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Mini Cooper defined an era as the ultimate fashion statement

The original Mini Cooper started out as a

The original Mini Cooper started out as a fuel-efficient alternative to larger vehicles but quickly became an icon of fashionable car design. Credit: BMW

It's a hard-to-believe reign that lasted decades, but the proof is definitely in the pudding. Or, in the fact that the Mini - although in a highly revised form - came back with a new body and a similar (but sportier) mission.

When the car was launched in the late-1950s, it was supposed to be an answer to fears that the global supply of oil would be reduced to a trickle.

It was 1956 during the Suez Crisis and Britain, along with a number of other countries, had succumb to gas shortages and invoked rationing. What was needed was a small car that was cheap to own and good on gas. That's it, that's all.

Little did anyone know it would become the coolest car in the world - a fashion statement, the ultimate in front-wheel-drive chic and an icon - racking up sales that topped five million over a period spanning four decades.

The first Mini rolled off the assembly line on Aug. 26, 1959 to rather lackluster reviews. The car was beset with a raft of problems, including water leaks, faulty clutches and transmissions. But the public loved the little box on wheels, which debuted under two names: Morris Mini Minor; and the Austin Seven (the British Motor Corporation owned both Morris and Austin brands). The two were sold side-by-side for a decade before the car simply became the Mini.

This sales sensation was designed by the legendary Alec Issigonis - later to become Sir Alec - either on a napkin or a tablecloth. Take your pick. The idea was to design the smallest possible car that would hold four adults plus some luggage. It had to be economical to operate, yet fun to drive.

Issigonis's rough sketch turned out to be uncannily close to the real thing. And the radical "wheel-at-each-corner" design remained the same for decades.

In a major departure from tradition, the car boasted front-wheel drive, a four-cylinder transversely mounted engine, rubber-sprung suspension, tiny 10-inch wheels and a gearbox mounted under the engine as part of the oil pan. The design allowed for compact external dimensions with an amazing amount of interior room.

Shortly after its debut, the cheap-and-cheerful Mini came to the attention of famed race-car builder John Cooper, who immediately saw the potential for a sportier version of the car.

Cooper had found success in Formula Three open-wheel racing in the early 1950s by building cars with the engine placed behind the driver, a revolutionary concept at the time.

But many in the racing establishment doubted that the layout would work on the larger Formula One cars. The skeptics were silenced in 1958 when Stirling Moss drove a Cooper to victory in the Grand Prix of Argentina. It was the first World Championship win for a rear-engined car. Within three years, rear-mounted engines were the standard for all F1 cars, as is still the case today.

Despite the glitz and glamour of Formula One, Cooper wanted to create a fun, sporty car for people on small budgets. In 1961 he convinced BMC to allow him to develop a performance-oriented version of the Mini called the Cooper and, eventually, three versions of the Cooper S were built, the most potent of which came with a 76-horsepower 1.3-liter engine. Base Minis came with less than half (34) the power from a tiny(er) 848-c.c. engine. All Coopers came with wider wheels and tires and disc brakes.
For his efforts, Cooper was rewarded the princely sum of two British pounds (about $4) for each car sold.

Cooper's souped-up Mini was an instant success. It became a car for everyone from celebrities to the guy next door.

Soon, entertainers Paul McCartney, John Lennon and Peter Sellers were driving the Cooper S. Even Queen Elizabeth II was photographed taking a spin. The car had become a must-have for the trendy, jet-setters of the Swinging '60s.

It didn't hurt that the Mini was also an instant success as a race car, becoming the first British auto to win the European Rally championship and taking the checkered flag three times between 1964 and '67 at the Monte Carlo Rally, which was run in the winter. Legendary Austrian racer Nicki Lauda drove a Mini to his first competition victory, as did Graham Hill and Ken Tyrell.

In 1969, the Mini gained an even bigger cult following with the release of the movie The Italian Job (which starred Michael Caine and Noel Coward), when the little red, white and blue cars zoomed through the streets of Turin at death-defying speeds in a daring escape sequence in which robbers fled with a stash of gold bullion.

By the early 1970s, Cooper's association with the Mini was over. BMC had morphed into British Leyland Motors (1968), and the bean counters were hard at work adjusting the bottom line. The Cooper name was dropped in an effort to save a few quid.

In 1990, Rover, which then owned the marquee, made a valiant effort to re-launch the Mini Cooper and it continued production until October 2000 with little success. An era had come to a close, punctuated by the death of John Cooper on Christmas Eve that year.

Playing on the rich history of the Mini, BMW secured the rights to both it and the Cooper name and resurrected the marque in 2003, designing it with the many of the same styling cues and engineering principles that made the original such a hit. From all indications, John Cooper would have approved.

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