Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Mini (And Me)

Alexander, later Sir Alec, Issigonis.  After the Suez oil crisis of 1957, Austin's management
green-lighted the revolutionary small car experimental design he had been working on.  It
wasn't, and hadn't been, developed as a successor to the Morris Minor.  Instead, it was
intended to be the smallest, most fuel-efficient "real" car that could carry four adults.
The Mini's small size forced some innovative packaging and technical solutions.
A sporty ginat-killer with brilliant handling was the last thing on Sir Alec's mind.

Here's a link to the Wikipedia piece on Alex Issigonis:

Automotive design history, as it pertains to compact cars, can be divided into Before Mini and After Mini.  Cars had existed for over 60 years until someone did a front, transverse engine, front-wheel-drive car.  After the Mini, for 60 years, there has one way to do a compact car: that way.  When Volkswagen and Honda did their first new "clean sheet" subcompacts in the early 1970's, they copied the Mini's architecture.  And so on.  The Mini was the prototype of today's World Car.

I was dimly aware of the Mini when it was introduced here in 1960, and completely missed its point. It struck me as an anti-Beetle: water-cooled, overly-complicated front drive "just to be different."  The Mini abandoned the body-on-frame construction of its conventional predecessor, the Morris Minor, for the unit-body construction of the Beetle.  But it retained the Minor's cast-iron engine, which was heavier and far less reliable than the Beetle's aluminum air-cooled unit.  The Mini's 10-inch wheels seemed ridiculous (which they were, for American Interstates).  It did not occur to me that the Mini was a "clean sheet" design.  I completely missed the point of the Mini's ability to carry 4 adults (and very little else) in a car weighing only 1400 lbs., with innovative and superb fully-independent rubber suspension, designed for Issigonis by Alex Moulton.  So I missed its sporting potential too.

It was all about the packaging or, if you prefer, shrink-wrapping four adults into a car.  The U.K. did not have many
motorways when the Mini was designed, so "B Road" capability was fine.  (In the early 1960's, European car firms
were still exporting whatever they had designed for their domestic markets, with no modifications, let alone doing
a car for the U.S.--or each other.)  Ten-inch wheels provided more cabin space and less weight.  Sliding windows
required no window-winding mechanisms and made room in the doors for storage pockets.  The original Mini
had an 850 c.c. engine when the V.W. Beetle had just been upsized from 1.1 to 1.3 liters: 50% larger.  The Mini
was, at bottom, a response to the very real possibility of petroleum shortages in the U.K.  And spartan.

The scales fell from my eyes at Mid-Ohio in 1961.  A brand-new Mini-Cooper (with more power from a 1.3 liter engine and front disc brakes) showed up at an SCCA Regional race.  It ran against the G & H Production Sprites (&c.) and won.  So the Stewards let it run against the F & E Production MGA's (&c.).  It won.  So the Stewards let it run in the C & D Production race against aging Jaguar XK 120's and Alfa Veloces (&c.).  It finished respectably.  Shortly thereafter, the Mini-Cooper scored several overall wins in the Monte Carlo Rally.  Having a lifelong weakness for giant-killers, I was enchanted.

When I was thinking about my first car--which had to be a cheap used car--I stumbled across a 6-year-old Mini that a young imported car mechanic had been starting to prepare for racing, but decided to sell to finance the purchase of a new Hillman Imp.  (I don't know how he did road racing the Imp, but it was a better bet than a well-worn 850 c.c. Mini with tiny front drum brakes.)  He had stripped out the Mini's interior (except for the passenger seat) and painted it battleship grey with a brush.  He had installed a racing seat belt and a big chrome Sun tach--just like the drag racers used.  He had installed twin S.U. carbs, and a big Alfa Romeo resonator at the end of the Mini's straight exhaust pipe.  Best of all, he'd mounted Dunlop SP 41 high performance radial tires on the 10-inch wheels.  I loved that car.  It felt fast, and it was fast--around tight corners.  I drove it for two years, until it burned an exhaust valve and I left for graduate school 600 miles from home.

This is Mini #1 off the assembly line, now in a museum.  Mine looked just like it--except for a red grille and silver wheels
with fatter high performance tires on them.  With a stripped-out interior, mine was surprisingly roomy: enough to haul
my stuff back and forth to and from college.  And noisy.  Which didn't bother me then and doesn't much now.  The car
was huge fun on back roads.  It's maximum cruising speed was a bit north of 60 m.p.h.  So it didn't see Interstates.

Since my those days, I've owned some interesting cars (and some real duds).  But none that I enjoyed more than the Mini.   I love to watch them race: 50 years of giant-killing.  Whenever I encounter one in a parking lot (oftener than you might think), it gets a good look-over and a chatted-up owner, if he's around.

The real deal (Mini-Cooper with modern modifications, done in Monte Carlo Rally style and colors.  With a Nordschleiffe
sticker on the trunk.  Seen in St. Hubert, Belgium.  I would have chatted up this owner too, except that he and his pals
spoke only French, and I speak only English.  Mini-mania can be communicated without words, however.  With
pointed fingers, gestures, smiles, and grins.

When I needed a new daily driver in 2009, I didn't consider a New Mini for several reasons, the most important being that it didn't come with four doors.  The Civic Si looked like a good bet because 1) it performed well on my "bang for the buck" spreadsheet 2) my son had had good luck with his Hondas.  I wasn't expecting a Mini feel.  And shouldn't have: the Si weighs twice as much as an Old Mini. Weight is the enemy, as we know.  Air-conditioning, cruise control, electric windows, rorty through-the-gears but quiet cruising...  Any resemblance between Honda's world-class engines and gearboxes, and what B.M.C. did with cast iron back-in-the-day, are purely coincidental.  A real trunk!  Seventeen-inch wheels!  I'd have expected the electric power steering to have far less feel than the Mini's brilliant unassisted rack-and-pinion.

Yet, although the Civic Si is huge compared to a Mini (what isn't?), it feels small and agile.  Steering feel and grip are Mini-like, especially on Michelin Pilot Super Sports.  In a straight line, it goes like a rocket compared to the Mini.  With my limited skills, I've never been comfortable pressing a rear-drive car to or past the limit.  But the Civic Si inspires the same confidence that the Mini did: I've learned to push it into a tight corner hard: slow in, fast out, with the front tires on the limit and a bit more.  Huge fun!  Without fully knowing it, I'd been looking for another Mini for 50 years.  Found one!

1960 Mini: "When I grow up, I want to be a Honda Civic Si."

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