Much ADO About Project 15: A History of the Classic Mini

Sir Alec Issigonis hadn’t even seen a car until he was 12 years old. But at the age of 50, he began designing one of the most iconic vehicles ever produced: the classic Mini. Created with sporty performance and charming looks and proportions, the best-selling British automobile in history was perhaps one of the most ideal cars ever produced. Celebrities including fashion model Twiggy, Peter Sellers, and members of the Beatles all owned classic Minis, and it’s said that Issigonis gave Queen Elizabeth a ride around Windsor Park in one of the first ones produced.

Alec Issigonis with Austin Seven
Alec Issigonis next to an Austin Seven at the Mini’s press launch. Photo courtesy of BMW Group.

Sir Alec Issigonis

A British citizen born on November 18, 1906, in Smyrna in the Ottoman Empire (now Izmir, Turkey), Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis was the son of a successful Greek shipbuilding engineer and a German mother. In 1922, his family made the move back to England when the British were banished from Turkey, but his father didn’t survive the crossing.

Three years later, Issigonis enrolled in engineering school at Battersea Polytechnic in London. Struggling in mathematics, he failed his exams three times, but he excelled in mechanical drawing. In 1928, he received his diploma but wasn’t admitted into advanced studies. “Pure mathematics [is] the enemy of every truly creative man,” he once said.

Issigonis pursued a career in engineering after graduating, first working in the design office at Gillett, a London engineering firm. In 1934, he transitioned to the drawing office at Humber Ltd., a carmaker based out of Coventry, where he built a sprint racer with a friend. Two years later, he began working at Morris Motors Ltd. as a suspension and steering engineer.

He designed the 1948 Morris Minor, a successful car that proved his worth to British Motor Corporation (BMC). Under the project codename “Mosquito,” work began on the Minor in 1942. The first British automobile to reach 1 million sales, the Minor competed against the Fiat 500 and Volkswagen Beetle, and about 1.3 million were sold by the end of its production in 1971. After leaving BMC and working at Alvis in Coventry, Issigonis returned to BMC to design a range of family vehicles.

For his accomplishments, Queen Elizabeth knighted Issigonis in 1969. On October 2, 1988, he passed away at the age of 81 in Birmingham, England.

The Mini’s Design

In 1956, fuel costs rose dramatically. In response to the American and British decision to stop funding for the construction of a new dam, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president, nationalized the Suez Canal and threatened to cease oil shipments from the Middle East. With shortages and rationing of the oil supply, automakers sought ways to achieve better fuel economy in stylish and entertaining vehicles.

Mini prototype drawing
A 1958 prototype drawing for the classic Mini by Alec Issigonis. Photo courtesy of BMW Group.

With this challenge, Sir Leonard Lord of BMC asked Issigonis to come up with a small, economical car that could deliver excellent fuel efficiency and carry four adults. After a relatively short design period of two and a half years, Lord immediately signed off on the production for project codename ADO15 (Austin Drawing Office).

Issigonis designed every aspect of the car for maximized interior and luggage space, with no less than 80 percent of the car’s footprint available for passengers and their cargo. With four seats and 6.8 cubic feet of luggage space, the two-door ADO15 was 120 inches long, 55.5 inches wide, 53.1 inches tall, and had a 79.9-inch wheelbase. Issigonis and his team of designers and engineers rearranged the car’s mechanical components to create more room, though some of the ideas proved to be difficult and required reworking, particularly the front-wheel-drive powertrain.

1959 Mini longitudinal section
The longitudinal section of the 1959 Mini. Photo courtesy of BMW Group.

Re-engineered to be mounted transversely, the team fitted an 848-cc version of BMC’s A-series engine under the hood. With overhead valves and a crankshaft located at the bottom, the four-cylinder produced 34 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Below in the engine’s oil sump was a four-speed transmission that was lubricated by the engine oil, and the radiator was moved to the side of the engine bay.

Underneath, the tack-welded unibody used separate subframes instead of a traditional one-piece frame. To reduce stress and vibration, the front suspension and steering setup were bolted onto the monocoque structure, and the rear wheels and suspension were mounted onto the rear subframe. The 10-inch wheels and tires were positioned at the outermost corners, further increasing interior space.

1959 Mini front axle and engine
The front axle and engine of the 1959 Austin Seven/Morris Mini-Minor. Photo courtesy of BMW Group.

Replacing traditional springs, the team used compact cones with a layer of rubber placed in between them. With two cones on each corner, the upper one was bolted to the subframe and the lower one rested on the wheel mount. Under increasing pressure, the rubber hardened and created a progressive suspension setup. As a result, the setup didn’t make the wheel wells intrude into the passenger compartment and required only small shock absorbers, mounted at the upper front wishbones and rear longitudinal control arms, for sudden pressures.

To prevent the effects of universal joints, which would deflect under hard steering inputs, homokinetic joints were used. With a ball bearing surrounded by three cages (two of which were connected to the input and output driveshafts), the homokinetic joints allowed large steering angles without deflection, reducing the influence of the power unit on the car’s steering.

Austin Mini instrument panel
The instrument panel in a 1968 Austin Mini 1000 Mk II. Photo courtesy of BMW Group.

Inside, space in the doors was freed up by integrating sliding windows and storage bins molded into the trim panels. To provide more room for storage on either side, a dial combining the speedometer, fuel gauge, and warning lights for the oil pressure, high-beams, and the battery was mounted in the center of the dashboard, itself a full-width shelf. Switches for the windshield wipers and headlights were located below the dial.

41 Years of the Classic Mini

In 1959, the first classic Mini rolled off the Birmingham, England, assembly line, sporting a bright white paint job and a U.K. license plate that read 621 AOK. (Today, the Mini is a museum piece that is occasionally taken out for special events.)

The Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor sold for about £496 when they went on the market on August 26, 1959 (they cost about $1,300 when introduced in the United States). The two models were identical with the exception of their grilles. Both minimally equipped, the cars featured no radio to prevent distractions. With a 75-mph top speed, they could reach 60 mph in 29.7 seconds and achieved 40 mpg.

John Rhodes
John Rhodes in a Morris Mini Cooper S in Brands Hatch in 1966. Photo courtesy of BMW Group.

In 1961, the Seven was renamed the Austin Mini, and six years later, a more powerful, 38-hp 998-cc engine was introduced. Roll-down windows replaced the original front sliding windows in 1969, and along with a Mini logo added to the hood, the door hinges were relocated from the outside to the inside. At this point, more than 2 million Minis had been sold worldwide, and Mini name became its own marque, dropping the Austin and Morris names.

The classic Mini went through different parent companies throughout its 41 years of production, from BMC to British Leyland to Rover Group. However, the car was never actually a profit maker for any of its builders. When Minis stopped competing in rally racing in the 1960s, they were being produced in England and 11 other countries, including Australia and Italy. By 1977, more than 4 million had been sold worldwide, and the 5-millionth Mini was produced at the Longbridge Plant in 1986.

The later models were more refined, featuring more plastic and electronics. In 1991, the last new variant of the classic Mini debuted, a convertible made in Germany for a dealer in the town of Baden. The following year, a 1,275-cc engine replaced the 1.0-liter. Later, Rover Group purchased the design and production rights for the Mini, manufacturing 1,000 between 1993 and 1996. BMW bought the Mini name in 1994.

In October 2000, Mini number 5,387,862 rolled off the line at the Longbridge assembly plant, ending the era of the classic Mini. Voted the “European Car of the Century” in 1999 by a panel of 130 automotive journalists, the Mini’s fundamental character had remained virtually unchanged throughout its entire production.

The Mini Cooper

A close friend of Issigonis, Formula 1 and sports car constructor John Cooper immediately saw racing potential in the classic Mini, even during its prototype stage. Cooper had already used the A-series engine in his Formula Junior and Formula 3 open-wheeled race cars. He approached Issigonis for permission to build a performance version of the compact car, but Issigonis denied the proposal. In 1961, Cooper went to George Harriman, BMC’s chairman at the time, who granted him permission.

One thousand copies of the Mini Cooper were needed for homologation requirements in racing series. When it went on sale in 1961, it proved to be successful. It featured front disc brakes, an improved transaxle, and a larger, 997-cc engine that had increased horsepower by 48 percent, to 55. Later, the Cooper’s engine displacement increased to 1,170 cc, producing 70 horsepower. Production ended in 1969, but it returned to the lineup in 1990 with a 1.3-liter engine. Approximately 150,000 Mini Coopers were sold.

A Rally Racing Legend

After making its competition debut in 1959, the classic Mini had many years of racing success, dominating international rally races. At the 1962 Baden-Baden German Rally, Pat Moss won in a Mini, and Rauno Aaltonen took the checkered flag at the Alpine Rally the following year in a Cooper S. At the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, Paddy Hopkirk and co-driver Henry Liddon won in a Cooper S — the first of the Mini’s three wins at the event (1964, 1965, and 1967).

Timo Makinen and Paul Easter in a Cooper S at the Monte Carlo Rally
Timo Makinen and Paul Easter in the 1,275-cc Morris Cooper S at the 1965 Monte Carlo Rally. Photo courtesy of BMW Group.

The Mini’s domination at rally events ended at the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally when Minis finished in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. While a complete teardown of the winning Mini revealed zero rule infringements, all three Minis were disqualified for violating the headlight dipping rules; officials also disqualified Roger Clark and his Ford Lotus Cortina for the same reason. As a result, Pauli Toivonen and Ensio Mikkander in their Citroën DS 21 were declared the winners.

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