Alec Issigonis' brilliant compact family saloon earned him a knighthood and is one of the most important automobile designs of the 20th century. Issigonis had already broken new ground with his 1948 Morris Minor, but the 1959 Mini featured a transverse 4-cylinder engine with side-mounted radiator, front-wheel drive, gearbox in the sump, 10-inch wheels and conical rubber suspension.
The driveline layout meant that the £496 Mini offered enough interior space for four adults, despite being only 10 feet long. Its 33hp, 848cc engine could manage 70mph, and 40mpg was possible when driven carefully. In one step, Issigonis replaced every sketchy three-wheeled microcar and Spartan motorcycle and sidecar with a proper family saloon.
Minis were originally badged as Austin Seven and Morris Mini Minor, but by 1961 they were all known as Minis. The little cars had basic charm, with pull-string door openers, “bucket” door pockets, sliding windows, a shelf instead of a dashboard and a single big speedometer with integrated petrol gauge in the centre. The rear license plate was hinged so it could swing down, and the car could driven with the boot lid open to carry large objects.
About 945,000 Mini Mkl models were built between 1959 and 1967. An early success was the commercial van, with reduced sales tax as a commercial vehicle. It was 10 inches longer, with double rear doors, and many were fitted with side windows as a family carrier. The official estate arrived as the 1962-69 the Mini Countryman/Traveller. Wood trim was glued to the body at first, but later models were available without it.
A rarer commercial variation was the pickup, although rural usefulness was limited by its small wheels. From 1961 to 1969 the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet variants were offered, both of which had tiny vestigial fins, an extended boot and luxury interiors. About 30,000 of each were sold, including a handful of convertible conversions, but survivors are fairly rare.
The Mini found a new market in 1961, when John Cooper developed his namesake sports car with a straight-barred grille. Cooper developed a long-stroke, twin-carburettor motor of 997cc, with 55hp and taller gears. It was capable of a surprising 87mph top speed, and featured disc brakes and a remote gear lever. The Mini Cooper got the Elf's 998cc engine in 1964 and all Minis were fitted with the troublesome 'hydrolastic' fluid suspension from 1964 to 1969, when they reverted to the original rubber cones.
The most collectible model remains the Mini Cooper S, commonly fitted with 1071cc and 1275cc engines. Top speed was close to 100mph and Works cars won the Monte Carlo Rally four times straight in the mid-1960s, though officials disqualified the team for an imagined headlight infraction in 1966, so a French Citroen could win.
The Mk II Mini Cooper got twin petrol tanks in 1967 and concealed door hinges in 1969. There were 24,860 built with the 997cc motor from 1961 to 1964 and 55,760 with the 998cc engine from 1964 to 1969. A further 4,031 cars were built with the 1071cc engine in 1963 to 1964, 963 with the short-stroke 970cc motor in 1964 and 1965, and an overwhelming 40,153 with the 1275cc block from 1964 to 1971. Fakes are numerous, so make sure all the numbers match up. After 1971 British Leyland refused to pay royalties to Cooper for use of his name and the model disappeared until 1992.
The 1967 MkII gained a squarer grille and taillights, and remote gear lever and the 998cc engine was offered as a base engine. The next year saw an all-synchromesh gearbox and the 1969 MkIII gained hidden door hinges and wind-down windows.
One oddity that has survived quite well is the Mini Moke, best remembered for its role in Patrick McGoohan's TV series, 'The Prisoner', with a striped awning. Originally planned as a British Army Jeep, it was rendered useless by its tiny wheels, but it became a popular beach car in sunny places, and 51,000 were sold between 1964 and 1994, built in Australia and Portugal as well as the UK.