The Mini was conceived by designer, Alec Issigonis, as a cheap, efficient, practical people's car, and was first produced in August of 1959. Front-wheel-drive, transverse-engined, and with innovative rubber suspension, it broke the mould of traditional small car design at the time. Despite its humble origins, people soon realised that its lightweight and chuckable handling - if allied with a few more horsepower - made for an extremely fun little package.
Before long, a multitude of specialist Mini tuners sprung up, offering various upgrade packages to boost the output of the tiny 848cc engine beyond the original 34 pavement-pounding horsepower. In Australia, a factory-produced, twin-carburettor'd special edition called the Morris Sports 850 was produced in limited numbers. A hint of the Mini's later dominance of motorsport came in 1960, when one placed sixth overall in the RAC Rally. No mean feat when you consider the larger-capacity Austin-Healeys and Saabs that it competed against.
The famous Cooper nameplate comes from John Cooper, Formula One World Champion constructor in 1959 and 1960. In addition to his involvement in Formula One, Cooper was associated with the one-litre Formula Junior category. The Cooper Formula Junior cars ran a highly-tuned version of the BMC A-series engine, essentially the same as the engine used in the Mini. The next stage was obvious, and in July of 1961, the first Mini Cooper was born, with a detuned, twin-carburettor Formula Junior motor under the bonnet.
This 997cc engine produced 55 horsepower or better than 60 per cent more than the old 850. To cope with this extra power, disc brakes were developed to fit behind the tiny 10-inch wheels. Admittedly, these weren't much of an improvement over the rather scary drum brakes originally fitted. Other refinements were added to the Mini in this first Cooper guise, such as a remote gear-change (resulting in a more normally-sized and placed gearstick than the previous truck-sized thing sprouting from the firewall) and temperature and oil pressure gauges. Also, key starting replaced the former separate starter button between the front seats.
The 997 Cooper achieved an impressive first outright in the 1962 Tulip Rally and third overall in the 1963 Monte Carlo rally, confirming that light weight and nimble handling makes for a formidable motorsport package.
After the 997cc Cooper came the 998cc version, seemingly a very slight change, but in reality a quite different car. Although producing similar power and slightly more torque, with a larger bore and shorter stroke, this engine was keener to rev than its predecessor.
People most commonly remember the 1275cc S type Cooper as the giant-killer in competition, however, few non-Mini enthusiasts realise that there were a further two Cooper S's. The first of these was the 1071 and the other the 970, with 70 and 65 horsepower respectively. In some ways these two smaller motors were precursors to modern performance engines, both being of oversquare (bore larger than stroke) design. Consequently, they were the most rev-happy of all the Coopers, devoid of the high-rev vibration and harshness which plagued the more under-square versions.
By the end of 1965, both the 970cc and 1071cc S-types were discontinued in favour of the larger-engined 1275 S. This variant of the venerable A-series produced only 6 horsepower more than the 1071 but had over 25 per cent more torque. The Cooper S brought with it Hydrolastic suspension, a fluid and air pressurised suspension system, not dissimilar to the Hydragas suspension employed in the current MGF, and in fact designed by the same engineer, Alex Moulton.
Although offering large car ride comfort, it wasn't particularly suited to the Cooper S's sporting pretensions. A firmer version of this suspension was soon introduced for the Coopers, but many competition and road cars were converted to the old-style rubber cone suspension in the interests of handling and reliability. Eventually, the Hydrolastic system was abandoned by the factory in favour of the traditional rubber cones. (Incidentally, the cone-type suspension was also designed by Alex Moulton.) Another Cooper S revision was larger disc brakes, which were far more effective than the original Cooper types. At last, the Mini Cooper had brakes to match its exceptional straight line and cornering abilities.
All three Cooper S's were devastating competition machines, more often than not taking class victories, and frequently winning outright. Probably the most famous Cooper S victories came on the Monte Carlo rally, with Minis finishing first outright in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1967 (though the 1966 cars were later disqualified for an illegal headlight configuration!). The Cooper's motorsport success was not limited to rallying however, with it proving to be a force in touring car racing, commonly taking on much more powerful cars and winning. Even Mount Panorama at Bathurst was not out of reach for the mighty Minis, with the diminutive cars taking the first nine places outright in the 1966 Gallagher 500 race. Tenth place, you ask? A V8 Valiant! On racetracks in Australia, Britain and Europe, it was not uncommon to see Minis competing against Mustangs and Porsches - and finishing in front. The Mini's domination of such events lives on today in Appendix J historic touring car racing, with the tiny cars still taking the occasional outright win, particularly in wet conditions.
Even though the hugely popular Coopers took much of their engine design from the Formula Junior, the A-series was still a fairly inefficient, poorly-designed engine. The specialist tuning concerns spawned by the Cooper's antecedents took to developing go-faster parts for the Cooper including straight-cut gearsets, crossflow alloy heads and fuel injection. Towards the end of their effective competition life (in terms of taking outright wins anyway) in the early to mid 1970s, it wasn't uncommon for race and rally Minis to be putting out 135 horsepower, a far cry from the original 34!
The 1275S remained in production until 1971 when it was replaced by the 1275GT. Mini purists generally believe that this car was no match, either visually or performance-wise, for the Cooper. This was the first year that the restyled, square-nosed Clubman Mini was produced. It was killed off in 1980, and the familiar 'round-nosed' Mini was put back into production. The Mini, and indeed the Cooper S, remain in production in Britain to this very day. John Cooper Garages still produces tuning parts for the Mini - and they still use the A-series engine, albeit in fuel-injected form. It seems that things haven't really changed all that much since the Cooper's heyday in the 60s. This, sadly, will change later in 2000, when the BMW-designed Mini replacement is scheduled to be put into production. Now 41 years young, the Mini bodyshell can no longer be made to meet strict European safety requirements. A Cooper version of the new Mini is likely to be offered, ensuring that the Mini Cooper name lives on.
Although no longer an outright contender in many forms of motorsport, it is not unheard of for a Cooper-style modified Mini to take a class win in the odd rally. They are still a force to be reckoned with in historic racing and rallying, with some historic racers producing more power than ever. In fact, the 150bhp mark was broken recently by one outfit, using the standard, albeit highly developed 5-port (2-inlet, 3 exhaust) head and carburettors. Not bad for an engine whose history can be traced back to the 1952 Austin A30!
There are also several popular Mini-only categories of circuit racing in Britain, such as Mini Se7ens and Mini Miglia. Many Mini tuning firms exist today, producing an incredible array of bolt-on parts for the Mini, such as twin-cam, 16 valve heads, 5 and 6-speed gearboxes and 6-pot brake calipers. Even thought Mini production is scheduled to end later this year, a plentiful supply of spare parts is assured. It seems that the Mini will remain a popular small performance classic for years to come.