Classic Mini Cooper | Classic Mini Cooper S

Origins Of The Classic Mini Cooper

The British Motor Corporation (BMC) who built the classic Mini wanted to increase the image of the Mini and so insisted it was used in competition and so it was duly handed over to BMC Competition Department at the famous Abingdon plant (later known as the Special Tuning division), just south of Oxford in England.

Who promptly spent much of their time trying to avoid it. With an engine of 848cc and only 34 bhp it was badly underpowered for any form of competition even rallying where the big Healys were gaining success, not least because they were built like tanks and could sustain more damage than most cars of the day and still make the finish.

The problem was compounded as Saab had recently released the Saab 96 driven by a dominant Erik Carlsson. The 841cc two-stroke triple could kick out around 80 bhp in full rally spec whereas the Mini was good for 50 bhp at most (and reliability was suspect at that figure). Even things like the original steel wheels proved fragile in competition use, cracking around the studs. So the first two years of the cars' competition life were spent on pursuing reliability

But then something happened that changed everything.

Mini Cooper by Marcin Wichary from San Francisco, U.S.A.
Mini Cooper by Marcin Wichary from San Francisco, U.S.A.

John Cooper

John Cooper was a race car constructor who found that several of the race car drivers he hired actually like driving the Mini, but perhaps most important of all that other versions of the BMC A series engine where far more tunable that the 848cc lump and could easily be adapted for the Mini. Other models in the BMC line up used the A series engine in 948cc guise which was much better to tune.

It wasn't long before John Cooper was using the A Series engine in his Formula Junior single-seater racing cars. The next step was to start selling tuning kits for Mini's themselves. And after much lobbying of the BMC management he persuaded them to start building factory cars with a Cooper conversion built in. A part of the deal allowed BMC to use the Cooper name on the cars for which John Cooper got £2 for each car sold. (Somewhere around 125,000 Cooper and Cooper S models were made in total.)

Mini Cooper by Oxyman
Mini Cooper by Oxyman
1963 Austin Mini Cooper S. 1275 cc bored to 1308. 123 bhp (claimed) by Writegeist
1963 Austin Mini Cooper S. 1275 cc bored to 1308. 123 bhp (claimed) by Writegeist

The Classic Mini Cooper S

Many rallies at that time were of the overnight back road variety but the 848cc engine simply lacked the power to excel. The 997cc classic Mini Cooper was a whole new ball game. With a long-stroke version of the 948cc engine the Mini Cooper made 55 bhp at 6,000rpm in standard. But this car never really got a lot of development work for competition , partly because it was only around for a couple of years but mainly because work on its successor the 1071cc Cooper S was already under way.

Within two years of the classic Mini Cooper's launch it had being joined by the Mini Cooper S.

BMC A Series Engine by Tennen-Gas
BMC A Series Engine by Tennen-Gas

The A Series Engine

Designed in the late 1940s but only put in to use in 1951, the water-cooled in-line four is still going strong in thousands of cars around Britain even today with strong after-market support and modified Minis being as popular as ever. It was never designed as anything other than an engine for cheap mass-production so the fact it was so tunable was a benefit. The original engine of 1951 was the 948cc which was then made both bigger and smaller over the years with the biggest interior change in 1963 when the position of the cylinder barrels was modified slightly to allow bigger bore sizes.

Classic Mini Cooper S

Mini Cooper S 1964. This car, which was one of the cars prepared by the BMC competitions department, won outright victory in the 1965 Monte Carlo. It was crewed by Timo Makinen and Paul Easter. This vehicle is kept at the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydo
Mini Cooper S 1964. This car, which was one of the cars prepared by the BMC competitions department, won outright victory in the 1965 Monte Carlo. It was crewed by Timo Makinen and Paul Easter. This vehicle is kept at the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydo

Competition Success

The 1963 BMC tweak to the A series block made it stronger and allowed larger bore sizes to be used. Cylinder head castings were also modified at the same time. The result was the 1071cc Cooper S being born. It was shortly followed by a limited number of 970cc cars and then the famous 1275 Cooper S. A car that achieved fame not only in the movie The Italian Job but also by repeatedly winning the Monte Carlo Rally (including the infamous 1966 incident when it was disqualified at post-event scrutineering having won, due, according to the organisers, to illegal lighting. Many saw it as a case of sour grapes by the French organisers.)

The 970cc Cooper S used a unique short-stroke motor and was designed as a car for the under 1000cc class in racing

It was in a 1071cc Cooper S that Paddy Hopkirk won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. But it was the 1275cc Cooper S which always received most attention from the Competition Department as it was the car with the most chance of not only a class win but winning an event overall. It was the 1275 Cooper S that won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1965, 1966 (disqualified), and 1967.

From as early as 1964 when the 1275 was born it was capable of 100 bhp at the flywheel in modified form. Development work went on improving reliability, reducing the weight of the car overall and sorting out the transmission, always the weak point in the A Series.

Some of the Group 6 cars for racing had 1293cc engines fitted with an eight-port head and fuel injection and five-speed gearboxes and made around 125-130 bhp at the flywheel in the late sixties. They also had a second radiator added to aid cooling.

A Supercharged Mini

Classic Mini Coopers Today

All the classic Mini Cooper cars are collectors items with the 1275 S selling for silly money. But many people just want a fast Mini and there are many after-market outlets to cater to them. The 1275 engine is regularly rebuilt as either 1400cc or even 1430 and has being taken as far as 1476cc. There are also turbo and supercharger kits available offering around 200 bhp. Something of a step up from the original 34 bhp and 848cc released to the public in 1959, fifty years ago. There are also eight-port heads and 16-valve heads, fuel injection kits and five-speed 'box conversions. The only limit is the depth of your pocket, as the old saying goes: "Performance costs - how fast can you afford to go?"

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