How the humble Mini became a very British legend
As the iconic supermini turns 60, we ponder what made this diminutive car such a cult classic
It started in a supermarket car park. While I waited for my better half to return with a wedge of parmesan, there came a knock on the window. Looking up from the baguette I was fastidiously preparing, I was greeted by the crisp uniform and crisper visage of a Polizia Stradale officer.
“Papers,” he stated. Was this really happening? Had the Carrefour parking lot become the setting for my own Le Carré moment? Alas, no. After a stilted exchange, it turned out he was only interested in our ride.
Waved off from this first brush with the law, we’d twice more be pulled over as we drove the roads of Italy. And when pot-holed Puglian asphalt put an end to the ailing exhaust, half the village turned up at Gabriele’s garage just to get a look at our motor.
So what was it? A stunning crimson Ferrari? A gleaming Lamborghini? No, it was a Mini.
Even now, six decades after that moustache grille first appeared at the end of a bonnet, to drive one, it seems, is to drive an icon. And not the kind of obscure legend that petrolheads pore over online. A bona fide, beep-in-the-street symbol of Sixties levity and bonny British motoring – and one that still garners love and affection the world over.
But what is it that makes this plucky little Brit so enduringly popular? Ours is a new-generation model, yet even he – for Otto is a he, born in Oxford but named for his Bavarian masters – received huge attention from the Italians. Who, might I remind you, invented the supercar.
Ask a motorsport fan and they’ll tell you it was the terrier-like tenacity of the John Cooper-tuned rally variants that fired the upstart Mini into the collective consciousness. But your average Giuseppe probably doesn’t know about its three Monte Carlo Rally wins, impressive as they were.
Film buffs, meanwhile, will point to The Italian Job as the reason for the Mini’s cult status. A cockney ex-con and his gang of ne’er do wells looting Mafia gold, stuffing it in the back of bijou British cars and fleeing the scene via the rooftops and sewers of Turin? It was pure motion picture brilliance – and the Mini was its best supporting automobile.
Thing is, Fiat wanted its cars barrelling around the Italian city, not those pesky little rivals from Blighty – and they offered the producers a lot of money to make it happen. If they’d said yes, would the 500, iconic as it is, really enjoy the same international appeal today?
It can’t be ubiquity, either. Yes, almost 5.4 million Minis were made over the original machine’s lifetime, but Vauxhall built 1.8m Cavaliers and you don’t see those on posters. Nor is it a total rarity: some 12,000 remain registered on UK roads – yet tell me you don’t remark upon seeing one, “Oh, look, a Mini.” And that’s not because Mr Bean drove one.
No, I’d argue that the Mini’s continued appeal comes from one thing and one thing only: brilliant design.
Penned by Sir Alec Issigonis for the British Motor Corporation in the late Fifties, it was a masterpiece of packaging that’s often been imitated but never bettered. Here was a compact, economical and affordable car that could fit the whole family, yet squeeze through the tightest of Roman alleyways, should the need arise – and that was all by design.
Take the revolutionary engine arrangement: mounted sideways in the nose, mated to the gearbox and connected to the front wheels, the motor was so space efficient that it left room enough in the cabin to comfortably seat four adults, even if their luggage was limited to a spare pair of socks.
And despite the ostensibly pokey motor, its featherweight build meant the Mini – in any guise – was bags of fun to drive. Steer one today and you’ll feel more connected to the road than in any modern sports car, partly because you’re sitting a foot above the tarmac.
The icing on this diminutive cupcake? It all came wrapped in a simple, understated shell that’s proven utterly timeless, its squat stance and cheeky face cutting through the clutter of every supermini since.
Launched in 1959 as the world was set to swing, through seven generations, countless variants – from the sporty Cooper to the barn-door Countryman to the open-top Moke – and more badges than a student activist, the Mini stayed largely true to its origins: a practical, zippy thing you could slot into the smallest of spaces.
BMW might have decided it needed a revamp at the turn of the millennium, but the modern Mini owes everything to that 60-year lineage. Just ask Officer Romano.
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