The 1963 Mini Cooper S: Giant Killer

The BMC Mini: What could be more British? Strewn with Union Jacks, built in Birmingham, the icon of the Sixties…except that the Mini’s designer was a Greek immigrant from Smyrna named Alec Issigonis.

He had also designed that most British of cars, the 1948 Morris 1000.

The Mini was a response to the fuel shortages following the Suez Crisis, offering an alternative to some fairly horrible scooter-based contraptions.

sky-blue 1963 Mini Cooper S

The boss of BMC, Leonard Lord loathed the German microcars that were a consequence of the 1956 petrol rationing.

yellow bubble car

But he liked the look of the Fiat 500, so he recruited Issigonis back from Alvis and asked him to build a small car that could fit in a 10-foot by 4-foot by 4-foot box.

Six feet of it were to be devoted to the passengers, and the little car had to use an existing power unit.

Rejecting le système Panhard, used on his Morris 1000, and virtually every other car since 1909, which consisted of radiator, engine, clutch, gearbox, and back axle all in a line, Issigonis managed a miracle of packaging.

This depended on six innovations: ten-inch tyres from Dunlop which allowed the Mini tiny wheels, turning the engine sideways, forcing the gearbox to live in the oil sump of the engine, specifying front-wheel drive, using progressive rubber cones instead of suspension springs, and using a mysterious new joint to drive the front wheels.

Mini Cooper engine and gear box

Front wheels have to turn through a sharp angle to steer the car, and previous front wheel drive joint designs like those of the 2CV had led to jerky transmission.

It was discovered that Unipower was making a secret Birfield constant velocity joint for conning towers in British submarines, and this made Issigonis’s Mini possible.

The Birfield joint revolutionised small cars as it now permitted the use of transversely-mounted engines.

Imagine a ball and socket joint “lubricated” by ball bearings. As a result, the 10-foot-long car gave 80% of its volume to its occupants and their luggage. It also gave a new word to the language: Mini.

signage describing a 1964 Cooper S in the exhibit

The little car revolutionised the motor industry, influencing even the Lamborghini Muira, which also had a transverse engine, a side-on clutch, and a gearbox beneath.

The compact front-wheel drive car with transverse engine has become the industry norm for sixty-five years, although BMC got precious little credit for it.

front of sky-blue Mini Cooper

Issigonis started work in March 1957 and had a running prototype by July, dubbed the “orange box” due to its colour. Even the body seams were everted to the outside to gain half an inch of space inside.

Lord drove the car and shortly turned to Issigonis: “Alec, this is it, I want it in production.” Issigonis pointed out the expense of his design innovations but Lord placated him:

“Don’t you worry about that; I shall sign the cheques, you get on with getting the thing to work.”

Leonard Lord, 1957

Those innovations cost BMC a fortune and it was this, together with poor cost controls that ensured the Mini never made much money for its parent company.

Ford stripped down a Mini, costed everything out, and discovered the little car could not possibly make a profit.

Ford reckoned that BMC was losing £30 per unit and could have charged another £20 for the Mini without losing sales, but BMC denied the calculations were correct and refused to listen.

Ford went on to make a bigger car, the 1962 Ford Cortina, as a result of this analysis. This was rather good-looking and designed by no less than Roy Brown, designer of the Edsel.

The social significance of the Mini was that it was the first truly classless car.

Middle-class English families, familiar with wood and leather were at first unsure of the Mini, but the little giant-killer became hugely popular in 1964 when the Cooper S version triumphed in the Monte Carlo Rally.

Eventually driven by Dukes and cleaners, pop stars and estate agents, the little Mini is still loved by all.

rear side view of a sky-blue Mini Cooper

How can we understand the Mini today? Remember, it was a car designed and built in the 1950s when there were only four million cars on British roads compared with more than 34 million today.

85 percent of households didn’t have a car compared with 25 percent today and everyone used public transport.

Safety wasn’t much of a consideration, and road deaths were heading towards their 1966 peak of 8,000 per year compared with 1,800 today. Marc Bolan of T Rex was killed in a Mini.

It had a fuel tank filler that stuck out of the side, and if you rolled the little car this wiped the filler cap off and disgorged five gallons of petrol in amongst the sparks.

front side view of a cream-colored Mini Cooper

The Mini Cooper “S” was successful as both race and rally cars, winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967.

In 1966, the first-placed Mini (along with nine other cars) was disqualified after the finish, under a controversial French rule-makers decision that the car’s headlights were against the rules.

The French Citroen DS was declared the winner. The Mini had its revenge when a drunk driver in a Mini took out a DS as it was leading the 1968 London–Sydney Marathon, just 98 miles from the finish line.

side view of a cream-colored Mini Cooper

I was lucky to be given a scrap Mini at the age of 15 by a kindly neighbour, and my friend Duncan and I were able to drive it on the farm tracks surrounding my family house. It was considered beyond repair at seven years old!

It had terrific traction in the mud and handbrake turns were enthralling. We couldn’t afford a new throttle cable and so one of us had to stick his hand through the speedometer hole into the engine compartment and operate the carburettor by hand.

We cut our teeth on this little Morris and eventually had the engine and gearbox in pieces. One of the Issigonis shortcuts was revealed: the gearbox was effectively running in the engine sump.

This meant that the long chain polymers in the engine oil were chopped up by the gear teeth and the oil was swiftly degraded. The oil pump was scored by a gearbox swarf. The result was that the engine bearings wore out quickly: at around 65,000 miles.

Another design compromise was that the side-mounted radiator blew hot air over the left-hand front tyre, further heat stressing what was already a small tyre.

Also, the ignition distributor stuck out at the front of the car just where rainwater would soak it, causing the engine to stop suddenly in a rainstorm.

A “Marigold” rubber glove fitted over the distributor cap with the cables sticking out the fingers solved that particular problem.

We moved on to a Mini pickup which we bought with no engine for £5. These cars now sell for around £20,000…

a green mini cooper pickup

This mini pickup would have a fuel range of around 3,698 miles. A bit more than a Tesla.

We ended up with road Minis with bored-out engines using Triumph pistons and three times the horsepower, and a hot Mini Cooper S was a delight: the rubber-cone progressive suspension gave sharp handling, and the small body could squeeze through gaps in the traffic that no one else could follow.

When I bought a Jaguar XJ6 with a blown engine I towed it through London with my 1380 cc Mini Cooper S, spinning the front wheels in clouds of blue smoke to spare the clutch. It was like a Duchess taking a terrier for a walk.

side view of the interior of a Mini Cooper

front view of the interior of a Mini Cooper

Facts: Mini Cooper S (1963-1971)

The original Mini Cooper S is an automotive icon that has captivated car enthusiasts for decades.

Produced by the British Motor Corporation from 1963 to 1971, the Mini Cooper S combined performance and handling in a small, lightweight package. This nimble little car left a lasting imprint on motoring history.

How Many Were Made?

The Mini Cooper S was produced for 8 years from 1963 to 1971. During this time, a total of 109,275 Mini Cooper S cars were manufactured. This included both the Mk I model made from 1963-1967 and the Mk II made from 1968-1971.

The Mk I accounted for 58,179 units, while 51,096 Mk II Mini Cooper S cars rolled off the production line. Most were built at the BMC manufacturing plant in Birmingham, England during the car’s heyday in the 1960s.

The Australian Mini Cooper S – the rarest Mini of them all.

Mini Cooper S cars were also built in Sydney, Australia in BMC’s Victoria Park/Zetland factory. Approximately 4,986 MK1 Cooper S cars and 2,500 MK2 Cooper S were produced.

These cars featured wind-up windows to cope with the Australian climate, well before the Mk III UK home market featured wind-up windows. Very few of these right-hand drive cars are left, making them the most valuable examples of the Mini Cooper S.

With around 100,000 made in total, the Mini Cooper S had relatively low production numbers compared to many mainstream models. But its enduring popularity has meant that many of these classic Minis have survived over the decades.

What Makes it Special?

The Mini Cooper S had several unique qualities that made it stand out from the typical small economy cars of its era:

Performance – The Mini Cooper S packed a powerful punch thanks to its tuned 1275cc 4-cylinder engine. In S form, the engine was enhanced with a modified cylinder head, bigger carburettors, and a higher 9.75:1 compression ratio.

This boosted horsepower from 34 h.p in a base Mini to 70 h.p in the Mini Cooper S, allowing for a 0-60 mph time of just 11 seconds. The Cooper S was nimble, quick, and fun to drive.

Handling – The Mini had excellent handling thanks to its compact size, short wheelbase, lightweight, and front-wheel drive layout.

The race-tuned suspension gave it sharp, go-kart-like handling that allowed the Mini to corner smoothly. This made the Mini Cooper S popular for racing and rally driving.

Innovative Design – The original Mini was a groundbreaking small car thanks to its transverse engine and front-wheel drive configuration.

This allowed 80% of the car’s footprint to be used for passengers and luggage while leaving lots of interior space despite the tiny exterior dimensions. The Mini Cooper S had the same revolutionary layout.

Customizable – The Mini Cooper S was extremely customizable, with owners adding trim packages, racing modifications, and customized paint jobs. From a basic commuter car to a modified hot rod, the Mini could be tailored to any taste.

Cultural Icon – As one of the definitive symbols of 1960s style and culture, the Mini Cooper S holds an esteemed place in pop culture.

From winning the iconic Monte Carlo rally to appearing in movies like The Italian Job, the Mini has a special place in motoring culture.

Who Designed the Mini Cooper S?

The original 2-door Mini and its high-performance Cooper S version were both designed by Sir Alec Issigonis.

An automotive engineer for the British Motor Corporation (BMC), Issigonis was commissioned to create a fuel-efficient, affordable small car in the late 1950s.

His innovative design incorporated front-wheel drive and a transverse engine layout to maximize interior space in the smallest possible footprint.

Issigonis applied his engineering background to craft a car that was only 10 feet long, yet could still seat 4 passengers and luggage.

The sporty Mini Cooper S variant built upon the base Mini’s handling strengths. Racing enthusiast John Cooper of the Cooper Car Company worked with Issigonis to boost the Mini’s power, performance capabilities, and rally racing suitability.

The pairing of Issigonis’ creative engineering and Cooper’s racing experience resulted in the high-revving Mini Cooper S that swiftly dominated rally racing.

The Specifications

Here are some key specifications for the classic 1963-1971 Mini Cooper S:

  • Length/Width/Height: 120″/55″/55″
  • Wheelbase: 80″
  • Weight: 1,375 lbs
  • Engine: 1071cc inline 4-cylinder 970cc, or 1275cc inline 4-cylinder
  • Power: 70 hp @ 6,000 rpm (Mk I), 76 hp @ 5,500 rpm (Mk II)
  • 0-60 mph time: 11 seconds
  • Top speed: 93 mph
  • Transmission: 4-speed manual
  • Suspension: Rubber cone suspension (front and rear)
  • Brakes: Disc (front), Drum (rear)
  • Wheels/Tires: 10″ wheels, 165×10″ tires

The compact dimensions and impressive power-to-weight ratio gave the Mini Cooper S an edge over many rivals. It achieved spirited acceleration despite an engine under 1.3 liters thanks to having just 1,375 pounds to move.

The Engine

The engine that powered the Mini Cooper S evolved between the Mk I and Mk II versions but provided plenty of eager acceleration in both.

Mk I (1963-1967):
The original Mini Cooper S had a 1071cc inline 4-cylinder engine, with a bore x stroke of 2.78″ x 3.20″. Major modifications transformed the standard Mini’s 34 hp mill into a high-revving 70 hp engine in the Cooper S:

  • Cylinder head was reworked by Harry Weslake for increased compression and airflow
  • Larger twin 1.25″ SU carburetors
  • Higher 9.9:1 compression ratio
  • Higher rev limit of 6,000 rpm

This improved 1071cc engine enabled sharp throttle response and a 0-60 mph time of around 11 seconds.

The 1071 cc engine had a 70.61 mm bore, a nitrided steel crankshaft, and strengthened bottom end to allow further tuning; and larger servo-assisted disc brakes, 4,030 Cooper S cars were produced and sold until the model was updated in August 1964.

Cooper also produced two S models specifically for circuit racing in the under 1,000 cc and under 1,300 cc classes respectively, sized at 970 cc (59 cu in) and 1,275 cc (77.8 cu in), both had a 70.61 mm (2.780 in) bore.

Mk II (1968-1971):
Displacement was increased to 1275cc for the Mk II Mini Cooper S via a longer 3.44″ stroke. The top speed remained similar, but mid-range acceleration improved:

  • 1275cc displacement
  • 76 hp at 5,500 rpm
  • 76 lb-ft torque at 3,000 rpm
  • Twin 1.25″ SU carbs (or optional 1.5″ SUs)
  • 9.0:1 compression ratio

The Cooper S 1275 engine provided increased flexibility while maintaining the eager revving nature of the 1071cc.

The Interior

The Mini Cooper S had a fairly basic interior, but one focused on driving enjoyment. Despite the tiny exterior, clever packaging allowed seating for 4 adults.

  • Front bucket seats
  • Full-width rear bench seat
  • Basic instrumentation: speedometer, fuel, and temperature gauges
  • Large steering wheel
  • gear shifter on the floor

How Many are Left?

Due to rust issues and many Minis being thrashed or crashed when new, the remaining number of original Mini Cooper S cars is dwindling fast.

But enough survives to make these classic British sports cars a popular collector’s item. Rarity has pushed values upward in recent decades.

According to one enthusiasts’ registry, there are:

  • approximately 9,000 Mini Cooper S Mk I models are still registered/accounted for worldwide. Of these, around 5,000 are certified as roadworthy.
  • about 15,000 Mk II Mini Cooper S models still exist globally. Roughly 7,500 are in roadworthy condition.

So while there are still drivable classic Mini Cooper S cars, they are increasingly hard to find. Many have been squirreled away by collectors or modified for historic racing.

Pristine original examples fetch strong prices at auction, with mint condition cars exceeding £63,000 or $81,000. You might find a nicely restored one in a private sale for £50,000 or $64,000.

An ex-John Cooper collection car, a 1965 1275cc Mini Cooper S in green with a white roof is being sold for £120,000 or $152,000.

The rare Australian Cooper S is worth a bit more, around £60,000, or $76,000.

The popularity of the new MINI Cooper S produced by BMW since 2000 has also shone a spotlight on the classic original, driving up values.

The Mini Cooper S retains an enthusiastic worldwide fan base thanks to its enduring popularity as a historic performance car. Expect to see these British motoring icons appreciating in value and collectability as time goes by.