Per Schroeder
Per Schroeder PowerDork
7/21/08 8:01 a.m.

A good, solid industrial design will allow a product to last many decades in the marketplace without losing its appeal. While models can be tweaked and freshened on a periodic basis, the inherent goodness of the original product will still shine through. Lesser designs will come and go as fads relentlessly dictate, but successful designs will span generations of buyers.

In our homes, products like Tupperware's reusable containers, KitchenAid's stand mixer and even Trojan's condoms have been around for decades with little in the way of fundamental changes. Their colors, packaging and marketing have all varied with the times, but the basic design still rings true.

Variations on the basic theme also go hand in hand with an intelligent design. Size is one variation that's common on the market, since the one-size-fits-all strategy rarely works. Buyers have needs that can't be met with just one size of plastic container, mixer or even prophylactic.

The automotive marketplace behaves no differently when it comes to industrial designs. Innovative products are released, and in many cases the good designs lead to later variations. Getting it right the first time allowed several cars to enjoy long life spans, including the original Volkswagen Beetle, the Ford Model T and one of our favorites, the Mini.

The Mini lasted for decades and spawned a nearly countless variation of models. In fact, more than 5 million Minis were produced during 41 years of production.

That's a lot of little cars.

The Mini Looms Large

The man behind the Mini was a Turkish refugee named Alec Issigonis. His first major design was the Morris Minor, the British response to the Volkswagen Beetle. It was one of the most successful British cars ever produced, as about 2 million were built before it was phased out in 1971.

Issigonis designed the Mini to meet the needs of a Europe threatened by the Suez Canal fuel crisis of 1956. The car's small size, space-saving, transversely mounted engine and front-wheel-drive layout were revolutionary at the time, although they would become the industry standard for small cars within a decade.

The Mini was penned with small 10-inch wheels at each corner of the 120-inch-long car. With a wheelbase of 80 inches, the Mini had very little front or rear overhang, thus reducing wasted space. It could hold four adults without their performing too much in the way of contortions, and there was even room for some luggage in the rear trunk.

The fully independent suspension was a simple affair that used rubber cones as springs. This suspension design was designed by Alex Moulton and took up very little space--unfortunately, at the expense of ride comfort. On the plus side, it allowed for very little body roll, and the Mini's go-kart-like handling was well received among enthusiasts.

The original 848cc engine produced just 37 horsepower. Since it had less than 1400 pounds to push around, it was capable enough, propelling the Mini to a top speed of around 70 mph. It also delivered over 50 miles to the imperial gallon, cementing its success in fuel-starved Europe.

The Mini was released in August of 1959 as the Austin Seven and Morris Mini Minor, and quickly became a top seller. The two models would soon officially be renamed as the Austin Mini and Morris Mini; those names would be shortened to just Mini late in 1969. While the car sold well, it was never a moneymaker for the always-beleaguered BMC, the parent company of both Morris and Austin. In fact, the Mini was sold at a loss.

Soon after the car was introduced, the upgrades and variants began to appear. The Van joined the lineup in January of 1960, while the Pick-up arrived on the scene a year later. In October 1961, the Mini theme was extended upmarket with the release of the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet models. The latter two models are easily distinguished by their distinctive grilles and rear end treatment--a small trunk was grafted onto the traditional Mini sedan shape. They also featured nicer interiors than the regular Minis.

The parts that powered the car were also under a constant state of improvement. A larger 998cc engine--with 38 whopping horsepower--became standard for the Hornet models late in 1962. This engine would become an option for the Austin and Morris cars in 1964 packing 55 horses, and engine displacements of 1098 and 1275cc would eventually join the Mini lineup. By the end of the model run, it would even be fuel injected.

The car's suspension evolved as well. The original rubber cone suspension was replaced with a hydrolastic system in September 1964; like the rubber cone setup, the hydrolastic suspension was a product of the Moulton company.

The hydrolastic design used fluid-filled assemblies that featured an internal rubber diaphragm that acted as a spring, like the earlier design. However, a series of valves controlled the movement of pressurized hydraulic fluid between the front and rear units on each side of the car. The movement of this ethylene glycol through the valves provided some of the traditional damping force of a shock absorber. This system added both cost and complexity to a car that was blessedly short of either; in retrospect, it wasn't a great leap forward in reliability for the Mini.

What is now commonly called the Mk I Mini was produced from 1959 to 1967. As time went by, BMC engineers tweaked a few odds and ends to keep the car updated instead of redesigning the entire thing. As such, the Mk II Mini featured a larger rear window and a redesigned front grille. It was built from 1967 though 1969. Unfortunately for American enthusiasts, there was not enough money in the budget to update the Mini to meet 1968 U.S. safety standards, so the Mini ceased to be exported to our shores.

Production continued uninterrupted in England, however, and the Mk III was released late in 1969. It featured more extensive changes, including larger doors with concealed hinges and wind-up windows that replaced the earlier car's sliding pieces. The suspension was also converted back to the original Moulton rubber cones to cut costs. Coopers retained hydroelastic suspensions until 1971.

The Mini soldiered on until October of 2000, when the last one rolled off the line. By then, 5.3 million Minis had been produced worldwide. During its last days, the car was fuel injected and sold under the Rover nameplate, which was owned by BMW by that time. BMW sold off most of the Rover line, including the Rover nameplate, but kept the Mini badge for itself. This was used to launch the new MINI in 2002.

Variations on a Theme

Like other successful industrial designs, the Mini came in many variations, from bare-bones utilitarian to sports car fast. The beauty is that there is probably a Mini for almost any need out there--within reason, of course. Here are some of the more popular variants produced.

Coopers: The Mini's excellent handling and lightweight design caught the eye of Formula 1 car builder John Cooper. He took a stock Mini and developed a comprehensive set of engine, drivetrain and suspension changes to create the Mini Cooper, which was first sold in 1961.

The engine was uprated from 36 horsepower to 55 by enlarging the stroke and reducing the bore for an increase in displacement to 997cc. Twin SU carburetors, bigger valves and a larger-diameter exhaust system were used to help the little engine breathe better. The compression ratio was increased from 8.3:1 to 9.0:1 to give the A-series engine a little more grunt.

A host of other changes included 7-inch Lockheed disc brakes on the front wheels, shorter gear ratios and even a shorter gear change lever inside. New water temperature and oil pressure gauges were added to the central cluster on the dashboard, although oddly enough, a tachometer was not fitted.

The even-hotter Cooper S first appeared in 1963, featuring a 1071cc version of the same A-series powerplant. In addition to the displacement increase, the engine also received larger intake valves, a nitrided crankshaft and even larger oil passageways for improved lubrication. The new engine developed 70 horsepower at a high-for-the-time 6200 rpm. The chassis was supplemented with larger front disc brakes, a sturdier clutch and upgraded transmission bearings as well as an option for wider wheels and tires.

For 1964, the Cooper S was available with two different engines, a 970cc version for under-1-liter classes in Group 2 European Touring Car Championship racing, and a 1275cc version for international rally competition. The 970cc engine muscled out 65 horsepower at 6500 rpm, while the 1275cc version was good for 75 horsepower at 5800 rpm (and was also able to hold together up to 7200 rpm). That's over twice the horsepower of the original 1959 Morris Mini Minor.

While the 970cc version was only made to order and was subsequently dropped in 1965, the 1275cc Mini Cooper S became the car to beat in international rallies. It won the Monte Carlo rally three times: in 1964, 1965 and 1967. (For a complete story on the Mini's victories in Monte Carlo, check out Issue 109 of Classic Motorsports.) In all, some 146,000 Mini Coopers were built, of which about 46,000 were the faster Cooper S models. They lasted until 1971, when John Cooper's contract with British Leyland was terminated.

Elves and Hornets: The Riley Elf and the Wolseley Hornet were two of the first real variations on the Mini theme. These nearly identical Mini-based cars featured a more classic front grille and a very small trunk. They were aimed upmarket of the "standard" Mini and never saw the same level of success. Approximately 30,000 examples of each model were produced from 1961 through 1969.

Countrymen and Travellers: For those needing more room in their Mini, several long-wheelbase versions were produced. The Morris Mini Traveller and Austin Mini Countryman were built on a chassis that was 10cm longer than the standard Mini and featured double doors on the back. Fancy versions had wood inserts on the rear of the body, mimicking the look of the American Woody wagons of the 1950s. Around 207,000 Countrymen and Travellers were produced from 1961 through 1969. This car was only built for the British market.

Vans and Pick-ups: The Mini Van was essentially a Traveller without any side windows. It was considered a commercial vehicle and as such carried no sales tax, making it even cheaper to own than a normal Mini. More than 500,000 Vans were produced between 1960 and 1982. A Pick-up variant of the Traveller was also produced during this same timeframe, although only 58,000 were manufactured.

The Clubman and 1275GT: To update the Mini for the 1970s, a new front end was designed that provided better crash protection and increased underhood access while also giving the Mini a more modern look. The Clubman was designed as a replacement for the Elf and Hornet versions and was available alongside its round-nosed older brother.

The 1275GT was built as a replacement for the Cooper S, and was the first Mini model to feature a tachometer. Despite the fact that these were considered more "modern," the Clubman and 1275GT models were phased out in 1980 while the earlier, bulldog-nosed Mini soldiered on for another two decades. About 500,000 Clubmans, Clubman Estates (a Clubman-nosed Traveller) and 1275GTs were produced from 1969 to 1980.

Mokes: The Mini Moke was originally designed as a Jeep-like light infantry vehicle for the British Army. Understandably, its low ground clearance ruled it out for wartime action. However, the Moke became very popular in tropical locations like the Caribbean and Polynesia as rental vehicles.

The Moke's even lighter chassis and minimal comfort items made the car extremely nimble. (We've seen them appear as unlikely competitors at autocrosses and hillclimbs.) About 50,000 Mokes were built from 1964 through 1989.

Innocenti Mini: From 1965 through 1975, the Mini was also produced by Innocenti, an Italian firm that had built BMC products under license since 1960. Innocenti built both "standard" and Cooper versions of the Mini, and their cars were generally a little more luxurious than the British versions. About 400,000 Innocenti Minis were built. In addition to the Italian-built Innocentis, Minis were also built by firms in Australia, South Africa and Spain. (Just to confuse things a bit more, some Innocentis were built in Belgium.)

Which Flavor Tastes Best?

Buying a Mini today is a lot like traipsing into a Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry's or Maggie Moo's. (We'll stop the list there, it's making our stomachs rumble.) Like our favorite ice cream parlors, there's a bunch of flavors available and they're all so good that it's hard to choose the right one. As the saying goes, "God don't make no junk"--and you'd be hard-pressed to find a Mini or variant that isn't a total hoot in some way or another.

Like many of our readers, our editors have long pined to have a Mini in their own garage. We've driven and lusted after many, including the bright-red example that can be found parked in Carl Heideman's shop. Hayes Harris, the proprietor of Wire Wheel Classic Sports Cars, has also tempted us by regularly featuring Minis in his showroom.

In order to personally sample many of the different varieties produced, we figured we needed to organize a test day. We got in touch with Classic Minis of Florida through their circus ringleader, Mike Guido, to organize a meet at Ocala Gran Prix for photography and driving impressions. Mike, who is a clown in real life (really), helped us track down quite a variety of Minis to play with and compare.

While we tried to get one of everything, we were unable to locate an Elf, a Hornet or an original 850 Mini. "Most of the 850 engines are sitting under work benches," Mike explained. "There's no real reason not to upgrade to the larger engines during a restoration."

Our final lineup included 10 different Minis ranging from a Woody Traveller to a genuine Cooper S. Once we had finished putting them through their paces on our mini-road course, we were left with an equally wide range of impressions, matched only by the grins on our faces.

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