The last of the round-nosed Minis, built here between 1959 and 1979. This is a special moonlight edition. Picture: SUPPLIED
The last of the round-nosed Minis, built here between 1959 and 1979. This is a special moonlight edition. Picture: SUPPLIED

Nothing prepared you for the first time you saw a Mini, if you happened to be around 60 years ago.

Here was a car so radically unlike anything else that had gone beforet that it was almost as if, with a few strokes of the pen designer Alec Issigonis had reinvented the wheel if not the concept of personalised transport.

Until then, the British Motor Corporation’s small-car portfolio had consisted of the Morris Minor, a sort of grown-up Noddy car that your granny may have specced in the post-war years of petrol rationing and austerity, and the Austin A35, which resembled a sort of mobile teapot.

Here was a tiny box of a car with 80% of its overall size given over to the passenger compartment, about waist high to a Morris or Ford Prefect of the day and with a tiny 10-inch diameter wheel at each of its four corners.

It was launched as the ultimate low-cost British people’s car, and it was so austere it came with rubber mats instead of carpets and perspex sliding side windows instead of glass wind-up items. The starter switch was a rubber button on the floor. There was no dashboard, just one round dial plonked in the middle of a parcel shelf below the windscreen. But the price was right —  the British pound equivalent of R1,050 when it broke cover here in the final month of the 1950s.

The South African launch of the Mini here came just four months after its international launch at the BMC’s Longbridge plant in England. Local Minis were built at the Austin plant in Blackheath on the Cape Flats, and at the McCarthy (Morris) plant in Durban. This was because Austin and Mini were still very much separate brands here, so the first Minis here were launched as the Austin 850 and the Morris Mini Minor. It took a few years (until 1965)  before the name Mini was applied to both brands.

The two cars were identical except for badges and grilles. The Austin 850 (initially listed as an Austin Seven in its first few months of production) had crinkled horizontal radiator grille bars, while the Morris had a grille consisting of straight horizontal bars and two vertical bars. Both used the same 848cc engine mounted transversely, with the gearbox built in unity with the engine, and running on common oil.

An Austin Cooper S with Mk I grille shape. Picture: SUPPLIED
An Austin Cooper S with Mk I grille shape. Picture: SUPPLIED

This transverse engine mounting with front-wheel-drive enabled the tiny nose dimensions of the first-gen Mini, and this car became the template for small front-wheel-drive cars produced by manufacturers all over the world.

The Mini’s significance saw it voted as Number Two in the World Car of the Century competition in 1999 (the winner was Henry Ford’s Model T which effectively put the world on wheels from 1908 to 1927).

The shape of the Mini, its ultra light weight and its front-wheel-drive layout were great at people accommodation, and in fact, you can get more people comfortably seated in the back seat of a first-gen Mini than you can into the (much, much bigger) modern version built by BMW. But what enthusiasts soon discovered about that original model was that it handled and cornered like nothing on earth at the time!

It didn’t take local race drivers long to suss this out, and by February 1960, just two months after launch,  the first Mini was already being raced at the Roy Hesketh track in Pietermaritzburg. Nor did it escape the attention of John Cooper back in England, then the constructor of the reigning world champion Formula One car. By mid-1961 the first Mini Cooper was introduced, sanctioned and built by BMC.

The Mini Cooper, and especially the Cooper S that followed, was a giant killer of massive proportions. This little car could accelerate to 100 km/h in about 12,5 seconds and top out at just under 160 km/h, in its final 1,275cc, 70hp Cooper S form. You could instantly recognise the South African Cooper and Cooper S models by their British Racing Green colour scheme, with a white roof and gold wheels.

A  wonderfully crisp exhaust note, plus snorting induction noise from the dual SU carbs, and even better handling thanks to disc front brakes and slightly wider wheels and tyres, completed the package.

By the time of the Cooper  S introduction here in late 1963, all Mini production had moved to Blackheath in the Western Cape. In SA, 1,071cc and 1,275cc versions of the Cooper S were built, with both Morris and Austin trim detailing. By the time the Mini was upgraded here to Mk II form in late 1968, with squared-off grille and larger tail lights, all Minis had the same grilles, and just the small Morris and Austin badges were different.

The Mini’s agile handling was made for motor sport. It gained immortality with a trio of victories in the Monte Carlo Rally between 1964 and 1967. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Mini’s agile handling was made for motor sport. It gained immortality with a trio of victories in the Monte Carlo Rally between 1964 and 1967. Picture: SUPPLIED

Of course, the Mini Cooper S had already gained immortality with a trio of overall victories in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967. It would have won in 1966 too, but the (French) officials disqualified the factory-entered cars for using the incorrect headlight globes!

SA marched to its own Mini tune in many respects. The original 848cc round nose Minis were produced here in station wagon, van and pick-up form as they were in the UK, but a South African-built engine of 1,000cc was introduced in the mid-1960s, replacing the original 848cc unit. This was the very first locally cast South African engine.

Other SA-specific notables that we produced here included a more expensive Wolseley-nosed Mini that used the original body, whereas in Britain it had a tiny boot. Then SA introduced its own version of the Mini Mk III in late 1969, which had a round-nose front, and the extended boot found only to be found on Riley and Wolseley models in the UK. Another variant we built here, mainly for military use, was the open-bodied Mini Moke (this also built in Britain and elsewhere).

In the early 1970s, the locally built long-nosed Clubman and 1275 GTS models were introduced, while the original round-nosed car continued to be built. In fact, round-nose Minis continued to be built into early 1980, when the final models were sold as special versions, such as the Sunshine Mini, the Moonlight Mini (both with factory sunroofs) and the specially-trimmed Van den Plas Minis, which had wooden dashboards!

The last South African-built Mini rolled off the line in the Cape flats in 1984 after which some 92,000 Minis had been produced here since late 1959. Countless race victories and production car championships had been notched up in a period of over 20 years.

In the UK, Minis continued to be produced well into the 1990s, notably the special Cooper versions.

Here we had a Mini-less hiatus of almost two decades before BMW launched the new, much bigger Mini in 2002. This car (built in the UK) continues the Mini tradition and has been a global success story, mainly because it embraced the core Mini attributes of cute styling and amazing front-wheel-drive “go-kart-like” handling. And today there are again many variants of the Mini you can buy, including the Countryman SUV, which is probably three times the size of an original Mini!

• At the end of this month, SA will be getting in early by celebrating 60 years of the Mini at the Knysna Motor Show on April 28. The following weekend there will be a similar tribute to the Mini at the Simola Hillclimb in Knysna, and Mini enthusiasts from all parts of the country will be making the week-long  pilgrimage to the Garden Route for these events. The official 60th birthday of the Mini will be on August 26.