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The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Mini in America

By Joy Keller

Think back to America’s roads in the ’50s. Cities and towns were connected by long, straight stretches of highway. Detroit was cranking out hulking metal beasts that seemed to serve a single purpose: to take the American family to Grandma’s house on Sunday. It was a time for change, but American drivers didn’t know it yet. They were anticipating more chrome barges, and Detroit was happy to oblige. And why not? After all, gas was cheap and the war was history.

But there were rebels who craved the compact appeal of foreign cars like MGs and Triumphs. About this same time, the Volkswagen Beetle was making significant headway in the economy small car market. And while there were other makes such as the Renault, Simca, and Peugeot, they just didn’t have the right attitude. Then the Mini came along.

green mini butt

Bursting Bubbles

British automobile designer Alec Issigonis shared one thing in common with many other European engineers of his day. They saw the “bubble” cars rolling out of Germany and wanted to counter with something that used “the minimum amount of materials to give the maximum amount of space and comfort.” Issigonis and his design team came up with the radical idea to relocate the gearbox into the engine sump. At a time when most cars had a separate chassis, Issigonis’ design was monocoque (the body was integral with the chassis), and the running gear and engine were attached through the front and rear sub frames. Money was an issue, so Issigonis spot-welded the body panels together using external “jigs,” which explains the Mini’s seams. The tiny vehicle also sported a rubber suspension system and a lightweight front-wheel drive, which provided exceptional handling for an economy car.

The Mini was launched Aug. 26, 1959, through Austin and Morris franchises worldwide. Badged as the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini Minor, the first winter of production saw a host of problems for the little car including, but not limited to, leaking sills, rotting carpets, and water-logged distributors. Nevertheless, the first Mini arrived on U.S. shores in 1960. American media were already giving the Mini incredible coverage, as they had seen the impact it had had on the European market. They were intrigued by the unique layout, design, and overall specifications.

Love at First Sight?

Americans had grown accustomed to a certain level of interior and exterior trim, even in economy cars. Many were disappointed by the Mini’s spare accoutrements and solemn finish. Americans weren’t as directly affected by the postwar depression as England had been, and they were looking for more in a car. They wanted something that was fun, unique, and practical. This is where the Mini did not disappoint.

Road & Track tested the Austin 850 Mini in March 1960, just as the first cars were arriving. The magazine expressed concern about highway noise level, but was impressed by even the slowest Mini’s performance. Critics were amazed by how generous the interior room was in such a diminutive package, surpassing the externally larger VW Beetle. Weighing around 1,300 lbs. with 35 horsepower, it was a close run for a 1,200cc VW in a straight line—but in corners, there was no comparison. The Beetle’s quaint suspension was no match for the Mini’s road-hugging performance, and at a list price of $1,295 in 1960, it was a serious competitor to the $1,675 VW.

In 1961, British Motor Company (BMC) introduced the Mini Cooper 997. Developed by the famed Cooper racing team, which had won the 1959 and 1960 Formula One World Championships, this model had 20 more horsepower thanks to a longer stroke connected to a slightly smaller bore that brought the displacement just under the 1,000cc limit of many racing classes. Intake valves were enlarged and the compression was increased. A more radical cam breathed through twin SU carburetors, and the gearbox got closer ratio gears and an extension that brought the shift lever back beside the driver, replacing the long “magic wand” shift lever of the 850s.

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The American sports car crowd loved the new Coopers. Finally, here was a true four-seat sports sedan with room for two kids or luggage in back. The only competition at the time was the Renault Gordini and the Fiat-Abarths. The Mini was in a class by itself.

For the next seven years, Americans were introduced to variations of the Mini. Deluxe models, Coopers, Mini vans, pickups, and even a military reject called the Moke graced American roads. In 1967 the bottom fell out of the British motor industry as companies like Morris and Austin lost valuable and irretrievable ground to rivals Renault, Fiat, and Volkswagen. In addition, 1968 U.S. safety and emissions regulations virtually doomed the Mini. Specifically, a requirement for occupant protection would have required a major overhaul to the Mini interior. This, combined with a BMC realignment, combined with other factors, signaled the end of the Mini in America.

To this day, it isn’t unusual to find many nonstandard Minis in car clubs across America. Because of BMC’s decision to discontinue the supply line in the United States, many enthusiasts came up with creative ways to obtain their favorite ride, including smuggling cars from Canada until American regulations put on the brakes. Americans became obsessed with maintaining and rebuilding their original Minis, and often resorted to piecing together badly wrecked or rusted cars, sometimes resulting in an automotive Frankenstein effect.

Rumors of the Mini’s return have turned out to be fact. When BMW bought Rover, the Mini followed. Production of the old Mini stopped in October 2000 as production of the new Mini started. U.S. sales are projected to begin in March 2002. Welcome back, Mini.

green mini side

Pick Your Passion

There were many Mini models sold in the United States from 1960 to 1967, and later models have been brought in by a variety of means. The Mini line included sedans, sports models, vans, and trucks. Here are the most common Minis that made it stateside. Note: dates are for U.S. sales only.

Austin 850 1960-1967

Engine size: 848cc

Power output: 35 bhp at 5,500 rpm

Torque: 44 lb. ft. at 2,900 rpm

The Austin 850 was the first Mini to be imported to the United States, with minor variations between Morris and Austin models. Most American Minis were made by Austin. Initially, the Austin versions were called Austin 850, but this was changed in 1962 to Austin Mini. The Mini 850s were delivered with solid color paint jobs in a limited range of colors.

Mini Van and Countryman, 1960-1967

Engine: same as Mini 850

The Mini Van was introduced in 1960 as a commercial vehicle primarily intended for light delivery work. Accommodations were sparse, and the wheelbase was longer than a standard Mini, even though the running gear was almost identical. Late in 1960, a Woodie version of the van, called the Austin Countryman, was introduced (the Morris version was called the Traveller). It had wood trim around the back of the body and on the twin rear doors. This more accommodating version of the van had a rear seat and similar interior trim to an 850 sedan. The Countryman proved to be popular in the U.S. and many were sold.

Mini Pickup, 1961-1967

Engine: same as Mini 850

This tiny utilitarian vehicle was imported in small numbers and survival rates are low. They have recently become highly sought-after. The trim included spartan pressed steel grills that were painted body color, and all interiors were black.

Mini Cooper, 1961-1967

Engine size: 997 and 998cc

Power output: 55 bhp at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 54 lb. ft. at 3,600 rpm (997);

57 lb. ft. at 3,000 rpm (998)

The Mini Cooper put Minis on the performance map. The first models had 997cc engines with a longer stroke and smaller bore than the 848cc engines. Twin SU carburetors replaced the single carb setup, and bigger valves and a hotter cam were added as well. Front brakes were 7-inch Lockheed discs that provided only marginally more stopping power than drums. Paint on all Coopers was two-toned, and shift levers were relocated farther back beside the driver for a shorter, more direct throw. Coopers also had three-gauge instrument pods in place of the single speedometer fitted to standard Mini 850s.

Mini Cooper S, 1963-1967

Engine size: 970, 1,071, and 1,275cc

Power output: 64 bhp at 6,500 rpm (970);

67.5 bhp at 6,500 rpm (1,071);

76.1 bhp at 6,000 rpm (1,275)

Torque: 57 lb. ft. at 5,000 rpm (970);

62 lb. ft. at 4,500 rpm (1,071);

79 lb. ft. at 3,000 rpm (1,275)

The Mini Cooper S was introduced in 1,071cc form in early 1963. In 1964, the 970cc and 1,275cc versions were added. The 970 was a special model to get the S engine into the under 1,000cc racing classes, and was discontinued less than a year after its introduction.

Mini Moke, 1964-1967

Engine: same as Mini 850

Nicknamed the “Flying Bedstead,” the Moke was initially intended to be a light military vehicle that could be stacked for easy shipment (hence the angular sides). Rejected by the military, the Moke entered civilian production in 1964. BMC dealers could order them, and a reasonable number were imported by individuals both during the BMC years and afterwards. Although fitted with a rudimentary fabric top, the passenger seats and side curtains were optional.

Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet, 1961-1967

Engine size: 848cc and 998cc

These two “upmarket” Mini variations were not officially imported by BMC, but a small number were brought in from Canada or England by private owners. These resembled Mini 850 sedans with vertical grills up front and an extended tail with small fins. Early models used 848cc engines, but in 1963 they were fitted with a detuned version of the 998cc engine also used in the Mini Cooper. Interior trim was more lavish than in regular Mini models, with leather seats added in 1962.

Minis in America

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