The Ironmonger's finest

Sex, spies, the Beatles and the Mini: the original minimalist motor car.

They nicknamed it “Sputnik”, did the people charged with the task of designing and building the original Mini car. It was the end of 1957 and the eponymous Russian satellite, the world’s first, had recently been launched. That tells you just how old this car is. They only finally stopped making it in October 2000. Since when, a bloated BMW has called itself MINI, but nobody is fooled: that’s just an estate agents’ runaround. Production of the real Mini started in May 1959. It is thus 50 years old, hence these books.

It lasted so long because its designer, Sir Alec Issigonis, did something revolutionary in response to the bubble-car invasion following the Suez Crisis, first of the big postwar oil-price shocks. He reinvented the car from first principles. He took a standard engine, turned it sideways, stuck the gearbox underneath, and made it drive the front wheels. Those wheels were tiny and pushed right out to the corners. The suspension was a revolutionary space-saving rubber-cone system devised by inventor Alex Moulton. All this meant that a full four-person (five at a pinch) cabin could be fitted into a car just ten feet long and four and a half wide. That – along with its limpet-like roadholding – was what made it special.

It was a big critical success, but as these books recount, it took a while for the public to embrace it and when they did, it was more as a middle-class fashion statement than as a working-class utility car as Issigonis had envisaged. The early Sixties was its time, when the likes of Mary Quant, Lord Snowdon, Peter Sellers and all four Beatles took to them. They, of course had pimped versions. The costly and luxurious Radford Mini “de Ville” was the one the Beatles opted for, very different from Issigonis’s minimalist standard model, though based on the official high-performance Mini Cooper.

Older “creatives” followed the trend: architect Sir Basil Spence, of Coventry Cathedral fame, even gave up his Rolls-Royce in favour of a Mini. Sir Hugh Casson, favoured architect of the royal family, drove one for the rest of his life, declaring that its dimensions provided the perfect one-person bubble of defensible space.

Talking of pimps, it.was inevitably a Mini that was implicated in the Profumo sex scandal of 1963 – the one that almost toppled the Government and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Campbell reminds us of the famous society good-time girl Mandy Rice-Davies – friend of Christine Keeler whose affair with Tory cabinet minister John Profumo had security implications in a Cold War pillow-talk kind of way involving Russian spies. Rice-Davies was in fact a teenage model called Marilyn Davies, who had been plucked from a Birmingham department store to be “Miss Austin”, posing with the new Mini Countryman estate at the London Motor Show of 1960. After all that glamour, young Marilyn was never going to go back to Brum. She became a dancer in Soho and from there a member of the swinging set that, via Keeler, finally did for Profumo – whom, as it happens, Rice-Davies never met. As if to further demonstrate the seamy underside of Swinging London, Rice-Davies succeeded Keeler as the mistress of notorious slum landlord Peter Rachman. If she hadn’t modelled the thoroughly unsexy, half-timbered Mini Countryman, this would never have happened.

Sex is never very far away from any discussion about this remarkable little car. The fact that Profumo was a War Minister who drove a bright red Mini – at a time when big black Rovers were the officially approved ministerial wheels – should have set alarm bells ringing. According to Keeler, one of their encounters took place – improbably and gymnastically – in that very Mini. A Rover would have been more comfortable and discreet, but as generations of students can testify, the Mini – always a frisky drive with an edge of danger – had a way of unleashing the libido.

It must have been hard to be a (presumed) gay engineer in the Midlands in the post-war years, but the brilliant and self-regarding Issigonis was a wonderfully waspish, camp character of Greek-German-British extraction who lived with his Mum at home and was friends with Noel Coward. Somehow it just seems right that some of his sketches for the Mini were done, not at a drawing-board in Longbridge, but on the back of a napkin at a restaurant in Davos, Switzerland. Issigonis was in with a bit of a fast set himself – the social whirl of designers, inventors and artists around the royal golden couple of the day, Snowdon and Margaret. He became the only celebrity British car designer there has ever been.

All of this made him, as Campbell and Garfield point out, strangely untouchable. People were charmed by Issigonis, but also afraid of him. When Issigonis chose simply to ignore an obvious design defect in the Mini that his colleagues spotted and pointed out to him repeatedly, he got his way. As a result the early Minis leaked horribly through their floors. If you drove one in the rain, your feet got soaked. Whoops.

The other well-documented problem with the Mini was that it was over-engineered and under-priced. Every Mini sold lost money – about £30 a car, out of a base price of £350 in 1959. To some extent it was a loss-leader for the rest of the British Motor Corporation range – people were likely to stay with BMC when they traded up – but it was later revealed that the company had only the haziest idea of how to control costs and price its products. Unlike Ford, whose rival product was the bigger, conventional – and highly profitable – Anglia.

Issigonis had a charwoman in mind as his target customer, but the workers preferred Fords, which gave you more metal for your money. The Japanese and Europeans liked it, but it was just too small and unreliable for the Americans, who opted instead for the Volkswagen Beetle. In Britain, the Mini thus became a lifestyle choice for the chattering classes.

Everyone thinks of the classic Mini caper as the first “Italian Job” starring Michael Caine (and Benny Hill, let’s not forget) but in truth, by the time that film was released in 1969 the fashion (and rally-winning) heyday of the Mini was already over. Eclipsed by foreign “superminis” in the 1970s, its long lifespan was helped by its maker British Leyland’s chronic indecision over how best to replace it. Paradoxically, it became profitable in its overpriced final years of endless “special editions”.

Campbell’s book is thorough, a well-researched journalistic effort that is as good at describing the social context of the Mini as it is of the car itself. He tiptoes into the modern BMW MINI era in his final chapter, but rightly assumes we’re not interested much in that. Garfield devotes far too much attention to the current BMW MINI. It may be British-built, but it’s just one of those retro-cars like the new Beetle or the new Fiat 500. That’s not innovation, that’s just marketing. Original small-car thinking is these days done by Toyota.

Garfield’s book is basically a litany of interviews, old and new, in which everyone who has ever had anything to say about the Mini is quoted at length. The selection is good, but your eyes quickly start to glaze. Campbell’s narrative and structure is far better, and that’s the one I’d recommend.

As for the car itself, it could never be built today. It would meet no safety legislation. That’s why Marc Bolan of T-Rex was killed while being driven in one in 1977 (it hit a tree). The fact that a Mini was bungling Mr. Bean’s TV-caper car from 1990 tells you that it had also become frankly ridiculous: Bean is a tall rubbery man in a very small car. Yet in its prime it was glorious. As actress Joanna Lumley remarks in her forward to Campbell’s book, it was “the coolest, grooviest car ever made.”

As it happens, I’ve never driven one. I learned to drive on the very biggest car ever designed by Issigonis, my Dad’s 1800, in luxurious Wolseley guise. Nicknamed the ‘landcrab’, it was the roomiest car in the world: effectively a giant Mini. It didn’t have quite the same impact, though.

Text © Hugh Pearman. Expanded version of review first published in The Sunday Times, 10th May 2009, as: “Small but perfectly formed”. Books reviewed: “Mini: an Intimate Biography” by Christy Campbell (Virgin Books 296 pages hardback, £12.99) and “Mini: the true and secret history of the making of a motorcar” by Simon Garfield, Faber, hardback, 200 pages, £16.99.