The Mini didn’t make nearly the impression in the United States that it did in Europe, mainly because the idea of tiny cars competing with Detroit iron on the freeways didn’t sound like too safe a proposition. However, on the narrower main roads and tiny lanes of European towns and cities, the Mini quickly won a huge following. To this day, Paris chic still very often includes a classic red and white Mini Cooper, nearly 40 years utter the first introduction of Alec Issigonis’ small wonder. Although (as an Austin Morris Dealer of those days) I had no hesitation in purchasing one for my own use around London, I have to admit I didn’t think much of its competition potential. Early trials with the seriously under-powered 850cc version had most of the Abingdon works’ drivers just hating the handling. Going into a light corner, even at limited speed, provoked huge understeer (which I believe is now referred to as “push”) if you lifted off, which changed into violent oversteer—where the car gets very loose and you tend to fly off backwards!
I stuck with rallying and racing my Sprites, and let the others come to grips with this little box. My own Mini was simply and efficiently tuned by my workshop boss (racing driver Paul Hawkins) and was often borrowed by friends competing in the British Championship Rallies, those whose own cars were being rebuilt or repaired. She even won a couple of events, but not in my hands.
The first serious drive in a Mini came in May of 1960, when Abingdon prepared a prototype Mini-Cooper for me to drive on the Tulip Rally. As a modified version, we were lumped with the GT class, and so were competing with several of my customers in Sprites, and, much to my surprise, we managed to beat them, which might not have been the best advertisement for my Sprite tuning business! It was certainly a completely different technique from sliding ’round in rear-engined cars, where a too-speedy arrival at a sudden corner could be managed with power slides to take off the speed. In Minis, those little front-driven wheels had to scrabble their way around without any lifting of the gas pedal.
One thing that did happen, however, was the influx of all those serious, beady-eyed Scandinavians into rallying. With experience of DKW and Saab front wheel drive, they had developed left-foot braking into an art. With the extra power of the Cooper and then the fabulously successful Cooper S versions, about the only way to get around a tight corner quickly was to keep the power hammered down hard, and to brake with the left foot. Normal braking would lock the front wheels, where all the weight resided, losing traction and steering and resulting in a rapid full-frontal exit through the scenery. By dubbing the foot brake with power on, traction continued, the front end didn’t lock up, but the lightly loaded rear wheels did, enabling the braver drivers to slide around very quickly indeed.
All this was especially important on loose surfaces and on ice—both conditions that were almost the rule in European rallying. As a result, Minis began to storm to the top of the leaderboard, not just in rallies, but also on circuits, where the names of Sir John Whitmore, Paddy Hopkirk, John Rhodes, and several others soon became famous for beating just about everything they competed against. Only on faster circuits with long straights was the Jaguar brigade safe from the Mini attacks. One of the finest races of the time found Vic Elford, Steve McQueen, and Christabel Carlisle virtually dead-heating across the finish line at Brands Hatch after chopping and changing the lead throughout the entire race. I was lucky enough to auction all three of these cars the following week mainly because of the TV and magazine publicity over the race. There was now certainly no doubt that the Mini had arrived.
Rally after rally was won by Abingdon’s un-aerodynamic boxes, culminating with Rauno Aaltonen’s remarkable victory in the year’s International Rally Championship ahead of Porsche, Mercedes, and all the might of Europe’s manufacturers. On the icy Monte Carlo Rally, Paddy Hopkirk took on and beat the works Ford Falcons. With 7-liter Holman and Moody engines and mostly lightweight fiberglass bodywork, they looked untouchable—I know how embarrassing THAT was, as I shared one of these incredible machines and was actually PASSED by Hopkirk over one of the mountain passes.
The only times the Minis were vulnerable was over the rough road events, such as the Liege-Rome-Liege and the Safari, where the very limited ground clearance just made it impossible to keep the cars together. One of my few efforts with a Mini—a works 970cc Cooper S—was on the 1963 Alpine Rally, when we led the class all around this incredible race in the Alps. On the final mountain of the last day, however, the steering column came apart from the rack, and we rolled the little car into the ditch. Luckily, this happened just over the summit of the climb, when we had passed the last of 3,000 foot drops into oblivion—we were sad to lose the prize money, but someone was certainly watching over us on that occasion. The service crew, who passed by shortly afterwards, was able to confirm that the column had not been correctly tightened, so that I was in the clear. Just imagine going back to the factory with a story like that and hear the “Oh yeah, sure…” comments!
Another Mini phenomenon was its attraction to the entertainment world. My workshops were kept very busy building one-offs for the pop stars and actors, who could enjoy great sound systems behind the darkly tinted windows that preserved their anonymity. They sat in luxurious leather Itccaro seats with thick pile carpeting and faced highly polished wooden dashboards loaded with instruments reporting on highly tuned engines. Although they never seemed to leave the Kings Road in London’s Chelsea, I guess they needed the power to lug all the weight of those expensive additions. Stefanie Powers and Ursula Andrews were two of the better-known Mini owners, while recording stars from the Dave Clark Five, The Walker Brothers, Peter and Gordon, and many others enjoyed the fun of parking in tiny spaces with these excellent town cars.
By now, the Cooper S was beginning to be quite popular in California, and our firm was happily engaged in converting U.K. specification cars to left-hand drive for export to the Hollywood dealership. U.S. safety regulations had ruled out the Mini from import after 1967 (mainly because of wind screen size), and only pre-1967s could be shipped over. I was buying up every new car I could find in the U.K. dealerships just to satisfy the demand.
Porsche, Lancia, Ford, and the others were also not prepared to let the Mini’s sporting successes continue, and a new breed of competition cars was developed which took on the Coopers. Those tiny wheels could never handle the power increases that were now needed to take on the limited production specials being produced for motorsport, so the day of the Mini was ending. For an economy production car for the masses, very few models could claim the fantastic successes achieved by Issigonis’ brainchild—but this was still in the days when cars were mainly designed by one gifted man, and not by a committee of the faceless!