Mini: The car that made the '60s swing
After an initial period in which the British Motor Corporation was having severe difficulties persuading drivers to invest in a car with “tiny wheels”, 1961 was the year that the Mini finally looked as though it was going to be accepted by the British motoring public.
Production was up to six figures per year and BMC launched four new models. There was the Wolseley Hornet and its clone the Riley Elf, with extended boots complete with tail fins, and leather and walnut interiors to appeal to primary school headmistresses. There was the Mini Super, which was even-more stylish than the lavish Mini Deluxe. And then there was the car virtually identical to the Super apart from the grille, wheels, speedometer and discreet badging: the Mini Cooper.
When the Cooper was first put on sale to the public on 20 September 1961, it was in a world where motorways and steam trains co-existed uneasily and when, judging by the photographic evidence, attending Brands Hatch or Goodwood sans blazer would have had one branded as a teddy boy.
This was also a time when the terms “sports car” and “RWD”, “cold”, “wet” and “half-frozen” were synonymous. Many customers saw the Cooper as a Super Mini fitted with disc front brakes and the welcome addition of a close ratio gear change. The original direct-link gear change was so imprecise that several owners resorted to using a length of garden hose to improve it.
In its first two years of production the standard Mini had enjoyed mixed fortunes, being initially spurned by BMC's Competition Department in Abingdon and having its wheels spin off at high speed during the six-hour Relay Race at Silverstone but scoring a victory at Snetteron shortly after its launch.
The publicity gained by Sir John Whitmore's victories in the 1960 and 1961 saloon car championships and the ever-increasing number of firms offering after-market tuning kits led to thoughts of a factory-built MG Mini.
Meanwhile, BMC had loaned a very early press car to John Cooper of Cooper Racing who had been looking for a lightweight four-seater to convert into sports saloon and steal thunder from Lotus's new Elite. A prototype Coventry-Climax powered Renault Dauphine had proved unsuccessful on the grounds of unstable handling, but when Cooper took the Mini to the Italian Grand Prix in September 1959 he realised he'd found the ideal vehicle.
Somewhat inevitably, Alec Issigonis, father of the Mini and sworn enemy of all matters frivolous in motoring, disapproved of having his “car for the district nurse” used for base enjoyment but when George Harriman, BMC's MD, was presented with a prototype Mini Cooper, he agreed for an official production run.
The Mini Cooper's launch price in the UK was a very reasonable £679 and The Motor magazine's response was typical of the press reaction: “so much performance combined with a lot of practical merit will obviously make people decide that a sum of about £600 is better spent on this model than on something bigger and no better”.
The 997cc engine, bored out from the standard engine, gave a very respectable top speed of 137km/h; the front disc brakes were a startling innovation on a small car and compared with another new BMC sports car - the MG Midget/Austin Healey Sprite Mk II twins - the Cooper was incredibly practical.
In 1961 the Mini-Cooper was not the only compact race-tuned sports saloon, nor was it the sole small-engined FWD car with rally potential (as any DKW, Panhard or Saab owner will tell you) but for a British motorist it had the advantages of wide dealership coverage and lacking in import duty.
The following year, the Cooper's string of rally victories commenced in 1962 when Pat Moss won the Tulip Rally, heralding the start of the five years that created the legacy of the world's keenest Mini.
In 1963 the Cooper S, complete with servo disc brakes and a 52kW, 1071cc engine, was born. And it was this Mini that won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, with Paddy Hopkirk at the wheel.
The BMC Works team went on to score further victories in 1965, 1966 and 1967, although the '66 triumph is “the unofficial one”.
The Cooper was so popular with errant drivers that even the police decided to deploy them. The January 1967 edition of Car Mechanic magazine issued the dire warning that: “one round-the-corner idea is being used on the M1 where the police are using very hot Cooper-Minis in civilian colours. The Minis are equipped with radar and, just recently, one of these ferocious little monsters booked a speedster at 177km/h! These Q-Minis are betrayed by an aerial in the centre of the roof and they usually lurk in entrance roads to the M-way”.
By the end of the 1960s errant Merseyside drivers found themselves confronted by a 54-strong fleet of Morris Cooper S Mk IIs.
Overseas, the Cooper was built in Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, where it gained winding windows and seat belts years before the UK model and where, in 1966, a Morris S was the outright winner at Bathhurst - to the wrath of certain Holden driving types.
1967 saw the end of the original Mk I Mini shape with its half-arch radiator grille and the Cooper S's final Monte Carlo Victory. Although the engine capacity had now been increased to 1275cc it was still an incredible achievement that such a small car had defeated larger rivals and by 1968 rivals such as the Escort Twin-Cam had the upper hand.
Besides, the British Motor Corporation, then one of the world's largest car makers, was in utter internal chaos although, ironically, badging their high-performance Mini as a Cooper was one of their few rational marketing decisions. An MG-badged Mini might have been seen a further example of BMC applying a pseudo-traditional image to a family car, regardless of the engineering quality, whilst the Cooper badge inferred race pedigree rather than a thin layer of walnut veneer.
Unfortunately, the Cooper did entirely escape from BMC's many corporate idiocies. The British Motor Corporation was formed of a merger between Austin and Morris in 1952 but 14 years later the companies still had separate boards of directors devoted to internal squabbles rather than engineering development; until the end of the 1960s the Coopers were separately badged and even sported different radiator grilles.
When BMC merged with Leyland at the end of 1967, Donald Stokes the MD of the new British Leyland Motor Corporation disapproved of royalty agreements, saying: “we employ 150 000 people here, what do we want consultants for?” Against this background the producers of an Italian set caper movie approached BLMC for support. The company was apparently completely uninterested and eventually The Italian Job was sold six Minis at trade price, and another 30 cars at retail price.
Although screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin said he wanted to use Cooper getaway cars as “a powerful symbol of what we can do in Britain; they were the most remarkable elements of the story” the film's famous ending anticipated the future of British Leyland itself.
The standard Cooper was replaced in late 1969 by the square-nosed Mini 1275 GT, fitted with a single carb engine, the disc brakes from the S and stripes aplenty. Until early 1971 there was also a Cooper S, now so low-key that it even lacked the Cooper's trademark duotone paint and when production ceased it was another reminder that the 1960s were truly over and the era of the go-faster stripe was upon us.
But the Mini Cooper's legacy remains to this day, from the Golf GTi to the Honda Civic Type R - the idea that four seats and FWD could make a real sports car. And everyday transport for the keen motorist. -The Independent