They called it “cheap” in 1959, “too slow to compete” in the 60’s and “least likely to succeed” until it surpassed the five million sold mark in 1986. Then it was just getting started…
When Alec Issigonis famously designed “the small car that would be put outside the house of every working person” sometime in 1957 on the back of a cocktail napkin (one wonders how many fabulous ideas have started that way?) no one could possibly have imagined the success of the design.
But it was his design restrictions that led to the engineering that led to the success of the final design. Wanting a car about ten feet long and around four feet wide meant either the engine or the gearbox would have to go, as you simply couldn’t fit them both.
Unless you fit the gear box underneath the engine; a radical new idea that not only worked, it lowered the center of gravity. Also working in his favor was the idea that the wheels – in order to get them out of the way – had to be pushed radically to the corners. These improvements – found on no other car at the time – improved handling to such a degree that it attracted the attention of one John Cooper, the world champion Formula One racing car constructor whose legend was growing rapidly in car circles. When he approached British Motor Corporation with the idea to build a racing four-seater, they said, basically, “go for it.”
They liked the design, and the first estimate was to build around 1,000 of these Mini Cooper GT’s, but they eventually made 150,000 of them.
Then, in some odd twist of faith and fashion, the little car that could started attracting longing glares from women. Soon women were “wearing” them as fashion accessories all over Europe. That didn’t help its racing reputation very much, but it certainly helped sales. In 1969 it had once again surpassed all estimates and marked its second million car to roll off the line.
Still, that low center of gravity and wheel at each corner was not being ignored, as drivers found they could push the car at speed through corners without the risky oversteer they were used to in other cars. Then those crafty Scandinavians discovered why God had given them two feet, and used “left foot braking” to win dirt track rallies with their Goliath-beating MINIs. This served to help the MINI’s racing reputation, but once again, enthusiasts drew the line at the tarmac, arguing that the MINI could never stand up to the type of competition they’d find on the pavement.
Once again, they underestimated, as Alec Poole took the RAC saloon car championship in 1969, the same year Richard Longman beat a (relatively) big, bad Ford Falcon. It was the first race ever televised in color, and attracted a lot of attention.
When the Metro arrived in 1980, people once again underestimated the MINI, believing its days were numbered in favor of the even smaller and lighter car. That was until 1986, when MINI surpassed five million in sales, and then started starring in movies like The Italian Job and all those Bourne movies, among many others.
Now more Metro equivalents are lining up to take a swipe at MINI’s market share. They’ll probably do really well, and MINI’s reign is probably soon over.
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