Thursday August 22, 2019
My earliest memory of the Mini dates from 1974 when every Thursday a neighbour’s maroon ten-year-old Morris Super De Luxe would transport us to the delights of the Hedge End branch of Fine Fare (‘Jacob’s Cream Crackers – 2p Off!’). In winter, the sliding front windows became almost impossible to open while the best way to operate the heater fan control while wearing a static belt was using one’s left foot. The courtesy lamp resembled a recently awoken glow-worm, and if we were travelling after dark or in the middle of a typical 1970s fog, the flashing indicator stalk would flood the cabin with green light.
Two years later, we gained a Mini of our own, in the highly respectable form of a 1964 Wolseley Hornet Mk. II that allowed us to venture into the jet-set realm of Bitterne High Street. Readers who hail from the Solent region may think I am overly towards a suburb of Southampton that has never made any claims towards thrills or glamour, but in the late 1970s it was a thriving metropolis compared with a Hampshire village. For one, there was a Sainsburys outlet, and the seven-mile journey was made yet more interesting by the sight of a Leyland Atlantean’s front wheel virtually parallel with the top of the driver’s door frame. Even 43 years ago, a Mini seemed incredibly small compared with other traffic.
Meanwhile, a schoolfriend’s mother owned an immaculate Old English White Morris Mini Traveller, and another neighbour ran a very early Mini-Minor. I recall being fascinated by the latter’s floor-mounted starter button, white-faced speedometer and the way the heater box opened to allow warm-ish air to circulate the front of the cabin. In the new “executive” housing estate at the bottom of the lane was a family that owned a fairly new Clubman, which appeared the last word in Mini luxury with its drop windows and “modern” instrumentation,
As for the 1275GT, that was glamour on a par with a new Vauxhall Cavalier GL, not least because a) they were often finished in bright orange and b) they came with “go-faster” stripes. Asides from the occasional sighting at the near-by boatyard the Moke was encountered via a TV re-run of The Jokers starring Michael Crawford and a very on-form Oliver Reed, but the Van and Pick-Ups could be seen virtually every day. There was also a ’63 Austin Cooper S that roamed our village; black over red with a stencilled number-plate and a foglamp on the boot-lid doubling as an after-market reversing light.
I suspect that many people of my age have very similar mental images of the Mini during the 1970s, at which time its status was now that of a car in respectable middle-age. The question as to when the Mini became that overused term a ‘cult’ or, even worse, ‘an icon’ is a complex one, for it was not an instantaneous process on a par with being awarded Car of The Year. It was regarded as a chic Town Car by the “smart set” as early as 1962, an image that was reinforced by an early screen appearance from a Morris Cooper in The Fast Lady. By the time of the release of The Italian Job in June 1969 - and Carry On Camping in with its “hippy” Moke in the previous month - the Mini had not so much arrived as became part of the landscape.
However, in the words of Giles Chapman’s splendid book Mini; 60 Years ‘If the life and times of the Mini in the 1970s are defined by anything, it’s a curious stagnation. The car may have already achieved the status of an automotive national treasure, but rather than respect, it seemed the Mini suffered from apathy’. In February 1975 the Mini became the UK’s best-selling car and the indispensable Aronline - points out that it ‘still managed to outsell the new Ford Fiesta in March 1977’ - but it is also sometimes forgotten how negative the British press were towards the ADO15 as the decade progressed.
My eight-year-old self was quite oblivious to all this, for I was more interested in the facelifted 1000 with its reclining seats, reversing lamps and matt black radiator grille -
Better still, was the 1977 Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special. 1979 was marked by a spate of articles concerning the Mini’s 20th anniversary, but there remained the general feeling that it would go the way of the Minor and the BLMC 1100 come the debut of the Metro in the following year.
Except that the Mini outlasted the Metro/Rover 100 by more than two years, even if during the early 1980s Austin-Rover’s publicity focused more on its new generation of FWD saloons. This was arguably the last period when a City represented everyday transport and a rival to the likes of the FSO 1300 or the Lada 1200 than automotive high fashion. To gaze at the 1982 brochure is to be quite forcibly reminded that it was a time when a lack of a water temperature gauge, head restraints and even fresh air vents was not particularly unusual. The copywriter may have been reduced to citing a ‘heated rear window’ and (best of all) ‘bright hub caps’ as major sales features, but a Mini City still represented a viable alternative to a low-spec Metro or Fiesta.
The last fifteen years of the Mini’s life saw its profile restored to its true eminence, helped by a succession of well-devised “Special Editions” and the revival of the Cooper. The final example departed the factory on the 4th October 2000 by which time the profile of Alec Issigonis’s creation was as instantly recognisable as a K6 telephone box. And for my own favourite Mini memory, it has to be this -
(I’m in the front passenger seat).