John Cooper and Alec Issigonis were already log-time friends by the time the Mini was released in 1959.
In fact, Cooper was loaned a pre-production Mini in early 1959 and drove it to Europe for a round of the Formula 1. There, he loaned the car to Fiat/Ferrari engineer Aurelio Lampredi, who after an extensive drive of the Mini declared it “the car of the future”.
Cooper bought, or was given, one of the first cars off the production line, to use as his personal transport. Given that he was at that time the reigning World Champion car constructor, this gave Issigonis a great sense of pride. However, Issigonis never intended for, and was originally against, his “people’s car” being used in motorsport.
The Mini was, by design, extremely stable and handled brilliantly, but Issigonis always, quite correctly, maintained that this was intended for safety, rather than for sporty performance.
When he had originally been instructed to design a new small car, the one stipulation was that it had to use an engine already in the BMC range. The most suitable was the A-series, the smallest of which at that time was 948cc – apart from an 803cc version especially being used in Post Office Morris Minor vans.
The 948cc engine propelled the Mini at such great speed, for its day, that the design team became quite concerned – particularly as the projected primary market for the car was always intended to be women. So the decision was made, after much debate, to reduce the capacity to 848cc.
Of course, as soon as the Mini was released its potential for motorsport was realised by the likes of Daniel Richmond at Downton Engineering, Ralph Broad and John Cooper.
John Cooper was already using 997cc engines for his Formula Junior racing cars, and had long been enthused about building a small sports saloon based on a normal production car. According to British correspondent S F Page in Australian Motor Manual, 1 April 1962, Cooper had already developed one prototype based on another small family car – though the brand or model were not mentioned – by the time of the Mini’s release in 1959.
“When this prototype was finished it had a special engine, as well as new wheels, disc brakes, a four-speed gearbox and new suspension”, Page wrote. “Certainly the car went up to expectations, with over 100 m.p.h. and outstanding road holding, but the trouble was that the cost would push it well out of reach of the market which the Cooper organisation was aiming at…and so the project was shelved.”
This report, however, needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as there are some errors in the rest of the story – calling father and son Charles and John Cooper brothers, and naming George Harriman as John Harriman.
Nonetheless, it was only a short time before Cooper and his drivers – Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Roy Salvidori – started tinkering with the Mini and fitting a Formula Junior 997cc engine.
Cooper had a fair amount of influence with Lockheed, because of his F1 status, and convinced the company to build some tiny 7” disc brakes to fit the Mini.
When the prototype Cooper-Mini, as Cooper named it, was completed; “Jack Brabham took it out around the track at Silverstone and Goodwood, and then on to other race tracks where Cooper cars have made such a name”, Page said.
Writing in Motorsport magazine, July 2002, Bill Blydenstein recalled driving one of the prototypes, though some detail might have been embellished by memory. “One such had been fitted, temporarily, with a 78bhp 1100 Formula Junior engine. It Flew! Prepared by Ginger Devlin, it caused a sensation at Brands when Tony Maggs and I were told to see what it could do. At a time when the quickest Works-support Rileys lapped in 66secs, we were soon down in the low-64s and improving – moving into 3.8 Jaguar territory.”
Cooper approached Issigonis with his car, suggesting that BMC should make a minimum run of 1,000 to homologate for the under-1000cc saloon car category. Despite their friendship, and Issigonis’ long-held love of motorsport, he refused to endorse the idea. Cooper then took the car directly to BMC boss Harriman and gave him a run in the car.
Harriman was so impressed with it that he immediately agreed to produce the required 1,000 cars, though being personally very sceptical that so many would sell.
Laurance Pomeroy, in The Mini Story, says that Harriman was less interested in any sporting prowess of the car, as he was in the prestige that BMC might gain by aligning itself with the reigning World Champions.
“Despite the name, it must be made clear that this model was not conceived mainly for competition (and certainly not for racing), but rather for the use of competition drivers and racers in going about their normal and lawful occasions on the public highway”, Pomeroy wrote.
Hindsight and later interviews with Cooper show that the car was definitely conceived, at least in his eyes, specifically for competition.
However, if this was the case, then surely it would have come without a heater and other creature comforts and trim adornments, all of which added weight.
A ten-year deal was agreed with a handshake, though Jon Pressnell, in Mini – The Definitive History, points out that a letter did follow; “so it’s not true that the arrangement was purely a nothing-on-paper gentleman’s agreement”.
When the Mini Cooper – following BMC practice of the time it was released in both Austin and Morris versions – was released in September 1961, it was along-side the Mini Super, which featured all of the Cooper’s enhancements, except the engine.
If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 25 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>42</plumshop> <plumshop>43</plumshop>