It’s not hard to find Minis in Britain. The place is practically crawling with them. I however, was looking for an old Mini, one built way back in the sixties or seventies. It would join the Series Land Rover and Rolls Royce Silver Shadow to round out my “Holy Trinity” of quintessential British cars- of vehicles that define the United Kingdom as completely as tea and taxing foreign lands without permission (which were occasionally the same thing, come to think of it). This proved to be a decidedly more difficult task, but I am happy to report that I finally found one. In Germany.
This is a 1968 Mini MkIII. Would you like to hear the story of how I know that? I know you do. It’s a good’un. Alright I’ll tell you, you persuasive little voice in my brain. The car we now call the Mini was introduced in 1959 and ceased production in 2000. That’s right, the original Mini was sold continuously, with minimal updates, for over forty years (sidebar: the modern Mini (MINI, technically) is owned by BMW and shares pretty much nothing with the original car). This kind of consistency over a long period of time makes it quite difficult to pin down exactly which era any given Mini is from, which means we have to delve into minutia. Big time.
The whole idea of the Mini was born out of the Suez Crisis, which drove up the price of oil, drove down the sales of big cars, and drove, um, forward the need for a cheap, clever economy car. In 1956, a small team of designers and engineers at the British Motor Corporation began work on transverse engined, front wheel drive and incredibly compact little runabout. Who was on the team? Good question, voice in my head. Man, you’re persistent. The most prominent member on the team was one Alec Issigonis, who we’ve met before. There was also a guy named Jack Daniels. I don’t know what his role was, but I hope it was “comical drunkard.” Anything else seems wrong.
The car went on sale in 1959 under two different names: the Morris Mini Minor and the Austin Seven. These cars came to be known collectively as the MkI Minis in spite of never officially bearing that name. Kind of like how before World War II people called World War I “The Great War,” which I always thought of as a bit of an oxymoron. This is a MkIII Mini, which you can distinguish from the MkI and MkII cars for having no exterior door hinges, and roll-up windows instead of sliding ones. It’s also badged as a Mini, instead of an Austin or Morris, which was also a change that came along with the MkIII. Whoever the owner of this particular car is must be in the process of modifying it, because this car has the MkI’s ovular tailights, which are in contrast to its successors’ rectangular ones, and the grille off of an early MkII car. See what I mean when I said minutia? I know it’s nerdy, voice-that-is-one-with-mine, you’re just going to have to bear with me. And yes, I did get a haircut, thanks for noticing.
You had three engine choices if you wanted a MkIII: an 848cc, a 998cc, or a 1275cc if you opted for the sporty “Cooper S” version. All were mounted transversely, making 80% of the car’s length available for up to four adult passengers, and all were mated to a four speed manual gearbox. The Mini was always intended to be a “bare bones” sort of car, so luxuries were scarce. Truth be told, it was actually quite the uncomfortable little commuter car. The steering wheel was mounted steeply, so it felt like you were driving a bus, and the whole ensemble rode harshly and was noisy at speed.
Don’t go thinking this is a just a passing novelty though. After all, the plucky Brits sold over 5.3 million of these things by the end of the last century, so they must’ve been doing something right. The Mini was a triumph of packaging, mostly down to that transverse engine layout. It’s really easy to imagine this car as one of those over-excitable little dogs that wets itself with sheer joy whenever you walk through the door after a long day. It wasn’t very powerful, it wasn’t very comfortable, but one thing it did have was a personality. Because it was so simple and so small, the Mini was very light, and therefore what auto journalists like to call “chuckable.” There aren’t many cars that mix deceptive practicality with the ability to plaster a dumb grin on any driver’s face, but the Mini is one of those cars. At least, that’s what the voice in my head keeps yelling. Should I call someone about this?
- The first prototype for the Mini was nicknamed “The Orange Box,” because I’m guessing, and I know this is a real leap here, it was painted orange.
- The whole Mini project was conceived, designed, and built in two and a half years.
- A Mini won at Monte Carlo in 1964, 1965 and 1967, which should set any lingering doubters straight. The driver at the time was the brilliant, and brilliantly named, Paddy Hopkirk.
- The Mini’s perhaps most famous movie appearance was in the 1969 film The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. It’s a phenomenal and surprisingly funny movie, and it features one of the greatest car chases ever filmed.