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AUTO REVIEW: The diminutive Mini changed the automotive world, and that's no small accomplishment

It was a different world 50 years ago. American cars were kings of the road. Layered in chrome, boasting enormous size, V8 engines and rear-wheel drive, their style was copied in miniature by other automakers. That changed on Aug. 29, 1959, when ...

It was a different world 50 years ago. American cars were kings of the road. Layered in chrome, boasting enormous size, V8 engines and rear-wheel drive, their style was copied in miniature by other automakers. That changed on Aug. 29, 1959, when the British Motor Corp., or BMC, unveiled the Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor, aka the Mini.

In the mid-'50s, BMC management had directed engineer and designer Sir Alec Issigonis to conceive an entry-level car that could seat four, deliver good fuel economy, handle well and sell at a low price. With virtual freedom to design a car, Issigonis created a revolutionary one.

Given its predetermined meager price of 495 British pounds, the car would be small. So Issigonis did two things to use every ounce of available space. Rather than place the four-cylinder engine front to back, as was the norm, he turned it sideways. Then he fed its power to the front wheels. That freed the cabin of the space-robbing driveline hump that commonly ran through rear-drive cars.

The Mini was spartan, with a floor-mounted starter, manual choke and sliding windows. Regardless, it was an immediate hit, and BMC expanded the line with the Morris Mini Traveler and Austin Seven Countryman station wagons, the Mini Van, the Mini Pick-up and the Mini Moke SUV. There was even a luxury variant, the Vanden Plas, and a performance model, the 55-horsepower Mini Cooper.

By 1962, Mini production exceeded 200,000 vehicles a year. But there was a problem. BMC had priced the car before the prototype was done, and the company was losing money on each one sold. As the British motor industry collapsed, the Mini soldiered on.

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The Mini was updated in 1969. The front sliding windows were replaced by roll down units. The sporty Mini Cooper was axed, but a coupe, wagon and van were offered alongside a slightly larger Mini, the Clubman.

Sales flourished during the 1970s, but as corporate fortunes fizzled, so did the Mini's model range. By 1983, only the coupe remained.

The Mini Cooper returned in 1990, followed a year later by a convertible. In 1994, BMW acquired Mini's parent company, now known as Rover. Six years later, BMW ended production of the original Mini. More than 5.3 million units had been produced.

An all-new Mini engineered by BMW was launched in 2001. Called the Mini Cooper, it had front-wheel drive, small size and a choice of a 115-horsepower or 172-horsepower four-cylinder engines. As before, models included the Coupe, Cabriolet and Clubman wagon. Now sold as entry-level luxury subcompacts, they are small reminders of the car that changed everything.

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THE 1959 MINI

Engine: 51.7 cubic-inch four-cylinder

Horsepower: 37

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Top speed: 73 mph

Transmission: Four-speed manual

Fuel economy: 40 mpg

Wheelbase: 80 inches

Length: 120 inches

Weight: 1,288 pounds

Cargo space: 6.83 cubic feet

Base price: $1,295

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Famous owners: Peter Sellers, the Beatles, Brigitte Bardot, Clint Eastwood, Twiggy

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