The idea of a long-wheelbase version of the Mini, which could be produced as a Van or estate car, or in modified form a pick-up, was planned from the very early days of development.
The Van was the first variant to be released, in May 1960, but the estate – Morris Mini-Traveller or Austin Seven Countryman – was released in September the same year.
By way of explanation, an estate car is to the English what a station wagon or station sedan is to Australia. That is, a four or five-seater vehicle that has increased luggage capacity, usually on a longer wheelbase than the saloon version, in which the rear seat can usually be folded down to provide load carrying space similar to a small van.
Austin and Morris had both previously built estate versions of their smallest cars: the Morris Minor Traveller and the Austin A35 Countryman. These names were therefore carried over for the relative Mini versions.
According to Jon Pressnell, in his book Mini – The Definitive History; “The design was put together during 1959 in Dick Gallimore’s Longbridge body experimental shop, Doug Adams doing the essential of the work, to the directions of Issigonis, before passing the projects to John Sheppard to be drawn up.”
Prototypes were running later in the year, even before the Mini saloon had been released to the public. Production began in March 1960 and, according to the Mini Traveller and Countryman Register, the first Morris was chassis number 19101 and the first Austin was chassis number 19126.
Unlike the saloons, which were assembled at both Cowley and Longbridge, with trimmed bodies supplied from Pressed Steel and Fisher Ludlow respectively, the estates were all assembled at Longbridge, with bodies supplied from Fisher and Ludlow’s plant at Castle Bromwich.
The release date was 16 September 1960.
The estate Minis received a warm reception from the motoring press of the time, and were the first Minis to be identified as more up-market and stylish versions.
A Morris press release stated; “the Morris Mini-Traveller is the dual-purpose vehicle ‘par excellence’. Unrivalled in performance, road-holding and economy, it provides ample seating for four adults and, with the rear seat folded flat, no less than 35 ½ cubic feet of luggage space.”
While that sounds very impressive, it must be remembered that it assumes luggage being stacked to the roof – which would be neither safe nor practical. Still, the space available was a marked improvement on the saloon, which offered 5 ½ cu ft in the boot. Even with the rear seat in place there was a reported 18 ¾ cu ft, though again only when loaded to the roof. In more practical terms, the boot area with the rear seat in use was about twice that of the saloon.
Only five days after the official launch, The Motor magazine said; “this is a small car with highly satisfactory standards of all-round riding comfort…this model has an immense amount of accommodation for odds and ends inside the body, putting the majority of large cars utterly to shame…”
John Bolster, writing in Autocar, was very enthusiastic about the Traveller. Already a Mini saloon owner, he wrote; “The extra length of the vehicle, combined with its small wheels, gives a long, low look that is decidedly pleasing…resplendent in white paint and varnished wood…I had to admit that it was monstrously handsome.”
Bolster borrowed one of the pre-release press cars to drive to France for the Paris Auto Salon and other engagements. He said the French, particularly the ladies, were very taken with the Traveller. “The appearance appealed enormously to the French and I was forever demonstrating the little car to strangers.”
In conclusion, he wrote; “This new small station wagon is an extremely attractive addition to the B.M.C. range…Many families will buy it as a second car, but it will turn out to be the sort of second car that soon takes first place in everybody’s affections.”
One facet of the car that seemed to appeal to the French, who have always been renowned for their sense of style, was the timber on the back half of the car. This was purely for decoration and, unlike many previous Woody vehicles, was not structural – although the timber around the windows did in fact hold the windows in place.
It also turned out to be quite an expensive addition, as detailed in Pressnell’s book. Despite the estates being £623 0s 10d (including tax), compared with the standard saloon at £496 19s 2d, they were apparently not making any profit.
Although mechanically the same as the Mini saloon, and sharing the same front panels with removable grille, the estate was only available in De Luxe specification.
This effectively meant that it came with carpets, windscreen washers, a recirculating heater/demister, over-riders on the front bumper – and not much more. The rear luggage space and the back of the rear seat, which became the floor when the seat was folded down, were also carpeted.
Otherwise, the interior trim was the same, flecked material of the saloon, and the exterior was only available in the same colours as the saloon – being Cherry Red, Clipper Blue and Old English White for the Morris versions; and Tartan Red, Speedwell Blue and Farina Grey for the Austins.
The only other differences between Austin and Morris versions were the grille design, bonnet and rear badges and the horn button in the centre of the steering wheel.
Due to the profile of the rear storage boxes – which were longer than those in the saloon because of the longer wheel-base – and the rear floor, the back seat in the estate was mounted about one inch higher than in the saloon. Also, in order for the seat to fold out of the way, the upright squab was only 17” (43cm) tall, instead of 20” (51cm).
Part of the price difference between the saloon and estate was taken up by the De Luxe specification – the De Luxe saloon cost £537 6s 8d – but much of the additional £84 could be put down to the cost of the timber.
Pressnell quotes former BL stylist Paul Hughes, who was responsible for replacing the timber with Di-noc on the Clubman Estate – but more on that later. “The old Traveller with its wood all over the place was discovered to be hellishly expensive to produce”, Hughes is quoted as saying. “It was just way out of court. There was no profit.”
Some people liked the idea of the estate, but not the pretentiousness of the timber, nor the required maintenance – it was suggested that the timber needed to be rubbed back and re-varnished every twelve months.
To appeal to these people, an all-steel version of the estate, which had been available for the export market since April 1961, was released for the home market in October 1962.
Pressnell quotes French BMC importer Jean-Pierre Richard: “Ah! ‘The Mini Countryman with wood embellishments’! Chic Parisian women loved it. It was very distinguished. But it had to have the wood. When the cars without wood came in we were asked ‘Why doesn’t it have the wood?’ The wife who came in with her husband would say ‘no’. The plain estates didn’t last long.”
There were very practical reasons behind not having the timber – most notably being a greatly reduced likelihood of rust developing. Duncan Stuart, who owns the featured white 1965 Woody, revealed that when he removed the timber for the car’s restoration, there was only body primer underneath, and no top coat paint. “No wonder rust was such a problem with them”, he said.
The twin rear “barn doors” were contentious from the start, but one reason given for them was to reduce space on the production line. However, one of the problems was that with an interior rear-vision mirror, the join between the doors offered a significant blind spot.
In fact, the early estates came with two wing mirrors, and no interior mirror. This caused a considerable number of complaints and the interior mirror was soon standard fitment, but complaints concerning the blind spot continued through the life of all models of estate, and the Mini Van.
While there are obvious similarities between the Van and estate bodies, the idea that the estate is effectively a van with a rear seat and side windows is a falsehood.
The two share a common floorpan and roof structure, but the side panels and rear floor extension are very different, while the front of the estate is the same as the saloon and differs significantly from the Van.
If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 24 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>41</plumshop> <plumshop>44</plumshop>