Rover Mini Cooper
The original Mini is one of the most, if not the most iconic and influential cars ever made.
Born in 1959 as a result of the fuel shortages that stemmed from the Suez crisis in 1956, the sales of large, fuel thirsty cars slumped massively. Fuel rationing was introduced and suddenly small, economical bubble cars started appearing on the scene.
The head of BMC, Leonard Lord, hated the sight of the little German bubble cars so much that he layed down a challenge to his team to come up with “a proper minature car”. A designer named Alec Issigonis, who had previously designed the Morris Minor, was tasked to head up the small team, and by 1957 they had built the first prototype of the Mini.
The car was revolutionary in many ways. The engine, an existing A-Series, was mounted under the tiny bonnet transversely and had the gearbox mounted underneath sharing the engines oil for lubrication. This meant the Mini was front wheel drive, the only configuration possible in such a tight space. The body was a monocoque design, a fully enclosed structural shell. Not body panels mounted on top of a ladder chassis as was the usual configuration for the cars of the day. The engine and suspension were mounted in seperate subfrrames which bolted to the monocoque.
The suspension was also a completely new design. Traditional springs would be too large so rubber cones were developed by Dr. Alex Moulton (inventor of the revolutionary Moutlton bicycle). The rubber cones provided a relatively stiff ride, later a Hydroelastic system was introduced which was similar to that of the Citroen 2CV.
The car was launched in 1959 as the Austin Seven or Morris Mini Minor with an 850 cc engine. Designed primiarily as a small family car, it wasn’t quick but the lack of weight and relatively stiff chassis and suspension made the car handle brilliantly, so well in fact that Formula 1 car designer John Cooper saw its potential as a competion car and managed to talk BMC into letting him develop a performance variant.
The Mini Cooper, released in 1961 featured a larger 997cc engine with twin SU carbs (power incresed from 34 to 55bhp), a close ratio gearbox and front disc brakes. Then in 1964 the more powerful Cooper S was introduced, initially with a 1071cc engine that was built for tuning in mind (nitrided crank and strengthened bottom end) and servo assisted front disc brakes. Further models were produced specifically to go racing in the under 1000cc and 1300cc class races. Of the 970cc and 1275cc Cooper S cars, only the 1275cc car sold well with the public and continued to do so until 1971.
The Cooper cars were a sensation on the racetracks and rally stages. Most famously winning the Monte Carlo rally three times in 1964, ’65′ and ’67. They actually would have made it 4 times in a row if the cars ( placed first second and third) in th 1966 rally weren’t discqualified by the French judges over an “illegal” headlamp fillament. Their disqualification convieniently awarded the first prize to a French Citroen (which actually had the same headlight fillament as the Minis, though the judges did not disqualify it). The driver, Pauli Toivonen was unhappy with the dubious result and vowed never to race for Citroen again.
Production of the original UK Coopers stopped in 1971, reputedly partly because British Leyland were unhappy that John Cooper got a royalty paid for each Cooper car sold, but the Cooper story didn’t end there. In the 80′s, Growing demand in Japan for the original Coopers saw people importing them in their hundreds. Austin Rover Japan approached John Cooper to ask if it would be possible to put the 1275cc engine from the Metro into the Mini. While technically it wasn’t a problem, the management at Ausitn Rover refused to produce the 1000 cars which were requested. The Mini in their eyes was an old car and they didn’t want anything taking possible sales from it. However, the Japanese didn’t give up. If they couldn’t have a new car, could they not have a tuning kit instead? John Cooper agreed and worked with Janspeed to produce a kit which comprised of a modified cylinder head, twin carbs, performance air filters and new exhaust system. The result was a 64bhp. gain of 24bhp over the old car.
In 1986, a change of management at Austin Rover started a change in thinking which in 1989 resulted in the John Cooper Works kits being sold through Rover dealerships with a full warranty. 1990 saw the introduction of a special 1275cc version of the Cooper. After the limited edition eun of these Rover Special Projects Coopers were sold out the Cooper was once again a mainstream product and soon about one third of all Minis sold were Coopers.
Upgrades came in 1991 when a “S” pack was brought out, upping the power to 78 bhp, then more versions came out with more power. 1991 brought in fuel injection and in ’97 twin point fuel injection was added along with modernisations such as an airbag and side impact bars. A Sports Pack was also made available with huge (for a mini) 13 inch wheels and flared arches.
BMW Took over the Rover Group in 1994 and made it clear that they wanted to sell their own small car and the Mini was the prefect brand fro them. However, the original Mini went on being produced until 2000.
The original Mini Cooper in all it’s various incarnations is a very special car. Not ony did it capture the the imagination of a generation, revolutionise the way cars are designed and produced, win at the very highest level of international competition and become a cult and style icon, it was also like nothing else in the world to drive. When people say a car “handles like a go kart”, they really mean it with the Mini. A lack of power has never diminished the enjoyment to be had with this car, in fact if anything it’s more fun. Conservation of momentum in a little car with light weight and such sharp direct steering is a joy to behold.
AROnline Mini Cooper History
Wikipedia Mini entry
RSP Cooper Regster
Auto Express Rover Mini Cooper
Parkers Mini (88-01)
Minicoopergarage.com Cooper History
Rob Lightbody History of the Mini
Official Rover Launch documents (1996 MY)
Archive Article and Reviews Courtesy Rob Lightbody’s website
Mini Cooper Sport 500 Register