Happy Birthday, Mini!

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It was 50 years ago this week that the Mini "“ symbol of all that is British, mod, and cool "“ first rolled off the line. And from The Italian Job to, well, The Italian Job, the Mini has remained a tiny, economical and very stylish way to get from point A to point B. But how did the Mini become the Mini? Here's a brief history of the car that proved that less truly is more.

In the beginning"¦

The Mini was the British Motor Corporation's answer to the "bubble car," those weird, tiny cars that were economical, sure, but tended to have the door in the front, and in some cases, an actual rounded bubble on top. Leonard Lord, head of the British Motor Corporation, hated the bubble car and vowed to drive it off the roads. It was also a response to the petrol rationing as a result of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis.

The directive was to design a car that used an existing engine, was smaller than anything else the corporation already made but could still seat four people, and would drive the bubble car to extinction.

The designer, Alex Issigonis, who had previously designed the iconic Morris Minor, came up with the Mini.

It was a pretty ingenious design: In order to accommodate the four-seater dictate, Issigonis dedicated 80 percent of car's 10-foot length to passengers and luggage space. But he still had to fit the engine and the gearbox, which he did by turning the engine sideways and sliding the gearbox underneath it; this also meant that oil companies needed to develop a kind of oil that could be used by both the engine and the gearbox. He put the wheels at the extreme corners of the car and made them incredibly small, all in order to save space. This was combined with hardwearing tires developed by Dunlop that could last more than 5,000 miles, rubber suspension and quick steering, lending the Mini a particular agility and durability.

The Mini came off the line in 1959 in two models, the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven, at a cost of £497 and £537 respectively. The only available colors were Farina Grey, Tartan Red or Speedwell Blue. It was not, however, an immediate success.

Making the Mini

The first run of the cars did not auger well: Only a few thousand of the "fifty-niners," as Mini-maniacs call them, were made, but they were built rather crudely. The floor of the car had been welded on the wrong way, meaning that driving the car in wet weather meant uncomfortably wet feet for drivers and long and expensive warranty claims for British Motor Corporation.

mini-beatles.jpgStill, despite the resolution of some of those issues and the fact that the Mini was relatively cheap, good quality, and well received by the motoring press, people were initially suspicious of it. But, as any good marketer knows, all it takes is the right celebrity "“ or celebrities "“ and any product can be popular. In the Mini's case, it was actor Peter Sellers, the Beatles, Twiggy, Lulu and even the Queen, as well as its popularity with racing drivers, who appreciated its superior, go-cart like handling, that catapulted the car to fame. By the 1960s, the Mini was the internationally recognized symbol of Swinging London, a kind of cheeky representation of freedom and modernity. [Image courtesy of the Beatle Brunch Club.]

But it was also beset by problems. Mismanagement by the British Motor Corporation and British Leyland, as it later became, led to engineering and design issues with the car not being fixed, while the company focused on purely cosmetic changes in subsequent editions. The cars still had leaks, didn't always drive well in the rain, sported rubber seals that didn't stay on or cracked, the engine rocked, the exhaust fell off, the electrical system was a mess, and the speedometer was unreliable, at best. So as car manufacturing continued to improve in other parts of the world and in Britain, the Mini was very slow to change.

And, while incredibly popular, because the car was routinely sold at or below production costs, the car's manufacturer barely made any money off it at all "“ in fact, in the 1970s, Ford bought a Mini for around £500, took it apart, and figured that the cars were being sold at a loss of £30 each.

Re-introducing the Mini

Through the 1980s and "˜90s, the Mini was still being produced, albeit on a smaller scale. While the car was still popular in England and in places that appreciated its retro-cool cultural cache, it had become more of a statement purchase than a mass-market item and sales dwindled.

mini-2001.jpgIn 1994, BMW assumed control of the BMC's Rover Group, which owned the Mini label, made several improvements to the Mini, including an airbag. But in 2000, BMW made the controversial decision that a whole new Mini was the way to go and began producing its own, re-vamped and larger version of the Mini. October 2000 saw the last of the old-style Minis "“ after 5,387,862 of the cars had been sold. Mini aficionados and purists claimed that the new MINI (the all-caps are part of the name) could never fill the old Mini's shoes. Or rather, that it over-filled them, in a garish, inappropriate, un-Mini sort of way. Fans of the new MINI, however, claimed that the new version was the logical evolution of the car and that it was a long "“ long "“ time coming.

Even so, many old school minis still roam the streets of London today, even as the new school minis have reached more than a million sold. [Image courtesy of Marketallica.]

Mini-owning celebrities

Just like when the Mini first hit the Swinging London scene, celebrities love the Mini. Celebrities like Madonna, who even wrote a little rap about her Mini, in her song "American Life" ("I drive my Mini-Cooper and I'm feeling super-dooper.") Other celebrity Mini owners include erstwhile hobbit Elijah Wood, driving his appropriately small car around LA; mini-skirt designer Mary Quant; super hip designer Paul Smith; preternaturally pale Twilight actress Kristen Stewart; and actress Goldie Hawn.

The Mini has also featured prominently in many films and TV shows, including The Bourne Identity, both versions of The Italian Job, and British sci-fi hit, Dr. Who.

Later this month, Mini will celebrate its golden anniversary with a three-day festival featuring Mini racing, a concert headlined by rocker Paul Weller, and all manner of Mini-mania dorkery.

If you own one, will you be celebrating the Mini "“ or the MINI "“ this month?

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