It is often said that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
This is probably more accurate in the motor industry than many others, and truly revolutionary ideas or designs rarely come around these days.
Electric, hydrogen, hybrid, and solar power are the catch phrases of the industry today, yet none of these are new.
In 1899 the World Land Speed Record was set by an electric car, being faster than either petrol or steam cars of the time – a staggering 65.79mph (105.26kmh) at a time when “experts” believed the human body couldn’t stand the forces of traveling faster than 60mph.
Experimental hydrogen-powered cars were built in the early 1970s, and solar cars have been racing down the highway between Darwin and Adelaide every couple of years since 1987.
The basic principles of any known form of potentially viable alternative power system have really been around for many years. Car companies are spending millions of tax-deductible dollars every year trying to find the goose with the golden egg – an alternative to fossil fuel that is cheap, reliable, economical and, possibly most important in today’s political climate, clean.
These days, it appears, automotive design is all about fine-tuning and advancing in increments and, really, it has been this way for a very long time. Occasionally something shows the promise of being revolutionary, only to fail close scrutiny or just disappear from the radar. What ever happened to the Sarich Orbital engine, for example? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.)
How long has it been since there was a truly revolutionary car, that changed the face of automotive design?
Could you count the Smart Car? I don’t think so. Apart from its size and unorthodox looks, is there anything really remarkable about it, that other car-makers will fall over themselves to copy?
I may be biased (almost certainly so) but I struggle to think of anything in automotive design that has been ground-breakingly new in the past 50 years – and of course I come back to the Mini.
Now, I’m sure people will immediately think of some car to prove me wrong, but before you write in take a good look and evaluate if any car in the past 50 years has really been any more than a refinement or development of another, earlier idea or model.
Admittedly, the Mini was little more than an amalgam of ideas, but it was the way in which these came together as a cohesive whole that made the Mini revolutionary. It was, in the greatest sense, the sum of its parts.
The Mini wasn’t the first car with a transverse engine, or front-wheel-drive, or even with a wheel in each corner. It wasn’t the first to be sprung on rubber, nor was it the smallest car around. But it was the first to incorporate all of these principles into one package.
There were two fundamental features of the Mini that were new, though, and which proved the Mini to be both a revelation and a revolution. These were; the decision to put the gearbox in the engine sump, saving space; and the use of the Rzeppa Joint, or what we know more commonly today as the Constant Velocity, or CV, joint.
The Mini was so successful that it changed the face of small car design, and its basic principles – with the main exception being the fitting of the transmission in the sump – have been copied by every major car manufacturer to date.
Of course, as a Mini enthusiast, you already knew that. It probably comes as no surprise to you when the uninitiated reveal some “new” idea on the latest tin box, that you know has been around for many years.
But do we really understand, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, just how revolutionary the Mini was in 1961 – when it was released in Australia?
Perhaps we need to reacquaint ourselves, or for those too young to remember (like me) educate ourselves, about what the world was like 50 years ago.
1961 was a momentous year internationally. JFK was sworn in as President of the USA in January, and four months later was caught up in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. In Jerusalem, the last great Nazi war crimes trial took place, when Adolf Eichmann was tried and found guilty for his part in the Holocaust. The UN voted to censure South Africa over Apartheid, and Nelson Mandela went on the run from the police. The space race began in earnest when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. President Kennedy responded by saying that the US would land a man on the moon, and bring him home, by the end of the decade.
Back on earth the Cold War was heating up when, overnight on 13 August, the East German Government sealed the border with West Berlin and began erecting the Berlin Wall. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro declared Cuba a Socialist nation and banned elections, and Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West.
In London, Prime Minister MacMillan said that England would join the European Common Market. Bigger news was the public release of the first oral contraceptive pill (released the same date in Australia), while the first Ban The Bomb rally was held by the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament.
The one-millionth Morris Minor rolled off the production line, and the last steam train ran through London’s Underground.
The World Land Speed record had stood for fourteen years, at 394.20mph (630.72kmh). In Liverpool, young record shop owner Brian Epstein signed on as manager to four local lads with a band called The Beatles. Decca Records rejected Epstein’s offer for a record deal, saying the band would never make it into the charts.
Australia sold its first major shipment of wheat to China – 1 million tons for the year, while the Menzies Federal Government ordered that all future local TV commercials would have to made in Australia. The TAB began to operate in Victoria and WA, making off-course gambling legal for the first time. Monash University opened in Melbourne, while the Federal Government defeated an Opposition bill to grant Aborigines full voting rights.
The world’s equal-largest radio telescope was completed at Parkes in NSW, and a Vulcan bomber became the first aircraft to fly from England to Australia non-stop – refueling in-flight three times. Meanwhile, the last trams ran in Sydney.
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>