This review is, I feel, going to be slightly superfluous because is there anyone who hasn’t driven a Mini of some sort at least once? However this Mini is slightly special in that it’s an early one, being built in March 1960 six months after the start of production. It can be considered Genesis for the Mini and in many ways the modern small car.
First impression? It’s really, really small! Well, durrr, the clue’s in the name, but it does warrant thinking about. The Mini is such a familiar sight that it’s sheer genius goes unnoticed. It’s a car that can take four people and a lot of luggage in bodyshell only just over 3 metres long. Given the continual trend to make cars bigger both in size and styling this is all the more noticeable when you see the car next to a modern supermini. It also disguises how odd the Mini looks when you think about it, especially in comparison to the conventional cars of 1959. The transverse engine and the tiny wheels at each corner, coupled to Alec Issigonis’ ruthless function-leads-form design principles result in a squat, pug-nosed little car. The fancy Austin grille on this one only emphasises the car’s relative width and functional looks (the plainer pressed-steel Morris grille looks better in my opinion). This being a Mk1 Mini the door hinges are on the outside, along with the panel seams. It’s unconventional but, coming from someone who was born nearly 30 years after the car was launched it’s impossible to objectively descrive the looks- it’s just ‘a Mini’.
The doors open and shut with all the sturdily-built finesse of a dustbin lid, but once inside the thing that makes the biggest impact is the sheer amount of space. ‘Tardis-like’ is an overused term but nothing else can really do justice to how uncluttered and airy such a small cabin can be. The Austin is especially blessed in this department because it lacks the thicker seats, padded dashboard, chunkier steering wheel and bigger instrument clusters that gradually found their way onto the later versions and gradually ate up the cabin space.
In this early example the thin door trim cards are stapled directly onto the inside face of the door’s outer skin. This leaves a nice big recess in the door structure to give the driver somewhere to put his elbow and allows the fitting of deep pockets on each door to fill with odds and ends. In fact they’re specifically designed to hold six bottles of Gordon’s Gin upright since that was one of Alec Issigonis’ favourite tipples.
The interior is an exercise in industrial design. The Austin’s interior is sparsely equipped but gives the impression of someone having taken the time to design it. The whole cabin is trimmed in cream and light grey vinyl with lots of painted tinwork trimmed with chrome. The big single dial resembles the tuning dial of a Bush valve radio whilst a neat little round-edged panel underneath it holds the switches and other controls, all five of them. The cabin is full of practical but enjoyable touches like the a lights set into the speedo which bathe the front of the cabin in a dim orange glow at night, the Bakelite rubbish bin held down by rubber sandbags or the indicator stalk with the green warning light built into the end.
The driving position itself is different to most cars. To maximise interior space and keep the overall length down the steering column is as vertical as possible so the steering wheel is angled like that of a bus. No seat belts in this one so it’s a case of turning the key and…nothing happens. That’s because the starter is a button on the floor down next to the handbrake.
The engine is the 848cc version of the immortal BMC A-Series. The whole point of the Mini was to be a proper car in minature and this is a proper engine in minature as well. No opposed piston air cooled, hemi head, all alloy foreign nonsense here. It’s made of iron, it has four cylinders arranged the proper way, eight valves worked by pushrods, four spark plugs powered by a proper distributor and it’s all kept cool by water as God intended. The engine fires smartly and settles down the classic sewing-machine chorus of refined tick-tap noises that any A-Series engine makes.
An issue in the design process was how to arrange the gearchange when the gearbox was under the engine rather than sticking out the back of it. The idea was for a Citroen-style dashboard mounted lever but BMC reckoned that the British motorist wasn’t quite ready for such things and opted to drill a hole in the footwell and simply attach a very long lever going directly into the gearbox. Fair enough I s’pose. The result is that the gearshift pattern works in three dimensions rather than two and there’s a huge distance between the gears at the ‘front’ of the pattern (1st and 3rd) and those at the back (2nd, 4th and Reverse) so the gearchange is like pulling levers in a Victorian signal box.
There’s only synchro on 3rd/4th so pulling away requires the old ‘into 3rd/into 1st’ trick to quieten things down. The clutch is light and progressive but you need a fair bit of revs to pull away cleanly. With 30 horsepower on tap even a car weighing only a tad over 600kg isn’t going to be fast. But before we talk about performance we need to talk about the noise. GOD, THE NOISE. Driving an early Mini is an assault on all the senses but the ears take the biggest battering. The straight-cut primary gears between the clutch and the gearbox make a noise like a TIE Fighter at anything over about 10 mph. 1st gear is also straight-cut which means you sound like a milk float when pulling away. The exhaust has only one small silencer in it so there’s a fair amount of ‘rasp’ from the back end. The 4-blade fixed engine fan, seperated from the cabin by 1/4 inch of Birmingham tinwork and vinyl adds some mid-range roar to the cacophony, the sliding windows don’t seal properly so you get some tenor range windnoise and then there’s the general sub-base boom that any car based on the construction principles of a biscuit tin will provide. It’s very noisy.
All this noise means, coupled to the low-slung stance, means that you feel like you’re going much faster than you actually are. This sensation is also helped by the fact that when holding the steering wheel in the normal way your left wrist perfectly obscures the speedometer. This is quite good because it encourages you to change up the gearbox early. Unlike the little air cooled buzzmobiles from the Continent which demand to be thrashed to their limit the A-Series is above such vulgar business. Its long bore layout means it has surprisingly good torque for its capacity and in an untuned state it doesn’t breathe very well at high speeds anyway so there’s nothing to be gained from excessive use of the throttle. Just get into 4th gear as soon as possible and ride the torque. If you do decide to exploit the Austin’s high speed abilities you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The car was purposely designed for use in a Britain with motorways and given enough space it will sit at 70 MPH with throttle range to spare. It also gives you a very good idea of what it would be like to be in a washing machine on a spin cycle.
Ride and Handling
This car doesn’t have Hydrolastic suspension (that came later) but does have the ingenious rubber-cone springs. On high-profile crossply tyres the Austin Se7en actually rides remarkably well, with none of the kidney-crushing jolting that the later Minis with wider, thinner tyres and stiffer spring rubber, inflict on the driver. The system is fully independent and the car’s wide stance means that it doesn’t get upset by single bumps or strange cambers in the road. The biggest flaw is that the springs have very limited travel so on all but the smallest bumps or dips the wheel hits the bumpstops. Because the initial absorption is so good this leads to a very sudden but oddly delayed thud through the bodyshell and gives the car the characteristic tight bouncy ride. It’s actually better than many modern cars and isn’t wearing on long trips. Well, not as wearing as the noise is.
Early cars had drum brakes all round and really early models like this one did without twin leading shoes as well. For an all drum setup they start to bite quite quickly but they need a good hard stamp to really start pulling off the MPHs. There’s noticeable fade on steep hills or after hard braking from high speeds. Fortunately the engine provides plenty of braking of its own and the gearbox is easy to use if you’re comfortable with double-de-clutching and in combination they’re well up to any situation.
I’ve left the handling to last because there’s really little to be said. Naff all weight, rack and pinion steering, weight over the front end, a car nearly as wide as it is long and a very low centre of gravity. You can fill in the result yourself. All I’ll say is that all the ‘giant go-kart’ cliches are true. You can have fun chucking a Se7en around at 20 mph just by enjoying the instant turn-in and limpet-like grip which means you really don’t have to slow down for corners. The only other thing to add is that this car is limited by its tyres. The little crossplies run out of grip way before anything else does and they also cut down the otherwise excellent connection between the steering wheel and the road that later examples have. You can feel and hear them squirming under heavy cornering and the feel is as if there are some ball bearings between the tyre and the road.
As is so often the case, the original is the best. The Mini is better than the MINI and the earliest Mini is better than the later ones. Yes, this one is slow, noisy and bouncy. It doesn’t have the cool factor that the Cooper models had. It’s something much better- a true design and engineering masterpiece that rewrote the book on how cars were built and how they drove and did it in the name of giving ordinary people a little car to take to the shops. How very British.