CAPE TOWN - Happy Birthday Mini! You are officially 55-years-old in August 2014 and still counting. Was there ever a car to match the British Motor Corporation’s (BMC) favourite child? I don’t think so.
FOUR WHEELS ON MY WAGON: The original Mini was undoubtedly a global hit; Monte Carlo rally winner and a loveable, cheeky car that film stars and the general public loved to be seen with. Image: DAVE FALL
1959 was the year in question – let me set the scene of other milestones that occurred during those heady 12 months all those years ago when the BMC Morris Mini-Minor hit the headlines: rock singer Buddy Holly dies in a plane crash; British racing driver Stirling Moss wins the 1959 Italian Grand Prix, while Margaret Thatcher took her first tentative steps in the British Houses of Parliament.
Meanwhile, across the other side of the world, Fidel Castro astounded each and every Cuban citizen (talk about jobs for the boys) by making his old revolutionary buddy Che Guevara head of the National Bank. That was a bit like making Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs Chancellor of the Exchequer, methinks!
GREAT YEAR FOR MINI
Getting back to motoring matters, 1959 was to be quite a year on the British motoring scene, first the arrival of the Mini and another rather good car – the sporty Triumph Herald (the car with the amazing turning circle) – but more about that particular car some other time.
Most readers will know that the Mini was designed by Alec Issigonis but might not know the car was waiting in the wings as early as 1957. On showing the vehicle to Sir Leonard Lord (his BMC boss), Issigonis was told: “Build the bloody thing!”
Literally a wheel in each corner, a transverse, front-wheel drive engine up front, what appeared to be a bigger car than it was once inside, the Mini proved to be a huge success.
Just what the British driver and family man needed – his motorcycle combination and other cheap to run three-wheel forms (Bond, Reliant and various bubble cars such as the Messerschmitt or Trojan) were proving well past their sell-by dates by a motoring public that simply wanted “real car ownership”.
Sliding windows, large door pockets, funny little seats and a speedometer the size of a tea plate and looking a little like a child’s toy – the Mini marvel was proving perfect transport for the masses, and more importantly at the time: “Made in England”.
POPULAR WITH CELEBS
Down the years celebrities simply loved the car including John, Paul, George and Ringo, aka the Beatles; actor Peter Sellers and pop singer Marianne Faithfull – along with a host of others loved to be featured with their cars – not forgetting Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson, of course!).
It’s a bit of an enigma but one always remembers the car one learned to drive in. For me it was a pal’s meanwhile living in the UK – a Dewhurst butcher’s van version – anyone perhaps remember one of these from the mid-60s?
Conversely it was proving rather good at winning car rallies, once the hotter ‘Cooper’ version came along. A trilogy of Monte Carlo wins in the capable hands of Irishman Paddy Hopkirk did the car no harm at all. Its movie debut was just a stone’s throw away in the Michael Caine slightly spoof film called ‘The Italian Job’ – it was even good enough for a remake version about 10 years ago featuring South African hottie Charlize Theron...
BMW TO THE RESCUE
A mid-life crisis in the late 1990s saw Mini car ownership change hands after five million of the original model had been built (naturally with numerous facelifts and power upgrades thrown in for good measure).
It was BMW who persevered and kept the basic underpinnings, basic shape and a certain amount of goodwill to create the new Mini as we know it today. Some say, once produced by the German outfit it was too big, too crass and a mite too powerful.
At the end of the day Mini fans are a forgiving bunch. It’s undoubtedly still a Mini, a success story in my eyes – possibly only equalled by Morgan’s Plus Four sports, the new Fiat 500 and, of course, Volkswagen’s new Beetle.
They certainly don’t make them like they used to!