1967 Mini-Cooper S
1967 Mini-Cooper S. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

When the British Austin/Morris Mini came on the scene in 1959, it set a new trend in automobile packaging. Its cross-mounted engine and front-drive layout was a brilliant stroke that would set the direction for much of the automotive world.

The Mini was designed in the 1950s by Alec Issigonis, a no-nonsense, autocratic British Motor Corporation engineer. With the Mini, he would be one of the last people to personally create a whole car.

The Mini’s genesis could be traced back to the brief 1956 Middle East war when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the SuezCanal and seemed about to precipitate a full-scale oil shortage.

BMC’s head, Sir Leonard Lord, wanted a really economical car to conserve fuel, and to drive off the streets what he considered those “horrid little bubble cars” like Isettas and Messerschmitts.

Issigonis’s mandate was that everything could be new except the engine, which must be an existing BMC unit. He and his crew went to work and in less than 18 months had a prototype Mini to demonstrate to Sir Leonard. Leonard was delighted and ordered production to begin within a year. The Austin/Morris Mini was introduced to the public in the summer of 1959.

It was a truly novel design, the ultimate in space utilization, comprised as it was of just two boxes: one for the drivetrain and the other for passengers and luggage.

Placing the engine crosswise, sharing the engine sump with the transmission, and driving the front wheels yielded the most compact driveline possible. Tiny 10-inch wheels and rubber cone suspension (later replaced by a more sophisticated interconnected front to rear “Hydrolastic” type) instead of coil springs, encroached very little on interior space.

The result was a car that could carry four passengers and a reasonable amount of luggage within only a 3,048 mm (10 ft) overall length and a 2,032 mm (80 in.) wheelbase. It weighed just 608 kg (1,340 lb), and provided a ride that was, if not plush, at least tolerable.

While Issigonis disdained styling, regarding it as a tool of obsolescence, the Mini nevertheless had a basic, functional cuteness that was appealing almost in spite of itself.

Another attribute was excellent handling. The car’s small size made it very manoeuvrable and easy to park, but the Mini also stuck to the corners like a leech. This soon prompted motoring’s sportier elements to seek more performance than the tiny 848 cc, 37 horsepower engine could provide. It attracted the attention of one John Cooper, an engine tuner and race-car builder who had two Formula 1 constructor’s championships to his credit.

Cooper was an old friend of Issigonis, and while Issigonis was initially cool toward the idea of a faster Mini, he agreed to team up with Cooper to give the Mini more muscle. The result was the Mini-Cooper of 1961 powered by a 55-horsepower, 998 cc twin-carburetor engine that raised top speed from 121 km/h (75 mph) to 137 (85).

The Mini-Cooper delighted the motoring press, turned Issigonis into a performance enthusiast, and found immediate favour with racers and rallyists. It was a car that was so easy to drive quickly that average motorists were soon embarrassing owners of expensive sports cars who found those little gnats extremely difficult to shake off.

Work soon began on building an even faster Mini, and the Mini-Cooper S of 1963 was the result. It was initially intended for competition only, and came in engine displacements of 970, 1071 and 1,275 cc. The S was so good, however, that customer demand dictated that it be offered to the public. The 1,275 cc version became the production model.

The Mini-Cooper S was a sensation. It could be flung around corners, and could, according to Road & Track magazine (11/65), sprint to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 10.5 seconds, and reach a top speed of 158 km/h (98 mph). It became an overnight success in rallying and sedan racing.

The S dominated European rallying until the late ’60s, with Paddy Hopkirk being one of the fastest Mini pilots. Hopkirk was so entranced with the car that he later went into the business of producing rebuilt pre-66s. The name was almost as long as the car: Paddy Hopkirk Mini-Cooper S Works Replica.

The S was also the weapon of choice in sedan racing, cornering at lurid angles while it outran bigger and allegedly faster cars.

With the introduction of the heavier Mark II Mini of 1967, the S lost some of its edge. Also, the competition was getting much stronger by this time.

The Mini-Cooper S continued in production until 1971, and is loved by enthusiasts to this day. These tiny muscle cars are still raced in vintage competition, and they’re still embarrassing those bigger cars. Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the Mini has been revived by its new owner, Germany’s BMW.

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