Austin Mini Cooper 1974

Gone to Return: How a tiny car from England changed the game in global rallying, went off the stage and suddenly resurrected in Japan.
Once, when talking about the new Mini during the BMW era, we promised to eventually tell the story of the classic Mini. Today, that will not happen again, as today we will talk about something more interesting and significant – the motorsport history of the small hatchback.

In 1958, a tiny front-wheel-drive car was born, with its engine placed not lengthwise as everyone was accustomed to, but transversely. The exceptional design allowed for saving space inside the body through a smaller central tunnel and a flat engine panel. This, in turn, made the car compact in size but progressive from a technological standpoint. The newcomer didn’t have ambitions on the motorsport scene until Mike, son of F1 team owner John Cooper, took notice of the small car. Why not turn this little thing into a real sports car?

Naturally, the son worked on building the car together with his father. John Cooper was far from a minor figure in Formula 1 at the time, so aside from technical ideas, he provided the Mini Cooper with the best test drivers. In 1959, John instructed Roy Salvadori, who competed in F1 with a Cooper T45 chassis, to go to the Italian Grand Prix in a Mini prototype. Along with him, Red Parnell, former F1 driver, rode in an Aston Martin DB4 – a 3.7-liter 220-horsepower sex symbol from the world of sports cars, James Bond’s car with a top speed of 225 km/h. I think it’s unnecessary to explain what happened next – drivers always remain drivers, no matter how much this stereotype is undermined by Niki Lauda. However, the result of the showdown was surprising: the Mini outpaced its prestigious opponent for an hour!
After that, the car was tested by people like Graham Hill, Jack Brabham, and Jim Clark on the Silverstone track, an F1 circuit. Later, when the car became available for purchase, half (if not the whole) F1 paddock got a chance to drive it.

The car came out under the name Mini Cooper and later gained an S version. The first part of the name could be Austin, BMC, or Morris, but that hardly changed anything about the car itself. Initially, the factory engine displacement of 848 cc was increased to 997 cc, gaining an increase from 34 hp to 55 hp. Two SU carburetors were responsible for engine fueling – all according to the laws of the sporting genre of that era. Improved disc brakes were installed on the front axle for efficient braking and additional dynamics were achieved by equipping the transmission with closely spaced gear ratios. Later, the engine was “boosted” to 1071 cc and by the mid-60s, even up to 1.3 liters – with such equipment, the car could be purchased until 1971.

In the early 60s, John actively tested the novelty in rallying. Despite its weak engine, the car actively challenged more powerful but heavier and larger cars, especially on agile narrow tracks. In 1961, the car entered the British Saloon Car Championship – the British championship for circuit racing – and won it! The success was repeated in 1962 and later in 1969 and 1979. A similar championship in Australia was even more interesting, as Cooper dominated from 1962 to 1968, only losing the title in 1965.
But it was the successes on a completely different type of terrain that brought Mini Cooper worldwide fame. The Monte Carlo Rally is like the Formula 1 stage in Monaco, the most grandiose and important race in the entire rally world championship. And it’s the most glamorous race, it must be said, which plays a significant role in the prestige of a particular model. It should be noted that in the 60s, the race results were calculated differently than they are now in WRC or national championships. At that time, a certain sum of points was considered for the time taking into account the weight and power of the car, the absence of violations and so on. Therefore, pure speed was not a guarantee of victory.

In 1962, Finnish driver Rauno Aaltonen was leading in the race but dropped out of contention for victory just 3 km before the finish line. Nevertheless, it was a sensation – a car with a roof located at the level of an adult’s navel challenging Saab, Mercedes-Benz and other global (and not so) manufacturers! In 1963, Aaltonen finally made it to the podium, but only in third place – the car’s potential was proven! Once again, the press’s attention was focused on the tiny car with additional headlights that occupied the entire hood. In 1964, Irishman Paddy Hopkirk led Cooper to a long-awaited victory. Britain rejoiced – a Briton in a British car won Monte Carlo! Fans, the government and even The Beatles (well-known Mini enthusiasts) sent congratulatory letters to the motorsportsman. Paddy humbly spoke of a fortunate combination of circumstances, the favorable combination of front-wheel drive and the car’s suitable track width for narrow roads, but this was just the beginning. In 1965, Finnish driver Timo Makinen on the updated Cooper S broke the bank and won, and in 1966, the entire podium was filled with Minis! Unprecedented excitement and… unprecedented disappointment. Technical inspection discovered that the very same additional headlights installed on the hood did not comply with the competition regulations.

Disqualification, a bitter defeat and a taste of disappointment for the new winners. “The Three Musketeers” – that’s how Hopkirk, Makinen and Aaltonen were dubbed in the press, but one of them had yet to take the top step of the podium. In 1967, Aaltonen rectified this gap in his biography and emerged victorious. The following year, he secured the third spot on the final protocol, giving the classic Mini Cooper its last podium in world rallying. Porsche and more modern cars began to dominate, signaling the transition to the transitional seventies. Makinen also held absolute control over the legendary 1000 Lakes Rally in Finland from 1965 to 1967, which, for a Finn, was even more important than Monte Carlo. During those years, motorsport served as genuine advertising for production cars, mainly because, due to the strict regulations of Group 2, for instance (in which the Mini competed), sports cars closely resembled their city counterparts. And no other car managed to achieve the kind of advertising success that the Mini did. Fan clubs for the small car started appearing worldwide and people adored it, actively using it for amateur and regional competitions. Later, even one-make Mini Cooper Cups emerged as a tribute and an opportunity to race for less money compared to contemporary models.

In 1971, the story of the Mini Cooper came to an end, except for small-scale production under license in France and Spain. The Mini itself continued to live on, actively sold and releasing various “limited editions,” but the Cooper name vanished from the iconic British car. Unexpectedly for everyone and already under the ownership of BMW, a limited batch of Cooper S was released in 1990. The car was slightly less powerful due to environmental regulations and had been redesigned to meet new safety standards. Suddenly, sales of the “new edition” began to rise and the company decided to bring back the old favorite to the assembly line. In 1997, it even had the fortunate opportunity to receive an engine with distributed fuel injection.

Japan and David Bloom, the President of Rover Japan, played a significant role in the sales of the revived Mini. He understood that the car was highly compatible with the essence and content of Japan, despite low previous sales. The calculation was based on the “Tamagotchi factor”: being cute and physically small is attractive. The compact size was just right for Japanese roads. The unique appearance was unconventional and therefore more appealing. Most of the orders were for the MK1 body style with spare tire and wheel arches from Group 2 cars – the same cars that won the Monte Carlo Rally. The Japanese always appreciate unique things and here they got exactly what they wanted. Although true enthusiasts, of course, dismiss modern imitations of the MK1.

In 2000, the classic Mini bid us farewell forever. The new vehicle, developed by BMW experts and marketers, also became quite popular. It received various engines, special editions and even participated in WRC. However, it was not yet ready to compete with the legendary predecessor in terms of iconic status. However, who knows, maybe the classic Mini will make a comeback someday?

The material was worked on by: