Fifty years ago this month, a new small car was launched to the press. In the post-Suez era, the need for a compact and economical offering was seen as critical by both the British Government and BMC, not least because there was a desire verging on compulsion to repel the invasion of the German bubble cars which, perhaps without the greatest justification, were feared to be on the point of swamping our shores. Then BMC boss Leonard Lord instructed Alec Issigonis to prepare a prototype using a pre-existing engine which was duly presented in early 1958. After apparently one hair-raising test drive, Lord commissioned the car on the spot. Twelve months later it was ready.
Even today the Morris Mini-Minor (or Austin Se7en depending on which brand you preferred) can be seen as a packaging miracle, cleverer even than the rather prettier Fiat Nuova 500 that had preceded it into production. Brimming with innovation from its front-wheel-drive layout with its gearbox incorporated into its sump, to its side-mounted radiator and rubber cone suspension, it showed how spatially inefficient even compact cars had been, and threw into stark relief the limitations of the cute but cramped and impractical bubble cars. Claims that four adults could be accommodated in comfort did not, perhaps, withstand the closest scrutiny; such technicalities paled to the point almost of semantics compared to the fact that four could fit on board at all: when you see an elephant paint a picture, you don’t look too closely at the brushwork.
But very little of this, nor even the fact that the boot was hinged at the bottom and the rear numberplate at the top so you could travel legally with the tiny boot overflowing with luggage, explains readily the fact that it would remain in uninterrupted production for the next 41 years.
Its real appeal stemmed rather more simply from the fact that it was implausibly good fun to drive.
Being light of weight and unitary of construction provided an excellent platform for a fine-handling car, and without this basis it is hard to see the BMC management deciding to commit to the works rally programme. Without the tremendous kudos brought by its illustrious competition career, it’s harder still to see how a decade or more after its introduction it could have remained a fashion and film star accessory as well as practical everyday transport.
But if it’s true that nothing succeeds like success, so also was it inevitable that the Mini’s star would wane. In fact perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Mini story, and one that’s little remarked upon, is that it could only be considered a true great for less than a quarter of its life; certainly by the mid-1970s it had started to look distinctly old hat. In a brief and uncharacteristic moment of misplaced loyalty my father bought a 1275GT Mini in 1975 and even I, as rabidly enthusiastic about all things automotive as a 10-year-old ever was, could tell that it was a dreadful heap. Conveniently a nanny soon steered it irretrievably into a Dormobile. He replaced it with an Alfasud and never looked back.
I mention all this now not simply to celebrate the half-centenary of a British motoring legend but also because I’ve been spending quite a lot of time in the company of a brand new car trying harder than any other to be today what the Mini was five decades ago. It’s called the Toyota iQ, and it’s a fantastically clever and capable car.
Like the Mini, it’s brimming with original thought, most notable being the asymmetric cabin where the dash is scooped away in front of the passenger so two six-foot adults can sit in tandem with space to spare despite the fact the car is even shorter than an original Mini. It has super-thin seats, a differential placed ahead of the engine to push the front wheels out to the far corners of the car, and a turning circle better than any car I’ve tried. Nubar Gulbenkian noted that his London taxi would ‘turn on a sixpence – whatever that is’, but the iQ feels like it would drive around the inside of a Polo mint. Almost unbelievably, it makes the still shorter Smart ForTwo feel positively unwieldy in a tight spot. No, you can’t park an iQ nose-in to the pavement, but how many Smart users are actually happy to let others use its body panels as bumpers? Not many in my experience.
And unlike the strictly two-seat Smart, the iQ doesn’t feel out of its depth the moment you venture outside the ring road. Its engine displaces less than a litre so it’s not quick, but it is quiet and comfortable and will keep up with outside lane traffic without apparent effort. Toyota is also clearly targeting those who actively want a small car rather than those who end up with a small car because that’s all they can afford. Even the basic iQ comes with all the electric gadgets without which we appear unable to function these days, while if you want touchscreen satellite navigation and leather upholstery, you just need to tick the appropriate box. But you will pay for the privilege: even the cheapest iQ costs £9295, which is also what you’d pay for the top-spec 1.2-litre version of Ford’s brand new Ka.
And there is one thing neither the Ka, iQ, Smart nor any other similarly small car on sale today can manage, and that is to provide the driver with half as much fun as an original Mini. I went bombing around London in one recently, hurling it into roundabouts, screaming up through the gears only to look at the speedo and discover I had accrued a grand total of 29mph. It mattered not at all: although I was cramped to the point of circulation loss, if you’d drawn up alongside me in your iQ and offered to swap your comfortable driving seat for my contortionist’s box, I’d have laughed in your face before squealing off into the distance at something I’d hope to be appreciably greater than walking pace. Half a century ago these cars taught us it’s not how fast you go, but how much fun you have on the way. Seems a strangely important thing to have forgotten