I had my introduction to the Mini on the day of its launch, when I was eleven years old, and later owned a 1972 Australian ‘Export’ Moke and a Bertone-designed Innocenti Mini 120 from Italy, which became my daily driver.
I sold my Innocenti (pronounced Inno-chenti) in 1978 and the Moke in 1983 and after more than 20 years Mini-less, bought a 1981 1275cc Moke Californian In 2006.
In 2008 I finally located the featured 1981 De Tomaso Mini 120 in Belgium and drove it home to England.
My research into the car and the Innocenti Company began before this journey and revealed that the Innocenti name is best known for introducing a better Mini to the continental European market, and as the maker of the famous Lambretta scooter.
Due to the constraints of space, we cannot go into much detail about the Innocenti company here. However, we have featured a potted history in earlier issues of this magazine and two websites have detailed histories of the company and the various model cars built by it – www.inno-mini-world.com and www.aronline.co.uk.
Innocenti reached an agreement with BMC in 1959 to produce a localised version of the A40, and in September 1965 production of Minis began at its factory in the Lambrate district of Milan. Various models were built by Innocenti, including the Mini Cooper (detailed in Issue 11) and the Mini T (Issue 24). By 1969 over 45,000 Innocenti Minis were being produced annually.
Following the 1966 death of Ferdinando Innocenti, who had built and diversified the company after the war, and a decline in the market for Lambretta scooters and the related three-wheeled Lambro commercials, the company slipped into financial difficulty. It was sold to British Leyland in 1972, for a reported £3m, becoming Leyland Innocenti.
However, the revamped Cooper 1300 became a significant sales success across Europe, and sales of the Innocenti Mini range in Italy were coming to their peak of nearly 62,000 units annually.
Geoffrey Robinson, a financial controller at BL’s London head office, heard of the purchase of Innocenti and asked Lord Stokes to appoint him as head of the new enterprise. It is reported that when making an initial assessment visit to Innocenti with John Morgan, then in charge of British Leyland’s European sales, Robinson asked just why BL had purchased the Italian manufacturer; to which Morgan replied that it was because they made Mini Coopers – and made them a lot better than the UK ever did!
On this, or a similar visit, Robinson was introduced to the future plans of Innocenti, and in particular to a project called P53.
Although the licence arrangement had worked well for Innocenti, the Italian company still hankered after its own car.
In the mid-1960s Innocenti were looking to expand the range with a car that was smaller than the original Mini. The idea was seriously considered as competition to the little FIATs of the period and a ‘mini Mini’ prototype was created in Longbridge, but came to nought as an Innocenti. Some elements, including the compact 750cc engine, designed by Issigonis, did find their way into a new Farina-designed body, which became the 9X project – a serious contender for a replacement Mini, and a story in itself.
In 1969 Innocenti commissioned a design for a brand new car from Bertone, who already had a relationship with the company for the design of the new Lambretta, and it was a prototype of this that Robinson was shown at the time of BL’s purchase of the company.
However, there was no way that Innocenti alone could finance the development of a completely new model and the resources of BL were severely limited.
Robinson was able to work a compromise to create what became referred to as the Bertone Hatchback Mini – or more correctly, when launched, the Leyland Innocenti 90L and 120L.
This compromise meant that the existing Mini sub-frames containing engine, transmission and suspension were married to a revised Mini floor pan that supported a new body. On the surface and inside all was new, but mechanically it was pure Mini. (though in practice small modifications were necessary to the shape of the rear sub frame).
One important change that was implemented was mounting the radiator at the front of the car immediately behind the grille – something that took nearly another 30 years to be used in a UK-built Mini.
This created sufficient room for the battery to be moved into the engine bay, enabling a more tidy and efficient use of the space behind the rear seats in the hatchback. The bonnet was hinged at the front and opened to a vertical position for access, similar to other Italian small cars of the 1970s.
The front grille was a full-width plastic unit, black in the original 90 and chrome-look in the 120, positioned between rectangular headlamps and trapezoid indicator units on the corners, with amber repeaters on the wings. The body panels were made locally by the Innocenti-Ghia-Fergat press facility.
The car, only 67mm longer but 89mm wider than the Mini, was initially available as a two-model range using the 998 engine for the well equipped 90L and the 1275 unit for the 120L. At the launch, both engines featured a single carburettor and were down-rated from their previous Mini specification to 43bhp and 63bhp respectively, but were quickly revised to 49bhp and 65bhp where they stayed until the introduction of a new engine.
The finish of the models, inside and out, also varied; the 90 had black bumpers, window frames and air inlets, against the ‘chrome’ units of the 120. Inside, the vinyl seats and rubber flooring of the 90 were replaced by velour fabric and carpet in the 120. The wheels were 12”x 4½” and shod with 145/70 tyres on the 90 and 155/70 on the 120. Later in production most cars seemed to be on the 155/70 tyres and the use of exterior black or chrome finishes was dependent upon the trim level applied to either model.
The major functional change was the rear hatchback. Although the Longbridge factory produced a prototype hatchback Mini as early as 1964, and Radford and Hooper offered similar designs in 1965, there was never a production hatchback in the original Mini.
Innocenti designers took notice, and already had the experience of successfully applying a hatchback to the local A40 Combinata.
A longer wheelbase was also considered, but rejected on the basis of excessive cost.
The hatch arrangement in the 90 and 120 came down to a vertical panel, which held the rear light fittings and number plate, 27cm above the load floor. Between this and the back seat was a luggage area 1200mm wide and 360mm deep. The width was reduced to 970mm between the rear wheel arches, with the only other intrusion being the filler pipe to the under-floor fuel tank. Underneath were stored the spare wheel, jack and tools, and the L-shaped fuel tank – in order to fit it and the spare wheel within the rear sub-frame.
The rear seat squab could be folded forward against the back of the front seats, then the rear seat back was folded down flat to greatly increase the rear load area. Both front seats, with headrests on the 120, could be reclined, and tilted forward for access to the back seat.
The instruments and dashboard came in for a radical redesign that was considered very modern for the day. The 90 had twin square-shaped gauges, while the 120 consisted of a squared-off C-shaped aperture for the speedometer and a mirror-image shape for the tachometer; beside which were voltmeter, oil pressure, fuel and temperature gauges, and an array of warning lights.
At each end of the dashboard in both cars was a swivelling fresh air vent, which relied on a simple ram process – the faster you went the more air you got – and were not connected to the heater or the fan.
In the centre was a DIN slot for a radio, below which were the heater controls, with switches for lights and the heater fan. Below these controls was an ashtray surrounded by other ancillary switches or blanking panels.
The remaining controls were placed on stalks either side of the steering column: two-speed wipers and windscreen wash on the right, while on the left were twin stalks; one for the indicators with horn push, and the other a three-way control for the headlights.
When a rear wiper and washer were fitted on later high-trim cars, these were controlled by a three-way switch placed on the top of the steering column cover, which could only be operated, dangerously, through the steering wheel or, with difficulty around the outside
Geoffrey Robinson left Innocenti in 1973, to take on the position of MD of Jaguar Cars, and the cars that he had instigated were launched, twelve months later. The word Mini was omitted from the initial sales literature and promotional material, although it did appear in new stylised script on the radio cover and the small rear badge. Only 3,500 units were sold in 1974, while the 1001 and 1300 Minis were running out, but in the following year sales reached over 30,000 with the 90L out-selling the 120L by over 3 to 1.
In that first year of production, the Bertone-designed Mini was built alongside the original Mini, on a duplicate production line.
If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 27 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>47</plumshop> <plumshop>48</plumshop>