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Six Decades of MINI: The History of an Icon

Six Decades of MINI

The MINI has been called an automotive icon of the 1960s so many times that it has eventually become cliché. Ironically, the aforementioned title is actually too modest. The vehicle’s adoption of the front-wheel-drive layout became revolutionary, and it would become the standard drivetrain in the automotive industry. It has been manufactured uninterrupted for six decades. And the only car The New York Times named as more influential in the 20th century is the Ford Model T. Birthed during an energy crisis, the MINI has since flourished as one of the most popular cars in modern times.


It all began in Britain, which was reeling from the Suez Crisis of 1956. Britain was in a diplomatic and military confrontation with Egypt, which decided to nationalize the Suez Canal. As this waterway was a major conduit for shipping oil, Britain was hit by the shortage and rising cost of fuel. This created a longing for less reliance on the relatively large, gas-guzzling vehicles of the day. In response, Sir Leonard Lord, the president of the British Motor Corporation, appointed engineer Alec Issigonis to come up with a relatively small, fuel-efficient, and affordable four-passenger car.


Issigonis designed a two-door that had its engine pushed sideways to the front and wheels protruding from the corners. Issigonis applied the aforementioned features to create more interior space in a car that didn’t have much of it to begin with. When it was launched as the Mark I in 1959, the reception was immediately positive, and its reasonable price tag made it a brisk seller. Coincidentally, the go-kart stance of the wheels give the car nimble handling, and the transverse engine give it great balance and grip due to keeping weight over the front tires. In 1961, British racer John Cooper modified the Mark I and turned it into the Mini Cooper—with a more powerful engine, larger brakes, and sport-like tuning. Consequently, the Mini became an award-winning rally racer. Throughout the ‘60s—when it was known to the mainstream as the Mark II—the Mini enjoyed a sterling reputation for its unparalleled versatility.


In 1969, the car officially became the MINI, and it would enjoy steadily strong numbers for the next two decades. However, by the 1990s, the MINI needed a rejuvenation, and German luxury automaker BMW was more than glad to provide it. In 1994, BMW bought the Rover Group, which then owned the rights to the MINI; by then the car was known as the Rover Mini. BMW kept the marque even when it sold off Rover, and in 2000 the company revamped the line, offering fresh variations of the Mini while retaining its unique characteristics.


As of 2014, the MINI has sold close to 6 million units worldwide, making it the most popular British car ever made. The car had already reached the 2 million mark by 1969. In 2012, sales of the MINI reached 301,526, the highest numbers since the BMW takeover. The only year in the car’s history that surpasses those numbers is 1971, with a grand total of 318,475. The BMW era has proven to be quite a sales and manufacturing booster, with over a third of the brand’s lifetime production numbers built at the Oxygen plant since 2001.

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