Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mini Estate History - Inception and Launch

BMC had long wheel base Mini variants in the pipeline even before the Mini sedans were released in 1959. The van, estates and pickup underwent development together. According to the Pressnell bible “The design was put together during 1959 in Dick Gallimore’s Longbridge body experimental shop, Doug Adams doing the essential of the work, to the directions of Issigonis, before passing the projects to John Sheppard to be drawn up.” Where the Mini sedan was to be a car for the district nurse, early Traveller advertisements show it as a car for the family man or even businessman. Estates were only to be available in one trim level, to match the more upmarket De-Luxe sedan of the time.

Presnell suggests that this may have been the first and only prototype, it is badged as an Austin which was common for most of the Mini prototypes developed at Longbridge. XOJ registration numbers were used in Birmingham between November 1958 and May 1959. At this stage the design is fairly complete. If you ignore the tacky aftermarket hubcaps the main differences are that it has squared off corners to the rear windows and one piece side windows. Photographs of it from the rear show that the doors are solidly framed all around - possibly made of sheet aluminium with a structural timber frame, like the Morris Minor Traveller.

BMC were of course a mongrel crossbreed of former competitors - primarily Austin and The Nuffield Group (Morris). At that time there was a large number of dealers who held either Morris or Austin concessions and the buying public still held faithfully to the model of car they'd always bought. As a result most BMC cars came in more than one flavour (six in the case of the 1100). The Mini estates escaped the worst of this badge engineering, being marketed as either a Morris Mini Traveller, or an Austin Se7en Countryman (later Austin Mini Countryman). Both names were drawn from previous estates in the Mini's ancestry, most obviously the Morris Minor Traveller and the Austin A30 Countryman.

1955 Austin A30 Countryman
1955 Morris Minor Traveller

For several years, Morris and Austin Mini sedans were built in separate plants, Cowley turned out Morrises while Longbridge turned out Austins. However most of the variant Mini models, including the coopers, pickups, vans and estates were assembled at Longbridge, regardless of marque. The bodies were built, painted and trimmed by Fisher and Ludlow at their factory in Castle Bromwich,  then transported to Longbridge by rail to have the mechanicals installed. In other words my Morris was built by Austin.

Theo Page's wonderful cut-away drawing
illustrated the Motorsport road test.
The Countryman and Traveller were both launched on the 16th of September 1960, but had been in production since March that year. They were generally well received by the press. John Bolster in Motorsport, 9 December 1960 liked the de luxe interior trim level of the Traveller and praised the smoother gear change and less choppy ride afforded by the longer wheel base, in comparison to his own Mini sedan. The Autocar, 23 September 1960 wrote "Already holding a reputation of being a great little car, this latest version will certainly enhance this assessment. For town use it remains easy to park, and is fast through traffic because of its compact dimensions. On the open road its performance is adequate to transport four people and luggage with considerable economy and ease.".  Bolster concluded his road test report with " This new small station wagon is an extremely attractive addition to the B.M.C. range. It is not spectacularly fast, but it keeps up a remarkable average speed over difficult roads. Many families will buy it as a second car, but it will turn out to be the sort of second car that soon takes first place in everybody's affections. At £623 it is more costly than the saloon but represents remarkable value.". I find it interesting that even in 1960 both reviewers tactfully described performance as "adequate" or "not spectacular". Its very common to hear that an 850cc Mini is underpowered for modern traffic conditions, but it looks as though that was the case even 50 years ago. Scanned copies of both road test articles are available from the downloadable documents section, to the left.

Traveller at Earls Court 1960 - Image courtesy
Following the press launch, the next big public display of both the Traveller and Countryman was at the London Motor Show at Earls Court in October 1960. The Traveller was on the Morris stand, mounted at a dramatic angle on a floodlit circular dais. Interestingly, the show car wears white-wall tyres with the paint scheme of white with a contrasting black roof. A two-tone colour scheme was never available from the factory, and anticipated the colour scheme of the Mini Supers and Coopers by almost a year.

Countryman sans "Miss Austin"

The Countryman was displayed less dramatically, but perhaps equally eye catchingly, draped in a young model "Miss Austin", AKA Mandy Rice-Davies who went on to become a showgirl and friend of Christine Keeler of Profumo Affair infamy. Sadly the only picture I can find appears to have been taken after Miss Austin had finished for the day, however I did find a quote in  "An Affair of State":

 "The Mini was the most photographed car that year and many of the photographs show a cheeky, open-faced young girl with bobbed hair, thick black eyebrows, a turned-up nose and an appealing smile. Mandy was also photographed at receptions, cocktail parties, dinners, and on the way to lunch with the Mini's brilliant designer, Alex Issigonis."

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