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Letter From The UK: Mini Seasons Ago

Letter from the UK

After the tragedy of the Second World War many things changed. It was as if a global decision had been made to change the attitude of living in the past and instead, embrace a brave new world. So it was that in Britain; the crooners and balladeers of the early 1950’s gave way to pioneer rock and roll stars, and the boss at the antiquated British Motor Corporation demanded Great Britain should have its own ‘miniature’ to rival the ‘bubble’ car from Germany.

The Mini Is Born

Thus it came to pass that a chap called Alec Issigonis stood up in the meeting (I’m surmising here) and said, “I say you chaps; what if we turn the engine around sideways?” In 1959, sales of the diminutive Austin/Morris Mini began. It was an instant success. Never before or since has a car so grabbed the attention of the public.

The last time I bothered to look it up, there were just over 8,000 original Minis still driving around the ruined roads of Britain. The beloved diminutive motor continues to cast its spell fifty and more years on (as do the ‘Swinging Sixties’ in which the car played such an iconic role) but the latest versions, great though they are in many ways, can’t match the simplicity and sheer joy of the original.

Open the hood of the latest model and you will be none the wiser. Open the hood of an original Mini and you’ll find a completely basic, BMC ‘A’ Series engine mounted transversely. Anyone can fix it and anyone did.

As with everything in life, we have to move forward but not necessarily when that which follows isn’t as good as that which has passed. This is why the ancient wrinkly rock bands of the sixties and seventies can still pull huge audiences despite being delivered to the venue in private ambulances.

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Photo: BMW Group.

My Generation

Just when we thought the Mini had finally faded into history, along came a German brand called BMW who bought the name and resurrected the vehicle, but it is simply not the same. Mini has become something different to a new generation.

The original cars continue to be celebrated in annual events like the Riviera Run (that’s the UK’s Cornish Riviera by the way, like the French Riviera only without the glamour, international fame, cuisine, film festivals, and glorious weather) but sadly every year, like old soldiers on memorial days, there are fewer and fewer. One day none will turn up and another legend will truly fade into history like anything else long forgotten.

There is a certain Teutonic thoroughness to the BMW Mini at odds with the uncertain beginnings from way back in the 1950’s. Build quality is certainly way better but merely keeping a label and a center round dashboard binnacle doesn’t instill within the car that sense of fun, excitement, and adventure the original generated. Along with the miniskirt, certain natural products and unnatural chemicals and music that has never been transcended, it sums up a youth generation who chose to wear flowers in their hair.

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Photo: BMW Group.

Good Old Days

The Mini of today might, in many ways, be a technological marvel but when all is said and done, it is just another generic product, built in multiple variants, to satisfy a section of the automobile market. It may sell well but it is not a proper Mini. For a start, the new car is, by comparison, huge. Back in the olden days of yore, if you wanted a ‘big’ Mini, you bought an Austin Maxi and the selection of that name sums up the total amount of thought that went into the car. Also with a transverse engine, the Maxi was so awful it rightfully earned the sobriquet ‘Land Crab.’

To most people, history is just old stuff that has already happened. They probably don’t give a thought to that little gem of motoring mastery, that rally winner, that little beginner’s love nest that was at the heart of a much safer and more vibrant society. For the most part, we should look forward to the future but there are some things that can never be improved upon. Groovy baby.

Geoff Maxted is a motoring writer, photographer, and author of our Letter From The UK series. Follow his work on Twitter: @DriveWrite

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Photo: BMW Group.