Little Car, Big Impact
Image: The Guardian
The swinging sixties marked the birth of British pop culture and fashion, and those who had lived through a strict and regimented 1950s were suddenly embraced by a freer way of living. While the Mini was ‘born’ in 1959, it was in the sixties that it really found its identity.
The 1960s was a transformational decade for the motor industry as a whole, spurred by a drastic shift in the way people travelled. The country’s first motorway – the M1 – was built at the start of the sixties, allowing people to venture further than ever before. The industry responded to this by manufacturing cars with power, speed and durability in mind and soon enough, modern cars of the sixties far surpassed the bygone vehicles of post-war Britain. It was the construction of these multiple-lane, fast roads that changed driving forever.
The British motor industry underwent a complete overhaul in the sixties and so did society as a whole. A brand new subculture emerged: the hippies, who embraced a sexual and experimental revolution. And right at the heart of the ‘flower power’ generation were four of the most iconic names in British rock history: John, Paul, George and Ringo – AKA The Beatles. Men began to sport Beatle-inspired mop-tops and suits; women on the other hand looked to icons such as Brigitte Bardot, Mary Quant and Twiggy for inspiration. Of all the fashion pieces to emerge from the sixties, perhaps the most iconic was the daring miniskirt.
The skirt wasn’t the only famous ‘mini’ of the sixties – this was also the decade that the Mini car entered popular culture and became a true British icon. Stars from film, music, fashion and television all wanted to be seen behind the wheel of the Mini, with Steve McQueen, Twiggy and John Lennon all owning one.
The Mini was designed for BMC by Sir Alec Issigonis, who had previously designed the Morris Minor. Issigonis was told to design a car that was smaller than the Minor, but that could use the same engine and could seat four people. Issigonis called himself an ‘engineer’ and despised interior luxuries such as comfortable seats and radios, as he said they distracted the driver.
In 1969, three Mini Cooper S’s bagged the lead roles for the cult class caper film The Italian Job, which was directed by Peter Collinson and starred the one and only Michael Caine. The plot line follows a group of criminals planning and carrying out a gold heist. Their choice of getaway vehicles? Minis. The small and nimble cars were fast, able to negotiate traffic jams and of course looked very, very cool.
The start of the sixties saw the Mini Austin Seven Countryman and the Morris Mini-Traveller enter the market. The 3-door estates featured 848cc engines taken from the Mini saloon models and were designed with ‘barn’ like rear doors. By naming one of the models the ‘Traveller,’ Mini effectively reached out to their target market: active individuals who wanted adventure. Approximately 108,000 Countrymen and 99,000 Travellers were built.
The Mini wasn’t just making a name for itself in popular culture; it also had enormous racing success in the 1960s. In particular, Mini was the star of the Monte Carlo Rally, making its debut in 1960 – just six months after it entered the market.
In 1963, Rauno Aaltonen competed in the Rally racing a Mini Cooper. However, not far into the race he rolled the car and it was engulfed by flames. The car burnt to cinders, but Aaltonen made a lucky escape.
One year later in 1964, Paddy Hopkirk, along with co-driver Henry Liddon, entered the Rally with a Cooper S. Much to the amazement of crowds and competitors alike, the pair drove Mini to its first ever Monte Carlo victory.
Following its win, Mini soon shot to unprecedented fame. Once perceived as a mere compact, inexpensive and reliable means of transport, the Mini evolved to be regarded as the new ‘small man’s sports car.’ John Cooper had successfully turned a small family car into a racing car. The ‘S’ version of the Cooper had a larger engine, more power and faster acceleration than its predecessor, and with this it went on to win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1965 and 1967.
During the sixties, there was no other car on the market that offered the same level of performance for the same value. No car provided such a fantastic driving experience contained within such a small, yet hugely iconic, frame.
Mini in the 1960s: Fun Facts
– In February 1961, racing driver Sterling Moss was caught speeding in a Mini and was banned from driving for one year.
– During the same year, the Morris Minor became the first British car to sell over 1,000,000 units.
– In 1964, a 2.3 litre Mini that featured engines at both ends was put into testing. The car was so quick that development was dropped straight away.
– All four of The Beatles owned a Mini, with George Harrison’s psychedelic model appearing in the 1967 film, the Magical Mystery Tour.
– During the sixties, souped-up Minis were commonly referred to as ‘Ministrones.’