Sometimes you simply cannot beat a sound, old-fashioned idea. While the trend today is clearly towards smaller, fuel-efficient and low-emission engines, a larger power plant in a smaller car is still invariably a recipe for success.
When Austin and Morris popped a carefully fettled 1275cc engine into the original classic Mini 51 years ago, they not only created a formidable motorsport weapon, but also produced the best road-going version of the unique baby car. The improvement in power-to-weight ratio over the 848cc Mini simply transformed what was meant to be a Spartan, low-cost car for the masses.
Ironically, Sir Alex Issigonis — the man responsible for both the Morris Minor and Mini — was initially lukewarm about John Cooper’s plan to put a larger engine in the Mini, but he became more enthused after seeing the success of first the Mini Cooper and then the even quicker S versions.
I was typical of Mini enthusiasts in the ’60s in first owning a standard, locally assembled 850 model before progressing to a Cooper and then a Cooper S.
While always believing the Cooper sports models should have a manual gearbox, I recently found the prospect of an automatic Cooper S enticing. The last time I drove an automatic Mini was in 1968, when I took a non-Cooper 998cc model from London to Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix.
Fast forward almost 47 years to the latest clutchless three-door Mini Cooper S, this time with the largest engine ever installed in a production Mini. Would it reinforce the sound principles of using a large engine with an automatic transmission in a small package?
British Motor Corporation utilized the Automotive Products (AP) transmission in several of its front-drive cars, and an early problem with oil surge causing a break in the drive while cornering was overcome by moving the oil pump to the centre of the sump. The torque converter in the AP transmission replaced the usual clutch and flywheel assembly, while a large-capacity camshaft-driven oil pump served both the engine and transmission lubrication system. AP spent years developing this automatic and, while change points could sometimes be lumpy, the transmission was reasonably good for the era.
Behind the scenes was another project that, sadly, never became a production reality. One of Sir Alec’s pet projects, even in retirement, was a gearless Mini, using a torque converter to transfer power from the crankshaft to a simple forward and reverse gear mounted in-unit with the final drive. He decided to have one built for himself, and two others — one each for Stirling Moss and Jaguar executive Lofty England. Many Formula 1 drivers in the ’60s drove Minis as their road cars, and Ferrari works driver Chris Amon had only sold his second Mini, a Cooper 1275S, because he had been given a courtesy car by Ford.
“Alex Issigonis was a good mate of Ferrari and came to Maranello, the Ferrari headquarters in Italy, on a number of occasions so I got to know him reasonably well,” recalled Chris several years later. “On one visit he mentioned that he was having three special Cooper S–types made with a four-speed manual change, but with a torque converter. He asked if I would be interested and, if so, he would do a fourth car. I obviously agreed, and that was a great little car in the UK. But it didn’t like the autostradas as the high speeds tended to overheat the transmission.” Amon kept the Mini for several years, and often wondered if any of the four cars still existed.
As with the lesser-powered standard Minis, the transmission in the four Cooper S models was developed by AP. Change-speed governor weights had to be lightened to increase kick-down speed and allow faster changes when the gearbox was in automatic drive. Amon’s car featured a stage two Downton-modified engine that enhanced smoothness, acceleration and top speed.
Today’s F56 Mini Cooper S is a world away from that 1968 predecessor, with nary an inkling of the occasional engine-cooling problems that marred the old prototype 1275S auto. And while it is now hardly a ‘mini’ car in terms of size or pricing, this latest interpretation of a motoring icon still inherits a unique make-up and sense of fun that typified the original. Simply look at or sit in a current Mini, and appreciate the difference between this and other cars.
Sir Alex died in October 1988, just a few weeks after the passing of friend Enzo Ferrari, so he never got to see BMW-inspired Minis. But just what would he have thought about the new-generation car with all its technology and luxury, when the original did not even have provision for a radio?
Issigonis reasoned any sort of sound system in a car only distracted the driver, and was therefore unsafe and unnecessary. He may also have wondered about the coloured interior lighting and scratched his head about a perceived weight problem, since the new Cooper S weighs almost twice as much as a 50-year-old 1275S. It may be heavier, but the 2.0-litre twin-cam B48 motor produces 141kW against 57kW for the old pushrod A-Series power plant. The 2.0-litre achieves 280Nm of torque or 300Nm with over-boost — precisely three times that of the 1275S.
Without any major increase in performance, however, what the fresh BMW 2.0-litre engine has done is give a big-car feel to the Mini with increased refinement. The 1964 Cooper S amazed with its flexibility and mid-range response, and the outstanding road manners were well able to cope with the extra power. One-time owner and racer Roger Staniforth reckoned he could drive his standard Cooper 1275S from Auckland to Wellington in top gear without exceeding 90kph. Even so the power-to-weight ratio has progressively improved through all four generations of Cooper S.
Each cylinder in BMW’s new modular engine has a capacity of 500cc, so the three-cylinder B38 in the standard Cooper is 1.5 litres, while the four-cylinder B48 in the S-Type is 2.0 litres. Add two more cylinders and you have the BMW straight-six motor. The three-cylinder is remarkably smooth and quiet, particularly at cruising speeds, and is commendably economical. Understandably, it lacks the low-down punch of the 2.0-litre and, in contrast to the responsive Cooper S, needs to be stirred off the line and at slow speeds. Both engines are turbocharged, and have direct fuel injection and variable camshaft control on the intake and exhaust.
In Britain recently I evaluated a new Cooper S with the manual six-speed gearbox, and the drive included a lengthy run from London to Cornwall in the south-west of England. The car proved a perfect companion, with an ability to cover hundreds of non-stop kilometres in complete comfort. The manual box has carbon friction lines in the synchronizer rings for reduced weight, yet the shift can be slightly notchy.
Revised sports seating is a marked improvement, and the new adaptive cruise control — which is active between 30 and 140kph — is a boon on motorways. This is a costly $2200 option known as ‘driver assistance package’, and incorporates camera-based cruise control regulating distance from the vehicle ahead while also allowing for vehicles entering a flowing motorway.
Additionally, the option controls high-beam headlight operation (depending on approaching traffic), detects road signage, speed limits and overtaking zones. It warns of potential hazards, such as pedestrians, with preconditioning of the brakes for faster braking response and short braking distances. This is all detailed to the driver via the optional heads-up display ($1000) with its superbly positioned speed readout.
Back on local roads, and stepping into a Cooper S equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission provides yet another dimension to the car. The auto adds $3000 to the cost, but pay an extra $500 and you get gear shift paddles, launch control and a handsome JCW leather sports steering wheel. Both the manual and auto Cooper S varients are engaging to drive, with the automatic builds on the luxury feel of the car. While this may seem at odds with the original intentions of the sporting version of the Mini, the manual override activated by the column paddles compensates for this. What’s more, the auto does a better job than the driver, reaching 100kph in 6.7 seconds — slightly quicker than the manual — and it’s a shade more thrifty. The classic 1275S needed 11 seconds to reach 100kph, and its average fuel consumption was much higher than the modern-day car.
The engine in the classic Cooper S was a far cry from the outwardly similar overhead-valve 1.3-litre A-Series used in the Austin/Morris 1300 and the Mini Clubman 1275GT, which was a poor shadow of its Cooper predecessor. When I seized the engine in my Cooper S on a club day at Pukekohe, I was thankful Rolls-Royce nitrided the high-tensile steel crankshaft for surface hardness and extra strength, because it survived intact. The standard Cooper S motor was fitted with special pistons and con rods, fatter gudgeon pins, Nimonic valves running in special copper-nickel guides operated by forged-steel rockers and a bespoke camshaft giving a wide, flat torque curve.
While buyers had to be content with a manual-only production classic Cooper S, today’s Mini choice is seemingly endless. With the arrival of the longer-wheelbase five-door hatch in November 2015 there are now seven body configurations, but the three-door hatch is still the purest of the form. The hatch is the first Mini based on the new UKL1 platform, which BMW is adopting for several front-drive models, including the 2 Series Active Tourer.
The F56 is the first automatic Mini to offer a stop / start facility, while all versions can now be specified with the Park Assist package, offering automatic parallel parking and front parking sensors. A surprising omission is front parking distance sensors on their own, as they can only be optioned with Park Assist. However, rear park distance control is standard on all models, and standard kit on Cooper S also runs to 17-inch alloys, upgraded front sports seats, standard cruise control, rain sensor wipers and auto headlight control, front fog lights, an on-board computer and climate control.
While the late Issigonis may not have approved of many aspects of the now lavish Mini, he would surely have been delighted his iconic creation is still very much alive — at least in name — and that it remains both distinctive and fun to drive. The F56 represents half a century of progress and the three-door Cooper S hardtop is still my pick of the range — not inexpensive, but certainly the best, and a landmark in Mini’s eventful 55-year life.