It speaks volumes that the adherents to the belief that “progress is threatening the things we treasure” are either car enthusiasts or religious fundamentalists. Not that it is entirely unhealthy, everyone needs a higher ideal to look towards to, even if that statement is largely untrue when it comes to cars.
Despite all the despair and outrage over an ever-increasing level of emissions and safety requirements, progress has democratised performance and luxury a great deal. Today’s car of the average Joe could outrun nearly any supercar from a half a decade ago or be cossetted in the sort of comfort the Gilded Age could even dream of, sometimes even enjoying the excess of both at the same time. All the while working with clockwork consistency and dependability, and yet, our rose-tinted disposition often obscures these objective improvements.
The tumultuous period of the early-2000s when car companies rushed to meet new social-responsibility quotas with unrefined engineering solutions might have caused many to fear for the future of our relationship with the car. Though it goes without saying that much of those concerns are unfounded.
Nowadays car development has become an exact science and we owe a great deal of debt to development engineers who work tirelessly to distil those esoteric qualities that fans keep banging on about, but there is only so much technology and tightening budgets would allow. Not to mention that it is impossible for any modern-day simulacrum to live up to the embellished memories in one’s own head.
There is however an exception to this progress, and, as its progenitor celebrates its 60th anniversary, it becomes increasingly clear that no amount of engineering know-how or black magic could recapture the true ‘spirit’ of the Sir Alec Issigonis’ 1959 Mini.
This isn’t to say that BMW fumbled the job description when they recreated the Mini with their MINI sub-brand, far from it. Munich’s brain bank certainly did exceptionally well in copying its aesthetics and repackaging it for a new audience, imbuing it with the same sort of non-conformist character that defined the era from which the original came from while working some of its renowned chassis voodoo into its bones.
Equal measures of fun to drive and be seen in, the MINI was a modern 21st-century reinterpretation done right, but it is as close as an iteration of the new millennium will ever get to its 40-year old inspiration.
Where the MINI harped on about replicating the original’s “go-kart-like” steering feel and handling by means of a quick and heavy steering rack couple with a firm and often uncompromising suspension, its progenitor was a go-kart with somewhere to mount the registration plates.
Due to the constraints of its package, and thanks to Issigonis’ obsession with getting the most passenger space out of its tiny 10ft x 4ft footprint, the steering column stuck out at a steep angle, which gave drivers a similar sensation to helming a go-kart.
Adding to that was the Mini’s use of rubber cones instead of conventional springs to keep the wheel wells from intruding into what little space the car’s architecture had, which erased all traces of body lean and gave the sort of razor-sharp responsiveness its modern counterparts could only dream of. There is nothing quite like the Mini, and it is likely that there will be nothing quite like it to ever emerge.
Where the MINI was a product of its engineers, the Mini was a product of its time. Despite our engineering know-how today – and even allowing for some modern-day bloat to creep in – recreating the architecture that gave the 1959 original’s intense character in today’s environment is nigh on impossible. Safety nannies would frown at its upwards angled steering column as would customer expectations dismiss its ergonomic compromises without so much of a glance at a glossy brochure.
Times have moved on in the 60 years since Issigonis unveiled his brainchild to the world, and while it soldiered on for 41 years, amassing a final production figure of 5.5 million, so has the world. Nowadays cars have gotten faster, more useable and practical than their predecessors, driven by the fierce competition with one another, whilst raising our expectations in the process. The MINI meets those expectations, even if it didn’t capture the original’s beloved character in its entirety. To many who aren’t too deep into the car’s histrionics, that more than suffices.
Looking back at the original Mini, it truly was a moment when the right circumstances, demands and personalities came along to give unto the world an icon that neither progress nor time could surpass. And more than what it represented to individual owners and the public of its era, that reason alone is what makes the Mini truly a milestone that progress only seems to be drawing us further away from.