WE DID IT OUR WAY

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By Stuart Grant and photos by Mike Schmucker

With the 1956 Suez Crisis in full swing, Sir Leonard Lord of the Morris Company realised the need for a cheap, practical and fuel-efficient British family car. He set his ace engineer Alec Issigonis and a team of designers the task in October 1956, and by July ’57 a prototype (project number ADO15) had been designed and built. Months of rigorous tests and changes followed, and in April 1959 production of what we now call the Mini got underway. South Africa wasn’t far behind and received its first unit in August that year. To celebrate 60 years of the icon at the tip of Africa last year we climbed behind the wheel of a 1275E, the last of the local Mini models.

British Motor Corporation marketed the Mini under both Austin and Morris names until 1969, and the very first one that hit our shores was an Austin 850 in Tartan Red. It was an important moment in history as its purpose here was to act as an aid in making up the tooling to start South African Mini building. After years of digging, Ryno Verster, author of Thanks for the Mini Memories – A South African Mini Story eventually found a picture in Ralph Clarke’s (Engineering Manager at BMC’s Blackheath, Cape Town plant) archives dating the completion of the first locally assembled Mini on 21 December 1959. By close of business that year 36 Minis had been sold, 24 badged as Austin 850s and the remaining dozen Morris Mini-Minors. Interestingly, Morris Mini-Minors were also put together at Motor Assemblies in Durban between February 1960 and March ’63 – seemingly as it made financial sense for the Morris dealer McCarthy Rodway, who also had a stake in Motor Assemblies.

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Like in the UK, the Mini proved an instant hit with CAR magazine, which in its January 1960 issue went as far as to say: “At one stroke, the Austin 850 Deluxe has caused us to revise rapidly all our previous ideas about our small-car standards of road-holding, suspension, performance, comfort and roominess.” Sir Leonard Lord would have been smiling at the sight of reports like this – it is rumoured that he detested the bubble cars that were prolific during the Suez Crisis so much that he vowed to rid the streets of them by designing a ‘proper miniature car’. To do this, his brief for what would become the Mini was a car that could be contained within a box that measured 3m x 1.2m x 1.2m, and the passenger compartment should occupy 60% of that length. For cost reasons, the engine had to be an existing BMC unit, which by default meant a car item and therefore already a notch above the bike-engined bubble cars.

Issigonis’s solution was to use the BMC A-Series four-cylinder, water-cooled engine but he swung it through 90°, mounting it transversely with the engine oil-lubricated, four-speed gearbox sitting in the sump and powering the front wheels. This, along with a side-mounted radiator, enabled a shorter than normal vehicle length.

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The suspension was genius. Designed by Dr Alex Moulton at Moulton Developments Limited, compact rubber cones replaced conventional springs to save space and featured progressive-rate springing as well as some shock absorption. The ride could be described as a bit raw on the bumpy stuff, but the rigidity of the cones and the positioning of the wheels at all four corners gave the Mini a go-kart-like feeling that the modern Mini marketing teams still like to call upon.

The South African public loved the package and despite the Mini 950 base model only ranking as the 15th cheapest car here in 1960 (we also had lots of cheap bubble cars), the Mini was regarded as the best value car on the market. Four years later, the bubble car phase popped and Mini earned its title as the cheapest car in the land. Oddly though, no Mini was ever the number-one seller in SA, with the highest rank achieved being 5th in ’63. (I blame our blue skies, wide open spaces and long roads for this.)

Late 1960 saw the South African-assembled panel van added to the Mini menu, and the station wagon hit the road a year later. Blackheath built the 997cc Cooper from mid-1962 and expanded the range with the military vehicle-like Moke from ’63 (although these only went on sale from ’65). Sales of the performance-orientated 1071cc Cooper S went on sale in July ’64, but possibly the biggest news of the period came earlier that year when the first locally manufactured engines were produced (remember, local content requirements were being enforced and steps like this were key in giving South African Mini production longevity).

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There is no Mini story without mentioning motorsport. On the international front, the Cooper S with twin SU carburettors, a closer-ratio gearbox and front disc brakes went rallying and racing. Victory on the Monte Carlo went the way of Mini Cooper S in 1964, ’65 and ’67 (with Paddy Hopkirk, Timo Mäkinen and Rauno Aaltonen at the wheel respectively). In 1966 the first-placed Mini was disqualified after the event when the car’s headlights were controversially deemed to be illegal. On the track, Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) ace John Love became the first non-British racing driver to win the British Saloon Car Championship driving a Mini Cooper in 1962.

On the home front, the first works-entered race Mini was Peter White’s 848cc Austin Mini that drove to 6th overall in the 1960 East London Winter Motor Race. Verster reports that the first Mini to enter a rally was driven by Tom Baker, with Willem van Heerden calling the notes, in the 1960 Transvaal Trial. Thereafter, Minis of all forms were a fixture in the various saloon car events with names like Tony Woodley, Roddy Turner, Giv Giovannoni, George Armstong, Brian Ferreira and Andy Terlouw just some of the regular protagonists.

Blackheath kept updating the Mini to suit the ever-changing motoring public’s demands, as well as meeting the local content requirement (calculated by weight percentage) stipulated by the South African government. The purpose of this programme, implemented by means of greater tariff protection for car parts made in SA, progressive rebates of excise duty on cars and the offer of bonus import permits, was put in place to promote the development of the South African economy.

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By March 1965 the Blackheath Mini’s local content reached 50%, thanks to a focus on the heavier parts. First up, the brake drums were cast in Cape Town by African Malleable and then Gearings. Then came local engine blocks, pistons, cylinder heads, subframes, hubs, radiators, manifolds and generators. Every little bit helped, as evidenced by the locally made spark plugs and wheel nuts. Phase two of the programme kicked in at the end of ’65 with con-rods, radius arms, wheel bearings, cam and crank shafts, flywheels and oil pumps joining the list to see the 55% mark reached by March 1967.

In the mid-ʼ60s BMC merged with Jaguar to become British Motor Holdings and then in 1968 joined up with Leyland Motor Corporation. South Africa followed suit and adopted the name British Leyland Motor Corporation. Despite these background shuffles, the Blackheath brains trust continued fine-tuning the car and developing parts to keep abreast of the government’s programme. By 1975, a South African Leyland Mini met the 66% mark admirably. This ingenuity not only ticked the officials’ boxes but also meant that South Africa’s Minis were unique when compared with overseas-assembled cars – and we got some tasty specials too, like the 1000S, Sunshine, Moonlight, 1275 GTS, booted Mk3 and more.

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In July 1978, the Leyland future looked uncertain with Sigma Motor Corporation proposing a deal where with a 51% shareholding it would take over Leyland’s car building and selling business. This would mean moving production to a facility in Pretoria by late 1979. The deal never went through, with the official statement stating: “Many months have been spent endeavouring to resolve the complex arrangements that would have been required to bring the proposed merger to fruition. In the event, the obstacles to the merger proved insurmountable in the light of both parties’ interest.”

Whether this production facility ripple was the reason or not, the bottom line is that Blackheath Mini production had stopped and, as of March 1980, there were no units listed on the sales charts. There was no stock and no dealer network.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Mini. In July that year, Leyland South Africa management announced that the Mini would be back. Production would once again fire up at Blackheath and a Leyland dealer network would be re-established. By August a new Mini, the 1275E, was back on the sales lists and, mindful that the Mini had fallen off the map, the advertising department jumped into action, with material reading: “The Mini’s back. The incomparable Mini. Welcome back at your Leyland dealer. At a very welcome price.”

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And welcome it was. Despite being the highest specification Mini to date, the 1275E was still SA’s cheapest car – at R4 185 it allowed owners R313 to spend on every possible accessory imaginable before they reached the price of its nearest competitor, the entry-level Fiat 128. If you wanted something a bit more special and didn’t feel the urge to tick the accessory boxes, you could go for the limited-edition 1275E-based Luxury HLE, sporty Rebel or Panda and black-only Souvenir models. By the time production ended in 1983 (it was no longer at Blackheath, having moved to Elsies River in mid-1982), just over 10 000 1275E variants were cruising SA roads, bringing the total number of South African Minis to 92 891 at the close of play.

Happy 60th Mini, long may the memories continue.

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To read a more in-depth tale on the South African Mini, get yourself a copy of Ryno Verster’s incredibly researched book.


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