Sri Lanka has been celebrating its long and enduring love affair with one of the world’s most iconic cars, the Mini.
More than 100 Minis, representing 21 different types and models, dating back nearly 60 years were put on display by their proud owners at the Colombo Racecourse last Sunday (May 28).
The “Festival of Minis” was organised by the Mighty Mini Club of Sri Lanka, who also used the event to help raise funds for the victims of the floods and landslides that recently swept parts of the island.
More than five million Minis have been sold worldwide, including a good few thousand in Sri Lanka, where many are still on the road and in virtual showroom condition, thanks to the time, effort, and cash put into them by their owners.
I grew up with the Mini in the London of the swinging ’60s. My Dad had a souped-up version, the Mini Cooper S. Up to 60 mph, it could burn anything else off the road and my Dad would delight in roaring off at traffic lights, leaving Aston Martins and the like in his dust. My Mum had the estate version, the Mini Traveller. Us kids would be put in the back with the dog, the luggage, and a picnic for runs out into the countryside.
So I was delighted when I moved to Sri Lanka to see so many Minis in such good condition on the road here. My wife and I even have a little game when we are out and about in a Tuk in Colombo: “Spot The Mini”. I think I am about 120 points ahead after visiting the Festival of Minis at the Racecourse.
The Mini first rolled off the production line in August 1959. It was manufactured at Longbridge in Birmingham in the English Midlands and at Cowley in the university city Oxford. The car was revolutionary. It was cheap to buy and even more importantly, very cheap to run.
The Mini was born as a result of the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Britain, aided by France and Israel, invaded Egypt to seize back the Suez Canal, which had been nationalised by the Egyptian government. The military operation succeeded—but the political and economic consequences were disastrous for Britain, which was forced to withdraw its forces.
One of these consequences was the reintroduction of petrol rationing. Sales of gas-guzzling large cars plummeted, while the British market boomed for fuel-efficient German bubble cars. The head of the British Motor Corporation (BMC), Leonard Lord, reportedly hated these tiny cars so much that he vowed to rid the streets of them and design a “proper miniature car”.
The job went to BMC designer Sir Alec Issigonis. His most revolutionary space-saving idea was to use a front-wheel-drive configuration with a transverse engine. His design meant that the engine could be fitted across the bonnet space, as opposed to the traditional longitudinally mounted motor. This is what gives the Mini its short, snub nose. But crucially, it meant that while the car is ten feet long, the passenger compartment is a roomy eight feet long and big enough for four adults. To further maximise the interior space, the early Minis had sliding windows, which allowed storage pockets in the hollow doors. Issigonis is said to have insisted that they were big enough to hold a bottle of Gordon’s Gin.
The car was launched in August 1959, only three years after BMC issued the brief for a “proper miniature” car. It was a bargain; with a showroom price of less than £500.
At first, it was sold as both the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini-Minor before BMC eventually settled on the Mini brand. 2,000 of these first cars were exported to nearly 100 countries, including Sri Lanka.
Some of these very early versions were displayed at the Festival of Minis in Colombo. Among them was a Mini, which was bought by the father of Motilal Samarasekeram in 1960. Motilal is the same age as this beloved Mini, which is still going strong.
“To my knowledge, he bought it for 8,500 Sri Lankan Rupees, brand new. He has been using this car for 50 years and now I am using it. It has travelled all over the countryside, except Jaffna and Batticaloa. It may have exceeded 200,000 miles.”
“Of course I am a Mini lover. To my experience, this vehicle is stronger than other cars. I am confident of driving this car for my life. I will never sell this car,” added the proud owner.
It is perhaps not surprising that many Sri Lankan Mini owners are of a “certain age” who, like me, have fond memories of the car from their childhoods in the 1960s and ’70s. But student Ishi Abeywickerama is from the new generation of Sri Lankans addicted to the Mini.
“It’s not just like another car. It’s an iconic machine and one thing about a Mini, it’s been there for generations… since 1959. So to date, it’s still going strong. This design is amazing because it is so small, but still so big from the inside. You can fit four big people inside and still be comfortable. It’s a very good car in terms of everything, in terms of enjoyment.”
One of the things that appeals to Ishi about the Mini is its quirkiness. They may not always start the first time, and it can sometimes be a struggle finding spare parts in Sri Lanka. Nowadays they are not cheap, and a pristine Mini like his, fitted with air conditioning, can cost up to Rs. 3 million.
“That’s the whole thing about a Mini. It’s not reliable 100%, but it’s just the experience, the fun of it, and that’s the whole point of a Mini. They do have their own personalities. Her name is Bella. It’s a complete British iconic car and that’s what I really wanted in my life,” said Ishi.
Though the Mini eventually went on to sell millions and was voted the second most influential car of the 20th century, it was not a roaring success when it was launched 58 years ago. Only 8,000 were sold to a sceptical British public in its first year. It was so far ahead of its time and such good value that potential buyers were worried that people would think they could only afford a cheap car.
But the BMC publicity department came to the rescue by giving away Minis to celebrities to make it trendy. Among the famous owners in the 1960s were all four of the Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. The big name showbiz owners helped to make the Mini cool and fashionable and it also gained a reputation for its great handling by winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, ’65 and ’67.
Sales were given a further boost by the 1969 caper movie, The Italian Job, which featured Minis being used to pull off an audacious gold bullion robbery in Turin. The film also includes one of the most famous line in British movies, when the exasperated gang leader, played by Michael Caine, exclaims: “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
Former President of the Mighty Mini Club of Sri Lanka, Mahen Madugalle, is a fan of The Italian Job and credits it with lifting the Mini’s profile on the island.
“The Italian Job made the Mini popular right around the world. Michael Caine was the man behind The Italian Job and that got popular, and cars got brought to this country,” he says.
“It’s like a cult to have a mini. I am an Austin Mini man. It’s a classic.” He’s very encouraged that his passion for the car is being shared by younger drivers in Sri Lanka: “We found the new members, all very young, in their 20s, who are buying cars, modifying [the cars], and every time we see them, they are looking better.”
Mass production of the classic Mini ceased 17 years ago, though a few specialist companies are still making small numbers of the car to order from original parts. The modern version of the Mini, made by the German carmaker BMW, has its fans and is fairly popular in Sri Lanka.
However, to the members of the Mighty Mini Club of Sri Lanka, there is only one Mini—and that’s the classic Issigonis design. The British production lines that turned out the Mini in its millions may have long been closed, but the legend lives on in this corner of the Indian Ocean, with vintage Minis still weaving nimbly in and out of the traffic and nipping into the tightest of parking spaces.
Featured image credit: Roar/Nazly Ahmed