To mark the Mini’s diamond anniversary, Richard Bremner takes a fast blast through the archives and comes bang up to date with a ride in a Dakar raider
It’s still here, 60 years and a whole other world away later. It’s bigger, faster, more civilised, safer, better equipped and much (much) better built now, but the Mini still looks like a Mini (mostly), still romps around corners and still has charm, if not always
of the same flavour. It’s still fun to drive, still uniquely distinctive and, in the 21st century, still rides on a wave of bold thinking.
The bold thinking behind the 1959 original was all about packaging – compacting the mechanicals into the smallest possible space to enable a 10ft-long box to swallow four adults and their travelling-lite luggage.
The 2001 reinvention was also about packaging, but this time in the presentational sense. This was a much better-built Mini, and a much better-built premium supermini – indeed, among the very first of its kind. The new Mini also allowed you to personalise that package to an extent previously unseen in small cars, with the almost amusingly labelled Salt, Pepper and Chili packs, two-tone paint and loads more. So successful has this been that many manufacturers have copied it, and not just Fiat with the 500.
The Mini will enter another era in this, its 60th year, when an all-electric production version appears. It will be far from the first electric small car of course, so this Mini might not be the technological frontiersman that it has been in the past. But the point is that the much-loved Mini will still be here, in forms to suit 21st-century needs.
The history of Mini
Later this year, the Mini will enter what may well prove to be the third stage of its long life. That’s when the first electric Mini goes on sale, 10 years after the battery-packed experimental Mini E appeared for customer trials. Although we’ll never know, Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the 1959 original, may well have been excited by the packaging possibilities afforded by this drivetrain of different shapes, if not the colossal weight of its power source.
An EV will take the Mini into a new technological era if not as a leader then at least towards the front half of the pack. An extraordinary technological lead was what the 1959 original was very much about, small cars bounding so far forwards with this single design that the Mini maintained its engineering lead for a good six or seven years.
That technological lead won the Mini race and rally championships in the kind of giant-slaying style that audiences loved. Motorsport fuelled demand, and so, increasingly, did the Mini’s ability to carry everyone from royalty to pop stars to the rest of us without necessarily implying a household budget shortfall. It was trendy.
The new Mini was more successful than even BMW had dared hope
It was also lovable. Those pertly rounded contours, the big mouth of a grille and the beseeching eyes that were its headlights helped, as did the chirpy sounds issuing from its always eager A-series engine. Not for nothing did BMC once run an ad in women’s magazines featuring a woman hugging her Mini’s B-pillar from the driver’s seat, with the line: ‘Minis. You just can’t feel that way about any other car – even when everything else goes wrong, your Mini will still love you.’ They were, and still are, family pets.
Pets that came in many shapes and sizes, too. BMC was quick to launch an estate, van and pick-up, followed by the first of the Coopers. In 1963 came the slightly absurd ‘big car’ miniatures that were the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet, and later the failed military vehicle that was the Moke. Variety like this, and of equally varying success, would later be explored by BMW.
Before BMW, there was a long period of partial neglect through which the Mini continued to sell well. The only big change to its shape came in 1969 with the launch of the long-nose, fractionally more luxurious Clubman, which lived the 11 years to the Mini Metro’s 1980 launch, effectively limiting the Mini to a low-volume model. But one of increasing appeal, with limited editions regularly appearing, one of them a 1990 Cooper that became a big seller.
The revived Cooper might also have encouraged one Bernd Pischetsrieder with his bold plans. The BMW boss was the main architect of the German company’s shock takeover of Rover from British Aerospace. A cousin of Issigonis, Pischetsrieder was eager to develop a proper replacement for the Mini. A design competition led to proposals from Frank Stephenson and Dave Saddington being combined to produce a brilliant update of the original. Unmistakably a Mini despite its swollen dimensions, its sporty stance and multiple references to the original all helped turn the sceptics. The engine was even tuned to sound like an A-series.
That 2001 Mini was more successful than even BMW had dared hope, especially given the political traumas behind its birth. BMW sold Rover, kept Mini, shifted its planned production base from Birmingham to Oxford and seconded the final stages of development to Ricardo engineering. Strong sales encouraged a fast-growing array of alternatives that included a Convertible, Clubman, Countryman, Roadster, Coupé and Clubvan.
The Mini’s past continues to be a propellant for its future, even if there are many modern Mini drivers with little or no knowledge of the original. For them, Mini is a modern, desirable, premium brand of unique distinction, and one that the electric Mini will keep modern.
MINI’S KEY PLAYERS
Dakar Countryman: a wild ride in the maddest Mini yet
It’s the violence that startles. Your helmeted head waves about like a plant in a storm. Your legs clash and flop as if they belonged to a puppet. And if you don’t use them to push yourself back into the seat, hard, then the Mini’s landings compress your spine like you’ve jumped from a ladder, badly. So bracing yourself, by pushing feet against bulkhead, is wise when Kuba Przygonski is vaulting about the Peruvian desert.
Przygonski is one of eight drivers in the Mini X-Raid team, which is also fielding two kinds of Mini. One is the Countryman, of which there are five, and the other is a buggy. Imagine your classic late-1960s Volkswagen dune jumper with roof and enclosing cockpit, and you have it, complete with engine placed behind the driver. In the Countryman, it sits ahead, although well back from the nose to drive all four wheels. The buggy, by contrast, is rear-wheel drive, so the pair compete in different categories.
The engine is an Alpina-tuned 3.0 six-cylinder turbo diesel from a BMW X5 and develops 358bhp.
The Dakar, née Paris-Dakar, famously allows multiple vehicle types to compete, the most wonderfully absurd being the trucks, which can leap and bound with an alarming enthusiasm unimaginable to most Scania drivers. Known as the Dakar since 2009, when safety and political issues drove it out of Africa into South America, the event this year ran in only one country: Peru. Such containment hasn’t made it any less gruelling, though. There’s no let-up in the relentless physical challenge of driving and riding flat out across terrain peppered with rocks and sand soft.
Your legs clash and flop as if they belonged to a puppet
The navigator gets a road book the night before each of the 10 stages, with tulip diagrams and indications of landmarks. But for many, the best guide will be the wheel tracks of the front runners. A frequent strategy includes not quite winning a stage, in order to not go early. There are plenty of other learnings, too, says X-Raid Mini team boss Sven Quandt.
If that surname sounds familiar, it’s because Quandt is part of the family that owns a substantial slice of the BMW Group. Quandt is a Dakar addict, not only as a team boss but also as a successful rally-raid competitor, having won the 1998 T1 Marathon Cup in a Mitsubishi Pajero.
“No one has ever won the Dakar first time out,” he says. “And no one who wins the first stage ever wins the Dakar.” It takes experience to win. It also takes reliability and the X-Raid team, which has been Mini branded since 2011, produces the most consistently reliable cars in the field. The basis of that reliability is a “hugely strong spaceframe, made from the highest-strength steel you can work with,” says Quandt. It takes three to four weeks to weld it and it’s vastly stronger than the bodyshell of any production car, which would “barely last five minutes”, he adds.
Although it is absurdly tall, the X-Raid Countryman is honed aerodynamically by the company that does the same job for the DTM BMW racers and Le-Mans-winning Audis. “The key is to get air in and out, especially the latter, because it’s about the air speeds through the car,” says Quandt, cooling engine, brakes and hard-worked shockers being vital. Part of the reason for the Mini’s startling height is the need to carry spares, including a trio of wheels stored below floor, and part of it the need for 8in of clearance between the occupants’ helmets and the roof.
The reason for the head room becomes obvious as soon as Przygonski’s Countryman erupts over the first sandy hillock of this pre-rally shakedown run, staged in a dramatic, desolate dune field an hour out of Lima. We get air, the Mini’s massive wheels suddenly spinning faster before a firmly cushioned landing that’s immediately followed by surging, urgent acceleration. And then braking as effectively as if those wheels were slowing on rubberised Tarmac, not gravel and dust.
And this is nothing. From a flattish, fast start, we bound towards a gently rolling, rising sea of dunes whose deceptively soft texture is no preparation for the jolting to come. Or my wonderment at how Przygonski knows where he is going. Sometimes the track is barely evident, sometimes we leap blind from dunes and sometimes we head for steep-sloping walls of sand as if we were dummies in a crash test.
We do more than 10 minutes of this, the Countryman’s assault on the terrain so frantic, so athletic, so last-second that you wonder how driver and co-driver can keep this up for days on end. But they do. And Pole Przygonski and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul do to terrific effect over the 10 days of this mad rally, to be the fourth car home. X-Raid has five cars in the top 10, Nani Roma coming second behind the winning Toyota Gazoo Hilux of Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel. You have to admire their grit, and their skill. Especially when you watch an in-car video of the Mini’s occupants, and realise that it’s like watching a couple of astronauts re-entering the earth’s atmosphere in a free-falling space capsule. Only this lasts longer. A
OUR MINI MEMORIES
It was 1978. My 1963 Austin Mini had a problem. It didn’t start. The motor was shot. An exchange starter was something like eight quid. At the time, I’d rather invest that in a tank of petrol and save up for hardware. Instead, I’d push start it, everywhere. It was a Mini. Hills helped but were not compulsory. Slow forward to 2015. My 1964 Mini Cooper conked out. That’d probably be the Chinese- made item. I did attempt some push starts. It was embarrassing. I had to phone for help. I’m old. Minis remain timeless.
A few years ago, a couple of mates and I bought the eighth Mini made at Longbridge. Rusty and part-disassembled, it was nevertheless impressively original. Eventually, we auctioned it and the sale price of £40,250 amazed everyone. It moved the market and made us a profit, which was subsequently blown on the three Mk1 Minis that we bought. At the new, higher prices.
My mate Dougal had a Mini. I’d borrowed a Fiesta XR2. You do some daft things when you’re 17, such as trying to outpace an XR2 down a steep and winding hill in a 1.0-litre Clubman. He just ran out of road. Into a tree. As I sprinted towards the steaming wreck, I could see him slumped over the wheel. Frantically, I ripped open the door, terrified by what I might find, whereupon he cocked his head, opened an eye and said: “Admit it. You thought I was dead.” Didn’t have a mark on him.
I didn’t set out to buy the first of several Minis I’ve owned. I bumped into my sister-in-law’s boyfriend in a petrol station. It was about 1985, I think. He was under the bonnet. “This car is crap,” he ranted. “Do you want the bloody thing?” I said I had about £20 on me and a pack of Rothmans. “That’ll do.” So I gave him the fags and cash and drove off in it. I resprayed it orange, drove it for a bit, fixed a few faults and sold it to a girl for £300. She called the car Jaffa and was very happy.
My Mini was an 848cc model from 1962. It was an unmolested original, complete with sliding windows, huge door pockets, exposed door hinges, floor-mounted starter and the long, non-remote gearlever we called a ‘spaghetti lever’. It had done a million miles and the thing you always heard first was the timing chain rattle. But it stayed healthy and was always a hoot, especially in the wet on nearly bald tyres. In fact, it was the most entertaining and precise handling car I have ever owned. Or ever will.