as their West coast editor In 1970, Mike co-founded Special-Interest Autos magazine in partnership with Hemmings Motor News, and in 1978 he founded his own company, Lamm-Morada Inc., which specializes in books about automotive history. Mike is a Past President of the Society of Automotive historians and a multiple SAH award winner.
Image courtesy of Visit South Bend.