Mini’s story begins in 1912, when William Morris graduated from producing bicycles as well as repairing, renting and selling cars in England to actually building them. Born in October of 1877, Morris left school at the age of 15 to become apprenticed to a bicycle repairer and seller. Demonstrating his potential as an entrepreneur, nine months later he set himself up in business repairing bikes at home.
This worked well, so he set up shop in Oxford on Longwall Street and started building bicycles too. By 1901, he was doing motorcycles and by 1902, he was working with cars too. Then Morris hit upon a novel way to get into building cars.
His strategy was to outsource all of the componentry he’d need and assemble the finished cars from the various components. In 1912, he designed his first car. In 1913, the open two-seat Morris Oxford “Bullnose” was offered for sale. The following year he added a closed coupe and a van based on the same platform. But that was as far as he could take the design. The engine wasn’t powerful enough to make a four-seat version of the car viable. Continuing to employ his outsourcing his strategy, Morris turned to a Detroit-based company for a larger engine and a more robust gearbox.
In 1915, he introduced the four-seat Morris Cowley.
He managed to stay in production through the First World War, ultimately becoming the largest car manufacturer in the United Kingdom. At one point, Morris owned 51 percent of the British new car market. He then proceeded to grow his company by acquisition. Morris bought his suppliers and integrated them into his company—effectively in-sourcing his outsourcing.
Throughout the 1930’s Morris Motors continued to grow, even absorbing other auto manufacturers, among them Wolseley and MG. Leonard Lord had joined Morris Motors in 1923. In 1932, Morris made him general manager of the company. Lord designed the Morris Minor in 1928. Lord is also credited with modernizing Morris Motors’ production processes. He introduced moving assembly lines to the company and in the process created the largest integrated automotive manufacturing facility in Europe.
Eventually though, Lord and Morris had a falling out.
Lord left to go run Austin Motors.
In 1934, Morris was raised to the English peerage as Baron Nuffield of Nuffield in the County of Oxford. During the Second World War, Morris built fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force. After the war, Morris introduced the Morris Minor, designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, the man who would eventually design the Mini. In 1952, at age 74, Morris merged his Nuffield Organisation with the Austin Motor Company and the British Motor Corporation was born—with Lord in charge.
Lord proceeded to marginalize Morris’ brands in favor of the Austin brand and instituted a policy of badge engineering. British Motor Corporation was eventually absorbed by the British Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968, which in turn was nationalized by the British government in 1975 to become British Leyland Limited.
Before all of that happened though, Sir Alec Issigonis did the 1959 Morris Mini-Minor. Born in November of 1906, Issigonis and his mother moved to England in 1923 after his dad died the year before. He studied engineering at Battersea Polytechnic in London. Failing his mathematics finals three times, he completed his schooling at the University of London External Programme.
Issigonis went to work at Morris in 1936, doing the aforementioned Morris Minor. Before Morris was absorbed into BMC in 1952, Issigonis left and went to work at Alvis. However, BMC recruited him in 1955 to design a new model family of cars for the company. Before he could finish, a fuel crisis emerged at the end of 1956 and BMC’s attention turned to producing a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. In 1959, the new car was offered in both Morris and Austin liveries. The Morris was called Morris Mini Minor; the Austin version was called Austin Seven.
The Mini went on to become the best-selling British car of all time. It also ushered in several layout breakthroughs still employed to this day. Issigonis mounted the engine in the front of the car sideways to shorten its hood as much as possible. He also specified front-wheel drive so the rest of the car could be given over to passengers and cargo. Every front-engine/front-drive car in production today owes a debt of gratitude to Issigonis and the Mini.
The model was offered in the United States as the BMC Mini for seven years between 1960 and 1967. Mini automobiles were pulled from the U.S. market in 1968, because they wouldn’t pass safety regulations and newly tightened smog regulation—although they continued to be sold in Canada until 1979. That was it for Mini vehicles as far as the U.S. was concerned—until BMW brought the brand back to the States in 2002.
Meanwhile, back in England, British Leyland went belly up and Mini became part of the Austin Rover Group, which eventually became the Rover Group—owned by British Aerospace. The Rover Group was bought by BMW in 1994, which broke it up in 2000, retaining the Mini brand. In 2001, the contemporary Mini Cooper automobiles were introduced.
The first model to appear under BMW ownership was called the Mini Cooper. A more powerful Cooper S model and an even higher performing John Cooper Works model soon followed it. This was in homage to John Cooper, of the Cooper Car Company who made his name tweaking the original Mini automobiles for more performance. Cooper was also a very successful racing driver. His name licensed to BMW to adorn the resurrected BMW Mini vehicle, Cooper was also a consultant on the development of the BMW version of the car.
Today’s Mini Cooper lineup includes a two-seat coupe and a two-seat convertible. The traditional hatchback model is also offered in a variety of performance tunes. There’s the crossover-inspired Countryman, and a station wagon-ish model called the Clubman. The most recent Mini Cooper vehicle to be offered (as of June 2013) is a two-door version of the Countryman called the Paceman.