The Mini Cooper

Mini CooperThe Mini Cooper was recently voted the second most influential car of the 20th century (only the Ford model T beat it) which is some achievement for a boxy two door that handles like a go-kart – and great testament to its enduring charm and iconic design.

The Mini began life in 1957, when the head of the British Motor Corporation, Leonard Lord, grew peeved at the presence of so many cheap German cars on British roads: he was quoted as saying God damn these bloody awful bubble cars. We must drive them off the road by designing a proper miniature car.

His exacting brief for a car less than ten foot long with six feet of passenger space was given to a small team of designers led by Sir Alec Issigonis. They mounted the engine transversely, and used four wheel drive – a rare configuration at the time, now standard on most small cars – and cones rather than springs for suspension. These, and other technical innovations resulted in a car with tiny overall dimensions yet enough space (just about) for both passengers and luggage. Thankfully, the name Austin Newmarket was dropped and the car was called the Mini after the Latin minimus, meaning smallest.

It was rolled out in 1959, and sold very cheaply at cost price, with the only profits coming from deluxe models with optional accessories such as seat belts, door mirrors, and a radio.The Mini Mark I looked pretty odd for the time, and sold badly at first, but thanks to enthusiastic uptake among taste-makers and style icons such as Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon and the Beatles it was soon wildly popular.

Like its contemporary, Terence Conran’s Habitat, it was great example of stylish design made affordable. But more than that, the Mini was a car whose time had come: cheeky, charming, and cheap, with a bulldog stance that seemed to express plucky confidence, it was the vehicle most in tune with the upbeat, inconoclastic spirit of the Sixties.

The Mini’s cool was enhanced by many appearances on the silver screen. Peter Sellers' wicker side-panelled Mini appeared in his film ‘A Shot in the Dark’ and the Beatles drove a psychedelic Mini in ‘The Magical Mystery Tour’, but the car’s most famous appearance was in the 1969 heist film 'The Italian Job', sharing star billing with another stylish British icon - actor Michael Caine. A gang of cheeky chappy thieves were shown driving Minis down staircases, through drains, over the top of buildings and finally into the back of a moving bus.

The Mini’s popularity spawned many models that targeted different markets: there was the slightly longer (and naffer) Traveller and Countryman with wooden trim, Mini vans and pick up trucks, and the popular Mini Moke, designed for the army and used until recently by the police in Barbados.

But the most famous model was the souped-up Mini Cooper, introduced in 1961. This car really came into its own when models won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967. In the 1966 rally, Minis came first, second and thrid, but all were disqualified on a technicality over the placing of headlamps by French judges, transparently bitter at the car's continuing success – they awarded first prize to a Citroen whose headlamps were just as illegal.

The Mini continued to sell well in the 70s but by the 80s, though still hugely popular in Britain, the car was looking increasingly outdated in the face of less pretty but more practical rivals such as the Ford Fiesta. Finally, even the Mini could not escape the decline and mismanagement that characterized British industry in the late twentieth century, and the struggling BMC was sold to Rover, which was itself later broken up. The last proper Mini (a red Cooper Sport) was built on October 4, 2000.

But that’s not the end of the story: the iconic brand was bought by BMW who unleashed a new version: BMW’s MINI is technically unrelated to the old car but retains many of the original features – though it is a little bigger and a lot less minimal in its styling. With cartoony curves and outsize dials it seems self-consciously cute, and has proved a great success as an icon of retro cool, particularly in Japan.

In the end more than five million Minis were sold, making it the most popular British car ever made. Now regarded as a timeless classic, its appeal has endured and the older versions are collectors' items. As one of the few big success stories of British manufacturing, recognisable all over the world, the Mini deserves a proud place in the front row at the gathering of British style icons.