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As part of our search for the most iconic British cars of the last 60 years (head over there to vote for your own favourite) we’re looking at some of Britain’s best-loved cars in a little more detail. Today, we’re looking at the original Mini Cooper.
Ah. The swinging sixties and the high noon of Britain’s post-imperial phase. Perhaps no car says more about Britain than its adoption of this tiny, cheap runabout as an icon.
Famously designed by Alec Issigonis, the original Mini was borne from necessity. Spiking oil prices and the promise of more disruption during the Suez Crisis had forced fuel economy onto the agenda for motorists for the first time and the import of German ‘bubble cars’ had been noted with distaste by Leonard Lord who told Issigonis to design a ‘proper’ small car to ‘drive them off the streets’.
A small team was assembled and took their lead from the Fiat 600 – another small car, slightly bigger than the Mini would ultimately would be but that provided for four full seats. Finally, in 1959, the original Mini was launched onto the market and history tells the rest: small, economical, roomy and cheap it rapidly became Britain’s best selling car and remained in production more or less unchanged for 4 decades.
But our icon is one specific model: The Mini Cooper S. Launched in 1963, this souped up little powerhouse found everlasting fame in the iconography of British motoring from its appearance in the Italian Job and its performance in the Monte Carlo Rally – which it won for three years: 1965, 67 and 68. In 1966, it came first, second and third but was controversially disqualified on a technicality by the French judges.
Thus, a car born out of economic hardship and designed on a shoestring with wit and flair became a cultural sensation. The last of the original Minis (the Mark VII) rolled off the production line at Longbridge in 2000 – with the final production total standing at well over 5 million in the UK alone. So entrenched is the Mini’s name that the rights to it were fiercely fought over during BMW’s takeover of Rover and when Rover itself had been consigned the history books, BMW were quick to seek to relaunch the brand – tapping into the original sense of fun and flair – as well bringing the name of the Cooper S back to life.
Do you really have to ask? Carnaby Street… Mr. Bean… Monte Carlo… the Mini is at the heart of Britain’s self image as a fun, unselfconscious country and continues to help project Britain as a brand around the world. The Cooper S was a concept ahead of its time and showed how even a frugal little car could be a world beater with a little imagination and sparked a re-imagining of what a small car could be.