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75 years ago, the motoring world changed for ever as a clutch of iconic vehicles made their debuts on a wave of post-war optimism. Here we look at the Morris Minor MM…
It’s the most ‘ordinary’ car here, the Minor, but that’s meant as a compliment.
What is striking about this 1948 group is how different they are, not just in price and intention, but in mechanical make-up.
Our six cars have engines at opposing ends, with a huge variety in cylinders, cooled in divergent ways, driving different wheels and sitting on suspensions of varied kinds.
The inevitable mechanical convergence of the post-war motor industry hadn’t yet happened, but it’s the Minor that got closest to how the daily driver would go on to develop.
Two Minors were at Earls Court in October 1948, and they made up the entirety of the range at launch: a two-door saloon and a convertible.
Other than the engine, it was a clean-sheet design, only possible in such a small amount of time following the war because Morris had begun development in ’43.
A three-man team, headed by the shy but intellectually headstrong Alec Issigonis, was allowed to continue to work on the project, codenamed Mosquito, between war tasks.
Yet it’s considered a one-man design because ‘Issi’ had such control, insisting on numerous advanced features, many of which had been consistently denied by Morris before the war.
The things that impressed most 75 years ago were the Minor’s monocoque construction and sophisticated front suspension.
Neither were firsts for a British car, but both were rare – especially in economy cars.
UK manufacturers had stubbornly held on to front beam axles during the 1930s, even when many foreign marques were moving away from them.
It was putting these two components together that allowed the Minor such a long life, and made it feel ahead of its time.
It’s such a solid, stiff-feeling car.
The relatively small glass area is typical of early efforts in unibody construction and is key to this rigidity, which, though hard
to notice in isolation, provides a huge boost to the refinement of the Minor when you step into it from a rattly separate-chassis car.
Then there’s the way it steers.
Making use of a rack-and-pinion set-up when nearly all of its contemporaries, and many much sportier cars, were using worm-and-roller systems prone to play, the Morris has an incredibly direct and communicative helm.
There is a slight hesitation in the movement in this 1950 MM’s steering wheel, but owner Laurie Griffiths puts that down to the crossply tyres he insists on for the sake of originality.
“That feeling does disappear once on radials,” says Laurie.
And thanks to that front suspension – the only part of the car Morris boss Lord Nuffield thought was any good – the Minor sticks to the course you choose, staying composed over bumps, even if the live-axle rear does bounce around.
That sense of refinement continues in the car’s appearance, inside and out.
Compared to the 2CV, admittedly a significantly cheaper car, the Minor looks positively luxurious with its chrome addenda, glossy paint, transatlantic styling and painted dashboard.
There’s a pride here, that a small, cheap car should still be an object of respectability, a very mid-century British sense of propriety, perhaps.
Sure, the engine – a pre-war sidevalve unit – is infamously a bit old-hat.
The boxer four-cylinder that Issigonis had wanted for the car never got past the bean-counters, and an interesting trial of a supercharged two-stroke opposed-piston engine failed.
That proved wise in the end, because Morris’ merger with Austin provided access to the A-series just four years later, though it’s interesting to ponder what could have happened had BMC, and later BL, had a boxer ‘four’ in its arsenal – perhaps we’d all now be swapping Subaru engines into MGBs.
While it’s disappointing in hindsight that Issigonis didn’t get his new engine, the sidevalve 918cc unit taken from the Morris Eight gave the Minor reliability from the get-go, and wasn’t as much of an anachronism as it looks today.
And while the 948 and 1098cc A-series later fitted to the Minor brought big improvements, the initial 803cc version was an exercise in rationalisation rather than any performance benefit, with contemporary road testers seeing it as a backward step.
At town speeds there is performance to be drawn out of the sidevalve, with some urgency up to 40mph or so, and it’s aided by a decent gearchange.
There’s no denying that this is a slow car, though it’s important to remember that the Minor was born in a Britain a decade from its first motorway, and the sidevalve unit is comfortable cruising at the 45-50mph most drivers travelled along A-road Britain.
With its composed suspension and precise controls, the Minor is the most familiar, and least challenging, of our pioneers.
Although not revolutionary in any one detail, its success was in bringing together the automotive technologies of its day and wrapping them in a cheap, reliable and respectable package.
Not only did it prove good enough to sell more than 1.6 million units, but also, in elevating Issigonis’ profile, led to two other British best-sellers: the Mini and the ADO16.
Quite a legacy for what began as a wartime side project.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: morrisminorowners.co.uk
A major in Minors
The first Minor MMs were all sidevalve-powered, but from 1949 North American cars were fitted with headlights mounted on the wings rather than in the front panel – a change adopted by the new four-door in 1950, and the entire range by ’51.
The ’52 creation of BMC led to the 803cc Austin A-series unit replacing the Morris sidevalve to create the Series II.
The wood-framed Traveller estate joined the line-up in 1953, along with van and pick-up variants making use of a separate chassis frame.
Capacity was upped to 948cc in 1956 for the 1000, then further boosted to 1098cc in ’62.
The saloon was phased out in 1970, Traveller and commercial versions a year later.
Morris Minor MM
- Sold/number built 1948-’71/1,619,958
- Engine all-iron, sidevalve 918cc ‘four’, single SU carburettor
- Max power 27bhp @ 4400rpm
- Max torque 42lb ft @ 2400rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Weight 1652lb (749kg)
- Mpg 40
- 0-60mph 36.5 secs
- Top speed 62mph
- Price new £359
- Price now £4-15,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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