Alec Issigonis’s tiny Mini sedan can lay claim to being one of the most significant automobile design of the 20th Century. The simple design broke all the rules, what with its transverse-mounted, four-cylinder engine, front-wheel drive, transmission in the sump, a wheel at each corner, and suspension by simple rubber cones.
Costing only $1,340, the 1959 Mini also offered surprising interior space at only 10 feet long, and its 33-hp, 848-cc engine could manage 40 mpg when driven carefully. In one step, Issigonis had replaced every three-wheeled microcar, as well as every motorcycle and sidecar, with a real family sedan. It was a stroke of genius and led to his knighthood.
Minis were originally badged as Austin Se7en and Morris Mini Minor, but soon they were just known as Minis. Their charm was in basic functionality – pull-string door openers, “bucket” door pockets, sliding windows, a shelf instead of a dashboard and a single big speedometer with integrated gas gauge in the center. The rear license plate swung down so the car could be driven with the trunk lid open to handle larger objects. About 945,000 Mk I models were built between 1959-67.
The Mini everybody remembers, of course, is the Cooper. Race car builder John Cooper tweaked his first Mini in 1961, getting 55 hp from a bored-out 997-cc engine, with a surprising 87 mph top speed, disc brakes, and remote shifter. The Cooper received the Riley Elf’s 998-cc engine in 1964 and used hydrolastic suspension until 1969.
The pinnacle of the line was the Cooper “S” model, commonly fitted with 1071-cc and 1275-cc engines. Top speed was close to 100 mph and Works cars won the Monte Carlo Rally four times straight in the mid-1960s, though officials disqualified the team for a controversial headlight infraction in 1966. The Mk II got twin gas tanks in 1967 and concealed door hinges in 1969. There were 4,031 cars built with the 1071-cc engine, 963 with the short-stroke 970-cc motor and an overwhelming 40,153 with the 1275-cc block. Fakes abound, so make sure all the numbers match.
The name was retired after 1971, not to appear again until 1990. These gray-market (1990-2001) Mini Coopers, are quite common in the U.S., and are often titled as earlier cars. They can be recognized by twin stripes on the hood and a row of spotlights across the front. In 1991 the cars switched to a single-point fuel injection system, and starting in late 1996 the Mini Cooper adopted twin-point injection (along with a radiator placement now in front of the engine). A full-width wood dash places the gauges in front of the driver and the fit and finish is markedly plusher than the original cars. Buyers should use extreme caution when contemplating purchase of these Minis as certain states object strenuously when an owner attempts to register a vehicle whose condition and fittings does not correspond to the claimed year of manufacture.