The mighty Mighty Mite

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This car (shown here in its 2000 version) taught the world that small didn’t necessarily mean inadequate and boring.

This car (shown here in its 2000 version) taught the world that small didn’t necessarily mean inadequate and boring.

Don’t let the adorable, cute looks fool you—the Mini Cooper could do anything

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The Mini is many things to many people. Cheap wheels, style icon, racing legend, Bean-mobile. But this quintessentially British automobile would never have achieved its iconic status if not for a Greek refugee, an Egyptian president, hipsters, climate change and, oh, John Cooper.

Designed for the British Motor Corporation by Alec Issigonis, a refugee from the Greco-Turkish war, the Mini was originally sidelined in favor of more mainstream design proposals. But in 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abder Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal, blockading oil shipments bound for Europe, leading to a gasoline shortage in the UK. BMC switched gears, and Issigonis was instructed to complete the Mini, code-named Project ADO15, post-haste.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and Issigonis’s Mini was nothing if not inventive. Body seams and door hinges were placed outside of the car, maximizing interior volume and minimizing construction costs. Sliding windows allowed for ultra-thin door cards. The rear hatch folded downward, like a pickup’s tailgate, for extra utility. A tiny sideways-mounted engine drove the tiny front wheels through a tiny gearbox mounted inside the engine’s oil sump (pan), eliminating intrusive humps in the floor and firewall, and making the Mini massively spacious for its size. While it was hardly the first front-wheel-drive automobile, it set the template for all small cars to follow.

Still, it struggled to find buyers. What everybody wanted, instead, was the larger, more powerful Ford Cortina. And then “Conspicuous Thrift” happened. The grand-daddy-o of “hipsterism,” this fashionable fad meant buying cheap not to save money, but simply to give the appearance of buying cheap. Cheap was in vogue. And nothing was cheaper or more in vogue than the Mini. The Mini’s popularity devastated the micro-car market led by the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller and the Iso Isetta. Everyone from the Royals to the Beatles loved the Mini. Even more important, racers like Graham Hill, Jack Brabham and John Cooper loved it, too.

John Cooper, Formula 1 pioneer and personal friend of Issigonis, saw potential in the Mini. Light weight, a wide track and an innovative rubber-cone suspension gave it go-kart-like handling. John firmed up the handling, added larger brakes and a larger engine, bumping power from 34hp to 55hp. Thus kitted, the “Cooper” was a spectacularly successful little race car, but the best was yet to come.

By the mid-’60s, climate scientists were fretting over issues of global cooling. Global temperatures, which had climbed rapidly until the Second World War, were now rapidly dropping. As such, the wintry conditions at the fabled Monte Carlo Rally of 1963 were so atrocious that most participants didn’t finish. Among those who did were Rauno Altonen and Paddy Hopkirk, coming in third and sixth, respectively, in Cooper’s tiny terrors.

In 1964, Mini introduced a retuned 70hp engine and a driver lineup consisting of Flying Finns Timo Makinen (master of left-foot braking) and Altonen (inventor of left-foot braking), and Irishman Hopkirk (who couldn’t left-foot-brake to save his life). Yet it was Paddy who would win Mini’s first crown, thanks to aggressive driving, excellent “low-profile” Dunlop radials, and the Mini’s ability to navigate the narrow, snow-plowed furrows of the famous Col de Turini mountain pass. Granted, a bit of mathematical handicapping and esoteric scoring helped, but in terms of raw times, Paddy finished just 17 seconds adrift of the certifiably insane Bo Ljungfeldt and his powerful V8 Ford Falcon.

Makinen would claim victory in 1965 with the upgraded 76hp 1,275cc motor, and would lead a dominant Mini 1-2-3 in 1966—a result that so incensed French officials who, after eight hours of furious scrutineering, disqualified all British entries for using non-standard headlights. Mini would have the last laugh, however, with Altonen claiming the marque’s last title in 1967, before ceding supremacy to Porsche’s incredible new 911 the following year.

At this point, however, the Mini was such an integral part of British motoring that it would stay in production for the next four decades, finally retiring only when German manufacturer BMW bought rights to both car and name, with an eye toward producing an all-new one. The new BMW-engineered Mini (which they insist on spelling all caps) is an excellent car in its own right, and a fitting tribute to the original. But sadly, these German Minis have not won a single Monte Carlo Rally.

Well, not yet anyway.

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