A British motoring icon made its debut 57 years ago today, when an eager public got its first look at the Mini on August 26th, 1959.
Produced by the British Motor Corporation (BMC), the small and affordable car was initially launched under the company's two main brands, Austin and Morris. It could be bought as either the Morris Mini Minor or the Austin Seven, with both versions winning praise from the motoring press right from the start.
The decision to produce a small and economical car had been prompted by the Suez Crisis of 1956, which led to fuel shortages and rationing across Europe. Several European manufacturers already had small fuel-efficient cars, which became increasingly popular, making head of BMC Sir Leonard Lord keen to get in on the act.
He turned to Alec Issigonis, chief engineer at Morris Motors, to come up with a design and development of the Mini began in secret in 1957. Initially the project was known only as ADO 15, the ADO standing for Austin Drawing Office. After about two-and-a-half years in development, the final design was submitted for approval to Sir Leonard, who immediately signed off on its production.
The only real change between the two differently badged versions was their radiator grille, but at the time many motorists were loyal to a particular brand so it was felt the strategy would secure sales from both Austin and Morris enthusiasts. It wasn't until 1962 that both versions became known simply as the Mini.
Despite its small size, at only 10 feet long, the Mini could seat four adults and had a reasonably-sized boot. Mounting the 848cc engine sideways also freed up space inside the car and its front-wheel-drive made it nippy and responsive. Its diminutive size also made for a good power to weight ratio, despite its small and frugal engine.
With the base model priced at just under £500 it was firmly pitched as a people's car, but its popularity proved to be universal, transcending wealth and class. Better-off families bought it as a second car, especially those living in cities where its small size and manoeuvrability gave it added appeal. It also became a popular first car for young drivers.
Optional extras for the Mark I Mini (fitted as standard on the popular De Luxe models), included door mirrors, a heater, a radio and seat belts! Performance models were later produced by the John Cooper Works, badged as the Mini Cooper and Cooper S, achieving significant success in motorsports, especially rallying, and adopted by several police forces as an unmarked pursuit car.
In the 1960s the Mini became trendy, its sales boosted when popular film, music and sports stars were pictured with their Minis. It became as much an icon of the Swinging Sixties as the Beatles, Twiggy and the mini skirt.
The Mark II version was launched in 1967 and given another big sales boost when it featured in the hit 1969 movie "The Italian Job", starring Michael Caine. Variants included the Mini Van and Pickup, the four-wheel-drive Mini Moke (originally developed for military use), the higher-powered Mini 1275 GT and the Mini Clubman and Clubman Estate. Several "Special Editions" were also launched, exploiting the Mini's status as a fashion icon.
By the time the final MarkVII Mini ceased production in October 2000, more than 5.3 million Minis had rolled off the production line. The previous year it had been voted the second most influential car of the 20th Century, beaten only by the Ford Model T.
The story wasn't quite over though, as the Mini name lives on. It had been acquired by German manufacturer BMW when it bought the Rover Group (formerly British Leyland) in 1994. Although it disposed of most of the group in 2000, it retained the right to produce cars using the Mini name and launched the first of a new generation of Minis in 2003. Despite huge technological advances and a larger size, its overall design pays tribute to the shape and style of the original 1959 Mini.