Model Evolution: The Mini

By Brandon Turkus

January 24, 2012


Mk I Mini: The original Mini, designed as a response to the Suez Canal Crisis of the 50s, was penned by Sir Alec Issigonis (supposedly on a cocktail napkin). This car (sold as an Austin or Morris back in the day) was the forerunner of our modern small-car layout, as it used a front-wheel-drive layout with a transversely mounted four-cylinder powerplant. It was revered for its tight handling, due largerly to the rubber-cone suspension that Issigonis used. The original Mini packed a mere 34 horsepower.


Mk I Mini Cooper and Cooper S: Originally built as a homologation special for Group 2 rallying, only 1000 Coopers were built in 1961. They utilized a larger, 997cc engine (as opposed to the 848cc mill in the standard Austin Mini) that featured double SU carbs and disc brakes. The Cooper churned out 55 horsepower. Come 1963, the Mini Cooper S went on sale, with a 1071cc engine under hood and larger disc brakes to rein things in. The original Cooper S also netted a pair of Monte Carlo Rally victories (the Brits were disqualified after winning a third time over a technical infraction involving a headlight).


Mk II Mini: The second-generation Mini was largely unchanged, with only mild revisions made to the grille and greenhouse. Despite the lack of changes, the Mini made a big splash in other ways, with a star-making turn in the original Italian Job, and a third (some say fourth) Monte Carlo Rally victory.


Mk III Mini: The Mk III Mini brought the new Mini Clubman and 1275GT to market. The Clubman was meant as a higher-end model, while the 1275GT featured the same engine as mightiest Cooper S in a more affordable package. Both cars featured a squared-off front end, and other cosmetic changes. The Cooper S was discontinued while the Mk III was in production, and wouldn’t be available again until 1991.


Mk IV, V, VI, and VII: From 1976, when the Mk IV arrived, until it went out of production in 2000, the Mini remained largely the same aesthetically. Demand for the Mini tapered off in the 80s and 90s, as larger, better-funded brands brought newer, more modern city cars to market. The Mini soldiered on with a variety of special editions. The Cooper name returned in 1991 with fuel injection, although it wasn’t the pure performer of the original.


R50/R53 Mini: In 2000, BMW acquired the Rover Group, and in the process obtained the rights to the Mini brand. In 2001, the German outfit brought a modernized Mini to market, with all the creature comforts expected of a BMW, but with the retro styling of the original Mini. Purists derided it for its bulk (it weighed over 2500 pounds, and positively dwarfed the now classic Mini). The base model was the Cooper, while the Cooper S occupied the top of the totem pole, with its supercharged 1.6-liter engine.


R53 Mini John Cooper Works GP: With production coming to an end on the first-generation of the BMW-owned Mini, a send-off was required. Mini raided the John Cooper Works parts catalogue, and fitted a Cooper S with the JCW engine, suspension, and brake packages. A unique aero kit, lightweight, four-spoke wheels, and a carbon fiber rear wing were installed on the exterior, while the interior had the back seats ripped out. Other deletions reduced weight by 88 pounds overall. Only 2000 JCW GPs were produced during 2006.


R56 Mini Cooper S: 2007 marked the arrival of the new R56 Mini, with its turbocharged, 1.6-liter engine (standard Coopers, like the one pictured, used a naturally aspirated version of the same engine). The new model was significantly overhauled, and addressed a number of the issue with the older R50/R53 Mini. The R56 was joined by a convertible (there was an R50/R53 convertible as well), a long-wheelbase Clubman model, an all-wheel-drive, four-door Countryman, and recently, a two-seat Coupe. And that brings us to…


R58 Mini Coupe: While there was a precedent for the Mini Countryman (Mini Moke anyone?), the Mini Coupe was a bit of departure. Sure, there were fastback Minis before, but never in significant numbers (at least not as significant as the Moke). That didn’t stop Mini, and parent company BMW, from bringing a three-box, two-seat version of the R56 to market. It packs the same 1.6-liter four-cylinder as the rest of the Mini range, and is available as a rip-roaring John Cooper Works version. The Coupe will be joined by a two-seat, soft-top convertible before the year is out, called the Mini Roadster.

Mk Mk Mk Mk Mk R50/R53 R53 R56 R58
It’s been said that the original Volkswagen GTI is the world’s first hot hatch. Respecfully, we disagree. The original Mini, especially in Cooper and Cooper S guises, has been terrorizing the bigger cars of the world for almost 50 years, starting with the first Mini Cooper back in 1961.
So in honor of our new, long-term Mini Cooper S Coupe (perhaps you’ve heard about it?), we’ve gone back and compiled a list of the greatest Mini’s from the 1959 original, to the 2002 rebirth, to our 2012 Mini Coupe. Enjoy!