MATTERS OF MOMENT, March 1990

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Mini-Motoring

That so many very up-to-date top performance cars are now on the market is good news for the wealthy, assuming that maximum speeds approaching 200 mph are valid in this age of low speed limits and radar detection. Such cars have other outstanding qualities apart from their full throttle potential, however, and they set standards by which lesser cars can be judged and other designers stimulated.

However in a world where disaster lurks even larger in the form of wars, famine, riots, earthquakes, storms and floods, profits may be harder to come by in the future. Such horrors have to be paid for and with inflation running high the CBI has forecast a possible industrial recession. Such being the case, and not because crude oil is likely to run out in the foreseeable future, global technicians have to consider the need for small, economical cars as well as producing covetable roadburners, just as the late Sir Alec Issigonis did so brilliantly in the face of the Suez Crisis.

His ingenious Mini has survived and still has many followers, although it is strange to see it listed today under “Rover”. It was great fun and an effective competition car in Mini-Cooper form. But a basic Mini now costs nearly £1,000 more than a Citroen 2CV. It needs a face lift, although the very fact that it and the 2CV and Fiat 126 “pop bottles” remain in production is perhaps an indication that leading European manufacturers see a market for such basic transportation.

Basic such cars may be, but it is a fallacy that small means dull! From the very early 1920s when A7s lapped Brooklands at over 70 mph, followed up by a blown Ulster averaging 83.42 mph to win the gruelling 1930 BRDC 500 Mile Race, the potential of tiny engines has been evident. Think back to the enjoyment the Austin Healey Sprite and MG Midget provided and the impressive performances achieved year after year in the Index of Performance category at Le Mans by Monopole, Panhard, DB, 744cc Lotus, Osca and other miniature sports/racing cars. With today’s technology spewing out efficient engines with four poppets per pot, high power per litre is the norm, so small need hardly translate as dull! Issigonis pointed the way to good handling

from small motors with FWD so widely copied since, and already 4WD is available on the compact if scarcely handsome Fiat Panda 4×4. Ride comfort, posing a problem on short wheelbase vehicles in which the ratio of laden/unladen weight is critical, has improved even on tiny cars. Sir Alex Moulton — whom we are amused to see has only just been “discovered” in certain quarters — is continuing the good work he did on the Issigonis Mini and later BMC small cars with his rubber and Hydragas suspension (as MOTOR SPORT described, along with his clever minibikes, very many years ago) with new gas-springing for the overdue Metro RS. It has to be accepted that noise levels in small boxes with small power units cannot be as low as in larger vehicles, although sound damping can work if not wonders, appreciable improvement. A cramped interior need not be a disadvantage to average-sized occupants unless the designer lacks imagination. Issigonis most certainly did not, hence his transverse engine, sump-located gearbox and small wheels of his celebrated “minibric”, a better solution for expeditious parking and traffic jam threading than the long wheelbase small-engined four-seater cars of the past, such as, for instance, Jowett and DKW, the latter with FWD and a two-stroke, two-cylinder transverse engine.

Of all the little cars of the present, only the Caterham Seven is in the true image of such fun machines of former times as the sports A7s, MG Midgets, Triumph Super Sevens and Singer Junior Porlocks, indeed, it is a thought more spartan which may not appeal to everyone. Honda tried those high revving mini-saloons that were great while production lasted. From all the permutations of £100 cars, cyclecars, sporting three-wheelers and various big cars in miniature, and remembering the deluxe versions of standard models, a modern British Mini, as useful, unusual and cheeky as that evolved by Sir Alec in 1959, must surely emerge. Japan sees the need for minimal motoring; Mazda has announced the new Suzuki Alto-based Carol. The Mini was a great breakthrough and has earned excellent prestige for Britain, but is now outdated. The world still requires such cars, sports and utility. Let us hope we don’t get left out in the cold. . . WB