The original Mini is, quite deservedly, considered one of the greatest designs in all of motoring. It’s a triumph of packaging that defined a template still used today. But it had one pretty big flaw, one that was (almost) fixed by a controversial, prostitute-loving, tax-frauding politician, who was also the force behind Britian’s motorways.
The politician in question is Ernest Marples, who was the UK’s Minister of Transport from 1959-1964, dates you may recognize as being around the birth of the Mini as well.
Marples was hugely influential in the development of British motoring laws, introducing parking meters, and the Road Traffic act of 1960 that introduced, among other things, standards for road-line markings, traffic wardens, and the famed MOT test for cars.
Marples also oversaw Britain’s first major construction of its motorway network, at the expense of cutting down on the British railway network. It’s said that this had the effect of committing the UK to being a primarily car-focused transportation network, as opposed to public transport.
Marples also had interests in some companies building the motorways, a conflict of interest that caused him some trouble. That, along with his alleged use of prostitutes and his flight to Monaco in 1975 to avoid a huge tax bill have given Marples a pretty checkered legacy.
But I’m not really interested in all that. I’m more interested in Marples’ special request for a modification to the BMC Mini, a modification that really should have been implemented into production cars. It’s a feature we all take for granted today, and it sounds so mundane it’s hard to imagine it to be specially requested.
It’s a hatchback.
It seems Marples met the great John Cooper at a sports car show, and Cooper convinced Marples (rightly) that he needed to get a Mini Cooper 1071S, pronto. According to legend, Marples agreed, but only on the condition that the Mini have a hatchback, so he could carry his golf clubs and cases of wine he liked to pick up when in France.
As you may well know, the original Mini, as brilliant as Alec Issigonis’ design was, had a sort of strange trunk setup. Though the Mini was always two-box-shaped and had no traditional trunk (the Riley Elf added one), instead of a hatch, the car had a small trunk with a lid that folded down.
There’s a reason hatchbacks are the most popular small-car design across the globe today. They just make so much damn sense.
The fold-down lid was clever, allowing the lid to be used to accommodate oversized luggage in a pinch (if you didn’t mind getting that luggage exposed to the weather), but, if you really think about it, a hatch is a much, much better way to do things, allowing much better access, the ability to load much larger items, doubling the vertical room in the trunk, and, with a folding rear seat, allowing for a greatly expandable cargo area.
To make Marples’ dream a reality, Cooper organized a meeting. From the great ARO Online site:
John Cooper organised a meeting between Marples, George Harriman, the Chairman of BMC and Alec Issigonis, the firm’s Technical Director. Issigonis was concerned about torsional rigidity on a Mini hatchback conversion. It was decided that the conversion would be designed by John Sheppard and constructed by Dick Gallimore’s experimental workshop at Longbridge.
John Sheppard later said: ‘We put in a channel all round the hatch aperture. Instead of having one aperture for the rear window and one for the boot, we ran them into one and turned it into a boxed channel. I would say it was probably even stronger than an ordinary Mini, because of this complete ring structure it wasn’t a difficult exercise at all.’
So, with a ring-like support surrounding the hatch, the car’s structural rigidity and strength seems to have improved with the hatch! BMC built two cars, one with a steel hatch that was to become Marple’s car, and one with a fiberglass hatch, for their own testing.
Marple’s car (which he didn’t officially take ownership of until 1968, when he was out of office) I think looks fantastic, and the hatch is just what the car needed to really achieve its full potential, I think.
Look how much more practical it makes the Mini—that little trunk area doesn’t seem as restrictive when you knock out the ceiling and provide a means for the rear seat to fold. Here, look at the difference:
These hatchback Minis really feel like the modern template for all those German, Italian, and French superminis that still dominate European roads today.
Which is why it’s so strange that BMC never made them.
I have no idea why; it seems like most of the engineering and design had been taken care of, and it’s hard to imagine any circumstance where this improved, stronger, and more practical Mini would have come up short in comparison to the trunked version.
But, they never did. Maybe it was tooling costs, maybe Issigonis felt slighted – it’s not really clear what the thinking was. The original Mini was a cheap city car and this may have ramped up their costs.
Tellingly, though, prototypes of Mini successors as early as 1968 did include a hatchback in the design, like Issigonis’ clean and elegant BMC 9x.
It’s not like the Mini would have been the first hatchback or anything like that. Hatchbacks were certainly known before the Mini, with Citroën’s Traction Avant having a variant in 1938 called the Commerciale that was, for all practical purposes, a FWD hatchback.
Hatchbacks weren’t exactly common when the Mini first came out, but BMC had experimented with them before, on the 1959 Austin A40 Farina Countryman, for example. By the 1961 Renault 4 was out with a hatch, along with other cars like the Autobianchi Primula. So it’s not like Issigonis wasn’t aware of hatchbacks prior to Marples, or anything like that.
It’s hard to say that the Mini would have been that much more successful if it had a hatchback; I mean, the basic design stayed in production all the way until 2000, so that says something.
But I can’t help but think that perhaps the Mini could have maintained more relevance and competed better against all the Fiat 127s and VW Polos and Renault 5s if they just listened to that one not-exactly-universally-loved Minister of Transport. They’re hatchbacks today, so he ended up being right.