On this day in 1959, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) launches its newest car, the small, affordable–at a price tag of less than $800–Mark I Mini. The diminutive Mini went on to become one of the best-selling British cars in history.
The story behind the Mini began in August 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in response to the American and British decision to withdraw funding for a new dam’s construction due to Egypt’s Communist ties. The international crisis that followed led to fuel shortages and gasoline rationing across Europe. Sir Leonard Lord, head of BMC–formed by the merger of automakers Austin and Morris in 1952–wanted to produce a British alternative to the tiny, fuel-efficient German cars that were cornering the market after the Suez Crisis. He turned to Alec Issigonis, a Turkish immigrant who as chief engineer at Morris Motors had produced the Morris Minor, a teapot-shaped cult favorite that had nonetheless never seriously competed with the Volkswagen “Beetle” or Fiat’s 500 or Cinquecento.
Mini development began in 1957 and took place under a veil of secrecy; the project was known only as ADO (for Austin Drawing Office) 15. After about two and a half years–a relatively short design period–the new car was ready for the approval of Lord, who immediately signed off on its production.
Launched on August 26, 1959, the new front-wheel-drive car was priced at around $800 and marketed under two names: Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor. The two vehicles were the same except for each had a different radiator grille, and by 1962 both were known simply as the Mini. Issigonis’ design, including an engine mounted sideways to take up less space, had created a surprising amount of space for a small-bodied car: At only 10 feet long, the Mini could sit four adults, and had a trunk big enough for a reasonable amount of luggage. With a starting price of around $800, the Mini was truly a “people’s car,” but its popularity transcended class, and it was also used by affluent Londoners as a second car to easily maneuver in city traffic.
By the time production was halted in 2000, 5.3 million Minis had been produced. Around that same time, a panel of 130 international journalists voted the Mini “European Car of the Century.” A high-performance version of the Mini engineered by the race car builder John Cooper had first been released in 1961; known as the Mini Cooper, it became one of the favorites of Mini enthusiasts worldwide. In 2003, the Mini Cooper was updated for a new generation of buyers by the German automaker BMW.