Aaaah, the good old days when car prices were low... This week’s Transmission takes us back to 1959, and the creation of one of the planet’s most iconic cars: the humble British Mini.

Also known as the Austin Seven Also known as the Austin Seven

Good things come in small packages. But what if the good thing WAS the small package? That’s the case with the Mini. It turns heads. It's instantly recognisable. Even people that don’t like cars and don’t have a particular fondness for the auto industry will be able to finger a Mini in a police line-up. For over fifty years, that’s been a large part of the Mini’s success – it's an incredible, unique design that enhances the car’s practical features for the benefit of the driver. What more could you want?

Starting a Mini Adventure

Leonard Lord – who was the chairman of the British Motor Corporation at the time – had oil pumping through his veins (sounds nasty). Starting his career in munitions factories during the first world war, he progressed to the Morris Motor Company, eventually defecting to competitors Austin in 1938. Owner Herbert Austin was looking for a successor at the time, and chose Lord to manage the company. Lord became chairman in 1946.

But despite his meteoric rise, Lord’s ambitions were getting smaller. Not in a business sense, however. He became utterly convinced that the British automotive market needed something small, something compact, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was they needed. With a vague idea in mind, he contacted Alec Issigonis, the visionary behind the Morris Minor, asking for his help.

The Mini would take the world by storm The Mini would take the world by storm

Creating the Mini Blueprint

The Suez crisis, which had brought about fuel rationing in the UK, was burning a hole in Lord’s mind. A smaller car, he reasoned, would help the average motorist during such tough times, but he couldn’t picture the car at all. So he gave Issigonis a brief: the car had to be powered by a BMC engine, seat four people and also be smaller than the cars alrady in production at BMC. Codenamed XC/9003, Issigonis was determined to turn the perception of the average car on its head, and maximise the vehicle's interior space to its fullest potential.

Issigonis focused on a number of key areas to give the XC/9003 Tardis-like properties. He altered the location of the engine, wheel positions, suspension problems, the gearbox and more, to create a concept entirely unique to Austin, and befitting of Lord’s vision. Seven months later, in July 1958, Issigonis took Lord on a test drive in a prototype version of his creation. They sped around a disused airfield, which Austin had turned into a test track, with Issigonis scaring the bejesus out of Lord. Lord couldn’t hide his delight and gave the go ahead for the car to be put into production. The Austin Mini was born.

A strong print campaign built up serious hype for the Mini A strong print campaign built up serious hype for the Mini

Fuels Rush in

In typically British ‘backs against the wall’ fashion though, the production plants at Longbridge and Cowley were given a twelve month deadline to produce the cars, such was management’s enthusiasm for the project. Compromises had to be made to meet deadlines and keep the budget down. Luck was with Austin – these decisions helped add to the Mini’s classic design. Instead of invisible seams, external ones were used to join the body which became an instantly identifiable part of the Mini makeup.

Approximately a hundred cars a week began rolling off the production lines in June 1959, with the Mini available for the public to buy in August. Everyone wanted to buy a new Mini. A clever print campaign by Austin pre-release cast the Mini into the public eye, with people clamouring for one before its release. Anticipation reached fever pitch. It had a good initial cult following, and slowly built up iconic status as the years rolled by, becoming a cornerstone of British design and creativity.

To this day the Mini enjoys legendary status, and was awarded the prestigious title of second most influential car of the 20th Century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation, being beaten to first place by the Ford Model T.

The Minis interior was and still is a design revelation The Minis interior was and still is a design revelation

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