Eight design innovations that made the MINI

MINI has long led the way in Great British design. These are the ideas that brought the Mini and the MINI to life

The original Mini is one of the most significant and iconic pieces of car design in history. Particular features of the original Mini's design have filtered through to the modern model and made it the car it is today, bearing a clear resemblance to the original.

Here we take a look at some of the most innovative design features of the Mini that contributed to its success in becoming one of the most recognisable and forward-thinking cars of the 20th century, from the original sketch of the car made by Alec Issigonis on a napkin, to wicker picnic baskets and the unique door configuration of the modern MINI Clubman

• MINI John Cooper Works: the hottest MINIs arround

Mini napkin sketch

It might sound like something of an old wives’ tale, but designer Alec Issigonis really did draw the initial idea for the original Mini on a napkin while in a restaurant, back in 1956. His colleague Jack Daniels then turned this rough drawing into proper mechanical diagrams, although the initial sketch does have some detailed notes and ideas on how the car would come together, including the requirement that the car should be able to fit in a 10x4x4ft box.

Big space, small car 

One of the key aims that Issigonis wanted to achieve was creating a small car with plenty of space for its passengers. The brief was that the car should be no more than 10ft long but still carry four people and their luggage.

With no full boot, the wheels placed as close to each corner as possible and the engine and other components packed in minimum space, 80 per cent of the floor was freed up for the occupants.

Rubber cone suspension

Another space-saving idea that featured in the original Mini was the rubber cone suspension system, used instead of the traditional spring set-up. As well as working as standard suspension, the cones provided some further damping in the car. One disadvantage was that they also served up a rather bumpy ride, but this rigidity helped to give the Mini its now-famous go-kart handling. In 1964, the rubber suspension was replaced, but the set-up then reappeared in 1971 and was retained for the rest of the car’s production.

10-inch wheels 

In a world where 15 and 16-inch wheels are the norm for your average family car, the original Mini was fitted with rather tiny-sounding 10-inch wheels – Issigonis had originally wanted eight-inch wheels. As with much of the clever design of the early cars, this was mostly to do with creating the most space possible for the people inside. The wheels had already been pushed out as far as possible to the corners, but it was also decided that small rims would help maximise space still further. The wheels were specially made by Dunlop.

Transverse engine

An important contribution to freeing up passenger space was how the engine was fitted in the car. With just 18 inches available for an engine and gearbox, the decision was made to fit the engine transversely – in other words placing it sideways in the car – with the gearbox mounted underneath it in the oil sump. What began as a useful way to save further space set the benchmark for all small front-wheel-drive cars after that, and many modern cars continue to do this to allow more space for passengers.

Wicker picnic baskets 

MINI may be well known now for the long list of personalised options available for its modern cars, but the manufacturer was moving things on with its early models, too – although this was as much to do with saving space as about buyers being able to customise their car. With no full boot, the company offered the optional extra of wicker picnic baskets, which were designed to fit perfectly into the space provided underneath the rear passenger seats. 

MINI Clubman doors (2007)

The ‘barn doors’ appeared on the original Mini Clubman estate, and MINI brought back the configuration for its modern interpretation of the Clubman model of 2007. The wide opening door meant access to the boot was easier than ever. However, the new model also introduced a two-part side door. While the standard three-door hatch meant it was a little tight getting in the back, the Clubman’s extra door opening on the driver’s side gave the car that little additional touch of practicality. 

Flexible boot floors

The ideas of saving space and creating more of it haven’t been lost on the modern MINI, either. It may not be unique in doing so, but the clever flexible boot floor means that you can add to the amount of load space on offer. Offered across most of the models, this helps to turn a small hatchback into a car that can carry passengers and all their luggage – still fulfilling that original brief even today.  


The Magic of MINI

The Magic of MINI: special feature

• The future of MINI: head man Jochen Goller reveals all• Classic Mini vs modern MINI: which is the better car?• How many MINIs? The MINI range reviewed• Eight design innovations that made the MINI• MINI John Cooper Works: the hottest MINIs arround• MINI's greatest concept cars• Paddy Hopkirk and the Mini that won the Monte Carlo Rally• Can the new MINI 5-door really be used as a family car?• MINI Countryman ALL4 Racing Dakar Rally ride review• MINI UK factory: how we make the MINI• MINI adverts: the campaigns that built the brand• Win a MINI for a year


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