Riding on Rubber for 10,000 miles

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Experiences with the Editorial Morris Mini-Minor

ALL cars have rubber between hubs and road. Of course, except those on iron tyres which you only see in museums. This article, however, is about a car which is sprung on rubber, apart from that of its tyres—in other words, the Morris Mini-Minor, brilliant conception of Alec Issigonis, Chief Engineer of the British Motor Corporation.

A great deal of praise has already been bestowed on these remarkable little cars which achieve such spacious interiors with very economical exterior dimensions—multum in parvo—and it is now common knowledge that Issigonis achieves this by setting the 850-c.c. engine across the front of the car with the gearbox underneath it, driving the front castors. This clever layout has been called by Pomeroy the Transverse Triplane Installation, and has proved a boon to self-styled historians who have suggested that Issigonis derived inspiration from the 1902 Schwenke, the Christie f.w.d. racing car of 1905, and the 1911 FD, etc. As a matter of fact, no one seems to have remembered that A.G. Douglas Clease, B.Sc., a journalist, buttoned it up in an article he wrote for The Autocar in 1935, wherein he suggested transverse engine mounting and front wheel drive as a solution to gaining passenger space within the body of a car.

Nor is there anything entirely new about rubber suspension, which was represented in vintage times by The Adams system and in the Harris-Leon-Laisne, Sensaud de Lavard and Bucciali cars (this last having a transverse gearbox and front-drive) and which Dr Lanchester investigated in 1928.

The praise that is due to Alec Issigonis stems from the fact that, in collaboration with Alex Moulton, he has used a completely reliable rubber suspension to provide a remarkably comfortable, pitch-free ride in a very light car, has endowed his mini-car with quite outstanding cornering power, as anyone who has seen them racing at Silverstone, Goodwood and Brands Hatch can testify, and by taking away the mechanical elements has provided deceptively spacious passenger and luggage accommodation, which can only be appreciated by getting into the car. Incidentally, the excellent comparative performance of a Mini-Minor, stemming largely from its phenomenal stability, was demonstrated in the I.O.M. during T.T. week, where officials were converted from scepticism to admiration when the Mini-Minor and Austin Se7en used for opening and closing the course covered the sinuous 37 1/2 miles in 32 minutes, averaging 70 m.p.h. and proving that sports cars are not necessary for this particular task, for which only 40 minutes can be allowed between races.

Motor Sport has already dealt at considerable length with the technical novelties and performance aspects of the B.M.C. babies and I need only describe here how a Morris Mini-Minor has behaved in my hands.

The little car was handed over on November 28th last year and on July 9th the 10.000th mile covered while it has been in my possession came up a couple of miles from the Chelsea fly-over on one of its routine journeys home from London. The car is in standard trinn but has such additional equipment as a water thermometer and Smith’s clock, roof rack, radio. N.S.U. interior thermometer and B.M.C. fire extinguisher. It did not take long to become accustomed to being transported in this tiny tin can and today I never give a thought to the insignificant size of the car. You can be dazzled even by dipped headlamps of approaching cars because you sit so low, puddles can be splashed over the screen because the bonnet is so abbreviated and in a fog the sidelights are so bright that the best thing to do is to stop and put up for the night. Otherwise, there isn’t any suggestion of being in one of the World’s smallest automobiles, nor there any adverse indication that this is a front-wheel-drive vehicle.

The outstanding Inspects of these “minibrics” are unquestionably the excellent top gear performance, which obviates frequent gearshifting, the generally high level of speed and acceleration which enables the driver to compete with instead of impede other cars, and the very high cornering powers, although I see that John R. Bond of Road and Track thinks rear-driven cars can corner faster quoting an A40 which ran round a Mini-Minor at one of our race meetings. ‘Whatever the technical justification for Bond’s assumption, and admitting that the power of the B.M.C. babies in their normal form is insufficient to overcome understeer tyre-scrub on fast corners, there are few cars which are such fun and as safe to fling round open bends. I tend to accelerate mine when a corner approaches, just for the hell of it….

The Lockheed brakes are very powerful, a factor not always enjoyed in very small cars, and have remained a delightful accompaniment to the lively performance over the full 10,000 miles—if they have been adjusted no one has told me. The rear wheels tend to lock in an emergency stop, however, in spite of the Lockheed reducing valve.

The worst feature of the car is the unfortunate gear change. I never was much good at cricket and I am reminded of this youthful deficiency everytime I am obliged to adopt the underhand action necessary when going front second into third. This is uncomfortable and, additionally, a very brutal action is involved if a downward change into second gear is required in a hurry. I don’t care for sliding windows, although they are not as bad as I expected, and the interior finish is crude. The exceedingly generous stowage space inside is a boon, and although early cars leaked mine never did, although it was out in a cloudburst the first day I had it. It was afterwards undersealed, but only as a precaution.

One early irritation was interference with the Smith’s H.M.V. transistor radio when the wipers were working. This cured itself and later B.M.C. rearranged the wiring so that you can listen to the radio without risk of burning out the ignition coil. However, the set has never been free from static while the car is in motion, although I like the speaker location on the rear-window shelf.

A very big shortcoming is that the heater is quite incapable of demisting the windows on a wet day, even with only myself in the car, while the noise of the fan is like a dentist’s drill.

The hinged back windows would be a good idea if the B.M.C. engineers could design toggles that would hold them open against wind pressure! Both windows used to blow shut even at 20 m.p.h. but after I complained they made one stay open—on the side where you have to stop the car and get out to open it ! And, while on a critical note, some people find it disappointing that this f.w.d. vehicle does not have a completely flat floor. This is because the exhaust pipe runs through the central tunnel, which, surprisingly, does not become overheated.

I hear stories of the plugs and distributor being vulnerable to rain but in the heaviest cloudburst, either parked or motoring, the engine has never died from this cause.

Indeed, it has failed once only, with a partial fuel blockage, which B.M.C.’s Holland Park Service Station put right very quickly and where I have always received extremely efficient and courteous treatment.

The early cars were notoriously noisy but Issigonis took mine away and had a new fan fitted.—I haven’t counted the blades but there seem to be quite a lot of them—and then the Interior Silent Travel people put in their sound-damping, which also made the carpets feel luxurious underfoot. The car then became reasonably quiet and this Silent Travel felting is a splendid investment at 95s. The gear train is now the main offender, although the tiny wheels transmit a great deal of noise over certain surfaces, but with a total of Over 11,000 miles on the odometer this gear noise seems to be getting less—or else I am getting acclimatised! Conversely, the stiffness of the gear change does not show perceptible improvement, and third gear still whines unpleasantly. The steering is light and extremely good but the tiny wheels cause sudden minor deviations from the chosen path when they encounter longitudinal ridges or camber in the road. Tyre life is not impressive —tread is now nearly gone from the front tyres although quite a lot remains on the back ones. I would think front-tyre life is at most 14,000 miles, which is a very long way behind the minimum I got from the late-lamented Editorial VW. Moreover, it is a fallacy that the” wheelbarrow ” tyres of a “minibric” cost appreciably less than larger tyres—a replacement sets you back £5 9s. 6d.; a Michelin tyre for a VW costs £7 6s. 0d. These tiny Dunlop Gold Seal tubeless covers have never punctured from the day I set eyes on 634 GWL, however. At first oil consumption seemed heavy but this has settled down to a reasonable oil-thirst. Apart from refills after sump draining, I see that I have put in 10 pints of Castrolite in the 10,000 miles— over the same mileage the VW did not require oil between sump changes. In this mileage sump draining and refilling has accounted for another 27 pints; on a VW it would have represented only 13 1/2 pints. As soon as possible after I had the car I let the petrol tank run dry and I have since put in 211 gallons, equal to an overall petrol consumption of 45 m.p.g. I tried using mixture grades but have gone back to better quality fuels, usually Esso Extra, to obviate pinking.

When our photographer took away the VW I pined for air-cooling but I must confess that through the worst of last winter and the heat of this summer not a drop of water seems to have been lost, and Smith’s Bluecol has proved the complete safeguard against freezing. There is nothing more irritating than an engine which stalls in traffic but the S.U. carburetter has never suffered from this malady. My previous car had its engine in an air-tight box which kept it clean, whereas the Mini-Minor’s engine gets filthy dirty. This does not prevent it from starting very readily and it quickly warms up to a water temperature of 170 deg. F. The interior of the back stowage pockets has come unstuck but I believe this has been eradicated in later cars; the speedometer is commendably steady and I like its transparent needle which leaves the odometer visible but with the left-hand at ten-to-twelve on the wheel speed readings around 30-40 m.p.h. are invisible. Seating is comfortable without being in any way sumptuous. The interior is so roomy the roof rack has been used only once, when I was taking my eldest daughter to London last Easter to catch a boat train for Belgium—although only 14 she has the typical female propensity of taking a great deal of luggage even on short holidays! The luggage boot lid is secured by very frail-looking wire cords but they safely held a one-hundredweight sack of coke which I conveyed home during a coal shortage. The car could do with better interior lighting, although it is good to find that with the headlamps on you can still see faintly what speed you are doing without groping for the unusual facia-lighting switch, while the Lucas headlamps are very powerful, even when dipped, so that I have not added spot-lamps. Sometimes one gets a shock from static electricity when leaving the car.

Perhaps it should be emphasised that. this particular ”minibric” has not been pampered in any way whatsoever. It stands in the open day and night— I prefer to keep the garage for vintage cars— it has had adequate but minimum servicing front B.M.C., often at mileages considerably beyond those prescribed, and I have been too busy—or too lazy—ever to clean or even grease this fascinating little motor car. Thus I blame myself for considerable rusting of the roof-rack….

I have often maintained that a car, even a cheap one. should run 10,000 miles without serious trouble. This the Mini-Minor has achieved, with the proviso that on three mornings, following an idle week, it had to be push-started. This was due to a discharged battery but after I had topped this up no more trouble was experienced. Possibly this unfortunate product of Joseph Lucas never had been topped-up, for it. is very awkwardly placed under the floor of the boot. If so, I think it can be excused. When I took over the car for a twelve-month road-test it had run 1,627 miles and now, with 11,627 miles behind it, the faults experienced have been minor ones. Occasionally the starter button top comes off and has to be put back, the speedometer lamp has failed, the o/s front direction flasher went out, causing the rear flasher to work overtime, a stop-lamp bulb has had to be replaced once or twice, the trim has fallen off a front door pocket, the horn has had to be replaced, the clock has required attention and the window catches have come adrift—mainly troubles with electrical equipment not made by Morris Motors.

For a car Which has been driven hard, the speedometer needle usually between 60 and 70 m.p.h., and neglected, I think this is an excellent record, especially for a full four-seater which sells for the equivalent of less than £100 in terms of pre-war values and yet is so amusing to drive that the leading Grand Prix drivers enthuse over it.

The Mini-Minor is no luxury vehicle but I like small cars’ and so this does not trouble me unduly, although I confess to missing VW  and finish. Against this, I derive very genuine enjoyment front driving this dependable economy car, although I shall be glad to go back to a decent gear change. (I gather that the yellow “sputnik” prototype had a steering-column change and that remote-control levers were tried but were ruled out by Price rather than Issigonis as they are not easy to arrange.).

I also admit that nothing will make me enthuse over the minibric’s appearance—walk round it and it seems uglier and uglier, the size of the steering wheel being the last straw! These B.M.C. minicars are every bit as much fun, however, as were Austin Ulsters and M.G. Midgets thirty years ago, especially if hotted up: in fact, how amusing it would he to keep two of them, a tuned one for competition or long journeys, a normal one for going to the post—if your wife had been especially considerate to you it would be possible to lend her the “hot” one next day as a reward. The Mini-Minor and its companion Austin 850 are fulfilling the same function today as the original Austin Seven did so ably from 1923 to 1938 and these B.M.C. minicars are unquestionably the best of the very small cars.

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