The Mini Revisited
We look at two of the Mini derivatives, 16 years on.
It feels only like yesterday that Issigonis’s little, rubber-suspended steel boxes tumbled on to an amused, disbelieving world, yet this autumn marks sixteen years of Mini production. Such a totally new concept in 1959 could either have met with stark unacceptanee by the general public or become an overwhelming success. As we all know, the latter happened and the Mini in its various guises became one of the most popular vehicles in the world, a classless, cult car. It dominated rallying and saloon car racing for years, influenced several generations of passenger cars from other manufacturers and continues to sell in huge quantities. In essence the Mini has changed little since the first 850 MiniMinors and Austin Sevens came off the line all those years ago, so to see how the recipe has survived the test of time we borrowed the current Mini 850 and its top-of-the-range big brother, the 1275 GT. In between there are available a 1,000 c.c. version of the “old shape” Mini, the 1000 c.c. Clubman (same body as the 1275 GT), a Clubman Estate and those useful little Mini-Vans and PickUps, now with 1,000 c.c. engines.
The Mini 850—Smoother than Big Brother? IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to be unemotional when discussing the Leyland Mini. For most of us it has played too large a part in motoring existence to feel totally objective when reporting Mini progress. For this look at the basic 850 model, I was able to draw on my own experiences with not only the test car, but also the many other examples that have passed through mine, and I’m sure many readers’ hands, since the Issigonis brainwave was first sold to the public in 1959. Of course the 850 is just part of the Mini story and it makes one dizzy to recall all the derivatives, even of the humblest model in the range. Remember the Mini Moke and the flat-back pick-up? or the cheap vans that some of the enterprising camouflaged in the standard grey or green, whilst running the nearest thing to racing Cooper S mechanicals
beneath? Then there were those ghastly “beaks” and finned hoots for the WolSeley and Riley models.
In some ways I am surprised that the 850 ever survived all these years, for it cannot Cost any more to make the 1000. I vividly remember my first task as a motoring journalist was to visit Sussex to drive the Cooper S-type Mokes, then being run by Players No. 6 for an autocross series. I proudly took my 1965, C-registered, hydrolastic, 850 along for the ride. Some vandals had wreaked havoc with the engine under the pretence of extracting extra performance via a new manifold and carburetter, the latter jetted so weak that it was to BMC’s eternal credit that the pistons didn’t burn to a frazzle. The day was a very sporting one, with Derek Bell displaying that his then-potential in F3 could be well exploited taking I() seconds off the times of a motley journalist turn-out. Truly inspired on my way home I espied a shiny Mini closing gradually with my -tuned” mount from the rear. Despite my desperate cornering manoeuvres of the “will she, won’t she? ” variety the immaculate press demonstrator was delayed only a kw moments before it swept by .. . the humiliation, and on my home patch!
Later on I used my 850 to commute from Horsham to London every day, and the service (I was usually accompanied by two or three passengers) provided fabulous tuition in the subtle arts of cornering without scrubbing away hard-won speed.
Nowadays, Mini pilots have the luxury of an extra 3 b.h.p. than used to be offered. Now there’s gross 37 b.h.p. at 5,500 r.p.m. (33 DIN h.h.p.) and a maximum gross torque value of 43 lb. ft. at 2,800 r.p.m. Apparently, according to Leyland figures, the 1000 model offers another 3 gross b.h.p., or 6 extra DIN horses. A single HS4 SU carburetter, all iron push-rod construction, and three bearings, remain resolutely unsophisticated, but extremely efficient in providing what the majority of customers need in an economy car: docility and economy.
One thing that the Mini has always provided, as a kind of economy motoring bonus, is the sheer fun of swift cornering. For the 1965 model year the “wet” hydrolastic units were adopted on all hut the van and estate derivatives, but that lasted only a few years before the re-adoption of the clever Moulton. patented rubber cones used to this day. Our test car came on Goodyear 145 radials.
Inside there have been the most obvious changes. Now there’s the former Mini-Cooper remote control gear-change (synchromesh on first since 1967) and wind-up vvindows. Today, the rocker switches for wipers and lights, plus the arrival of the turn-key ignition and starter on the steering column, reflect the passage of time since 1959, as does the column toggle that tackles headlamp flashing, the horn and winkers. That large central speedometer dominates the plain dashpanel as before, but no longer can its often unreliable indications of speed be viewed at night by the help of the little green light, which used to flash with the winkers.
I find the wind-up windows have only ont positive advantage, they don’t leave those strips of window-runner felt to rot in the rain, as did the old sliders. Against that I regret the loss of the door parcel bins and find myself unreasonably annoyed by the squirts of air admitted by a partially wounddown pane: I can only cope with the window fully up or down. Compared to the air-bag equipped 1275 GT, I decided that I would rather do without fresh air ventilation, even in our torrid Summer, if it meant coping with the terrifying banshee wails admitted through the passenger-side vent. On the ventilation side, I missed the old opening rear windows, though they are present on more expensive Minis. I found that 73 m.p.h. and 5,000 r.p.m. were a reasonable pace at which to hold tM Mini in the hectic morning scramble along the M4, but it was astonishing how often the little box bounced its way up to indicated
speeds of over 80 m.p.h. I didn’t match my previous model’s achievement of pushing the needle up to the middle of the fuel gauge, but then I didn’t break the crankshaft either, which was the fate meted out to my first Mini, after just such an episode. Driven at 50-60 m.p.h. I found that the Mini still gives a very good account of itself in the kind of British lanes that Seem a natural home for such a chirpy littlecharacter. The steering is still a delight, but Father Time has caught up with the rather ragged drum brakes, which are of 7 inch diameter all round. Twin leading shoes on the front drums can seemingly get out of phase and the car can dart unexpectedly under heavy braking.
It would be nice to have the reassurance of decent seating. The latter is, and was, the most frequently criticised aspect of the Mini and, because rivals the like of the Renault R5 now exist, it seems to have got progressively worse over the years . . . and there’s still no catch to keep the frame on the floor.
Current 850 Minis, and all those models with the 1. suffix on the engine bay number, have distributors-adjusted for low octane (2 star) fuel as well as the slight power bonus reported earlier. I found my average consumption was 37-39 m.p.g., but 1 am sure that 42-46 m.p.g. must be more representative a the majority in use outside London.
I enjoyed revisiting the Mini, but I don’t think that it has advanced sufficiently with the times. T1,e old faults—noise, crude finish and lack of luggage space—are still present and I think that the foreign imitator’s of Issigonis’ principles have reaped greater rewards in producing cars more suited to the 1970s. I am sure there’s a good market for the Mini, but not for me at the current price of 1,298.—J.W.
The 1275 GT—An Emasculated S?
THE Mini’s astonishing cornering capabilities —way beyond exploration with the original 850 engine—led naturally enough to the highperformance derivatives sired by John Cooper, beginning with the long-stroke 997-c.c. MiniCooper introduced in 1961 (the later 998 Cooper had a shorter stroke), followed by the 1,071-c.c. Mini-Cooper S and culminating in the lusty I,275-c.c. Mini-Cooper S. There was also a short-stroke 970-c.c. Cooper S produced for competition homologation. Since the Mini-Cooper and Cooper S were discontinued—the former in November 1969, When the 1275 GT was announced, the latter in July 1971—British Leyland’s answer for the Mini-man requiring extra performance has been the 1275 GT, a totally emasculated Copper S fitted with the “cooking”, 1,275 c.c., single l in. SU-carburetted (all the Coopers had twin
in. SUS) engine from the Austin/Morris 1300. And, insults of insults, the 1275 GT has the unnecessary, square-shaped, five-inch longer, Clubman nose. Since 1969 the 1275 GT, with side-winder give-away along the sills, has changed little in appearance, but there have been several significant specification changes along the way. Early models had a 3.7:1 final drive ratio, which made the things as buzzy as demented bees; the Cooper S’s 3.4:1 final drive was soon adopted. Like the other Mini models later 1275 GTs switched from their Sloppy hydrolastic suspension (never at its
best in this application) to the original “dry”, rubber-cone suspension. Major revisions for the 1974 model year included a switch from 10 in. to 12 in. wheels shod with low profile 145/70 SR-12 radial tyres, enabling the adoption of 8.4 in. instead •of 7.5 in. disc brakes (a modification the Cooper S cried out for) and, at long last, the fitting of a larger, 7.5-gallon fuel tank. Dunlop Denovo tyres and wheels are optional—the test car had the cenventional SP Sports. My own Mini experiences in the Sixties started with a 997-c.c. Mini-Cooper, followed by a Harry Ratcliffe-tuned 1071 Cooper S: I still believe that a smooth 1071, modified to give more power than the standard 1275 S engine, was the best road-going engine of the lot. I drove works Cooper Ss when working at Abingdon before the Escort took the limelight and in subsequent jobs must have tried practically every type of “hairy” —or ordinary—Mini conceived, including Gordon Allen’s 16-valve, twin-cam racer. It’s been a long, fun-filled, sometimes painful romance between the Mini and me, hut, like
the Mini, I have grown older and the noisy, rough, road test 1275 GT has finally ended the affair.
But perhaps maturity isn’t the true cause of our rift. The problem with the 1275 GT is that it tries very hard to be something which it isn’t: it has all the noise, vibration and harshness of the Cooper S without the scintillating performance which made that magical model so tolerable. The 70.61 mm. bore x 81.28 mm. stroke engine, which lacks the large journals and nitrided crankshaft of the S, produces a mere 58.7 b.h.p. gross at 5,300 r.p.m. compared with the 76 b.h.p. at 5,800 r.p.m. of the old 1275 S. Indeed it has less than 4 b.h.p. more than the original 997 Cooper—and almost an extra 1 cwt. to drag along. That slab of a bonnet removes some of the feeling of compactness and agility of the standard Mini body— and accessibility is not much better than I achieved on my Minis with a quick-release grille. The removal of the external door hinges means four corrosion points less, but the vulnerable body seams remain. Penny-pinching has resulted in tinny, shoddy over-centre catches on the opening rear side-windows, which refused to stay open (the old ones were of good quality and effective). The afterthought instrument console slung in front of the driver at least has a tachometer. In common with J.Y. I abhor the deletion of those useful door pockets to enable wind-up windows to be fitted and prefer the old sliding windows for the controllable, draught-free ventilation they allowed, Facia butterfly air-vents are fated in the GT, but they are not backed up by extractor vents and the noise they make when open is terrible. A heated rear screen is standard. My body soon acclimatised itself again to its old Mini driving posture, but why, after all these years, have British Leyland failed to lower the steering column? Thank goodness for those lowering brackets available from accessory shops. The leather-covered, three-spoke steering wheel is a much more manageable size than the original Mini wheel. Seats in the 1275 GT are better padded and trimmed than ordinary Minis but, without an adjustable back-rest (an appalling omission at the car’s current laughable £1,635 price), not much more comfortable. With the encroachment of
the 71 gallon tank, the boot has become a joke. Excessive understeer gives away the age of this trend-setting, front-wheel-drive layout— much less pronounced in modern layouts. But on the whole the handling remains quite incredible and enormous fun, much better on its “dry” suspension than it was on hydrolastic. Compared with something like the Renault 5, the choppy ride is abysmal. Traction is much improved with the bigger wheels and less wheelspin and greater rolling radius should vastly improve tyre wear—I used to get as little as 3,000 road miles from front tyres on my Cooper S. In town the agility remains remarkable, though the steering feels less precise on these bigger wheels and the straight-line stability poorer. However, my biggest criticisms remain the lumpiness and noise of that long-stroke engine, coupled with a lack of power and response. Consumption, driven hard, was a hit over 30 m.p.g., maximum speed 87 m.p.h. and
about pt. of oil was used in 800 miles or so before this rough engine example ran its bearings on the fourth lap of the outer perimeter of a steering pad . . . For me, the much more spartan, hut smoother, quieter 850 c.c. Mini, was a happier package.—C.R.