Tuesday, February 9, 1999 Published at 17:28 GMT
The might of the Mini
By Rebecca Thomas and Liz Doig
When the first Mini rolled off the production line in 1959 it was met by a surprised and sceptical public.
Movie-goers knew that Americans drove cars as big as whales - and in that post-war era, the American lifestyle represented progress.
In Britain, however, rationing was still in effect - and then the Suez crisis of 1956 threatened to stem supplies of oil.
Car manufacturers smelled danger - and set their design teams the task of coming up with fuel-efficient automobiles.
With petrol in short supply, the roads had already seen energy-saving bubble cars from Germany.
Sir Alec Issigonis, the brains behind the Morris Minor, was asked by the British Motor Corporation to build a Mini Minor to chase them away. The "minor" was later dropped.
Now 40 years on it is acknowledged as both a classic and a national treasure - and has been copied by every small car manufacturer ever since.
The location is fitting: the Mini is an ergonomic marvel.
It is small on the outside but big on the inside. It handles like a racing car yet costs a fraction of the price.
John Cutler, a member of the original design team, told BBC News Online: "The designs originated from putting seats on the shop floor.
"Then we got all sorts of people to sit on them - secretaries from the offices, 6ft manual workers - and we got them to indicate what space they needed in the car.
"We measured how much space would be needed to open a map, where a pocket would be needed to stow the map. It is a very ergonomic car."
As a result, more than five million of the little motors have been sold in the past four decades. There are more than 100 Mini owner clubs and countless magazines.
Issigonis called it "wizardry on wheels", and before his death in 1988, he said: "I thought we had to do something better than the bubble cars.
"I thought we should make a very small car for the housewife that was economical to run with lots of shopping space inside which didn't need a big boot."
The result was a car in which 80% of the space was for passengers. It even had hollowed out door pockets and wicker baskets under the seat.
Mr Cutler said: "The principle was to come up with the bare basics for a car, without ostentation, whilst maximising the space available, and making it as fuel-efficient as possible.
"One of Issigonis's peeves about American cars was the thickness of their doors. He used to say that you could build a whole car out of the metal they used for one door.
"He was very insistent that the Mini should have thinner, and therefore lighter, doors."
No overnight success
But despite being nippy, easy to manoeuvre - and cheap at £497 - the car proved to be too much ahead of its time.
A mere 8,000 were sold its first year. It needed BMC's publicity department to give Minis away to celebrities to make the man on the street take notice.
Influential 60s fashion designer Mary Quant said of her Mini: "It was my first car and I was very proud of. It was black with black leather seats - a handbag on wheels. Flirty, fun and exciting, it went exactly with the miniskirt."
But, the Mini's real break came in 1961 when the racing car builder John Cooper built his souped-up Mini Cooper.
It was the first British car to win the European Car Championship plus the Monte Carlo Rally three times. And at a street price of £680 the Cooper was a massive hit.
One of the family
A multitude of derivatives followed from luminous vans to the al fresco Mini Moke. The elegant Elf had panache. While the Hornet, with its wood, leather and chrome grills, was in a class of its own.
There have been 28 limited and special editions sporting a variety of exotic names from the Ritz to the Equinox. All too have had special features from leather steering wheels to velvet seats.
In 1968, BMC became British Leyland which tried unsuccessfully to axe the Mini. Later in 1980 it brought in the hatchback Mini Metro to supplant it.
Nonetheless the Mini continues. And although its current maker Rover is considering its future, it says it will continue making it until 2000 when it launches the new design.
The new model has been described by Chris Rosamond
But with the Japanese and Americans readily paying more than £20,000 for a classic Mini, it has a hard act to follow.
Mini: 40 Years of a Design Icon is at London's Design Museum until 9 May 1999.