Amazingly, the Morris Minor was made for 24 years, from 1948 to 1972, and by the end 1.3 million had been sold. During that time it went from an avante-garde family saloon to a quaint icon of Britishness.
Despite three different phases of production, it never lost its characteristic shape or its small-car economy.
Designed by Alec Issigonis, it was originally going to be a more radical design with, amongst other innovations, a flat-four engine to lower the centre of gravity and move the engine as far forward as possible.
This didn’t make it into the production version, but it was all part of the design ethos, which was to make a small, economical family car with the best possible roadholding and maximum possible interior space.
It used 14-inch wheels – smaller than average for the time – to reduce cabin intrusion, and these were placed as close as possible to the corners of the car. The reduced unsprung weight of the smaller wheels also improved the handling.
The car’s designers had to accept many compromises before the car eventually went into production, but that didn’t stop Issigonis making a late change when he saw the prototype, which had the typically narrow body of cars of that time.
He had the prototype sawn in two lengthways, then the two halves moved apart until it ‘looked right’. The width of the production car was increased by four inches, which improved the interior space but required a number of late design changes in the panels and trim – the front bumpers on early cars had to have a four-inch-wide painted strip added to the centre.
The first ‘MM’ series ran from 1948 to 1953. Initially made as a two-door saloon or a convertible ‘Tourer’ it used a 918cc sidevalve in-line four cylinder engine, a cheaper and more conservative replacement for the planned flat-four.
With 27.5 horsepower, the performance was predictably pedestrian, though fine for the road conditions and driver expectations of the time. It gave the MM a top speed of around 64mph and fuel consumption of 40mpg.
In 1950 a four-door saloon version was introduced, and the dear old Morris Traveller appeared in 1953, complete with famous wooden ash-framed ‘half-timbered’ look. Morris also introduced a panel van and pickup truck, both charmingly petite compared with their modern-day equivalents.
There weren’t too many luxuries in the earlier cars. The indicators were semaphore types, small amber ‘flags’ which flicked out from the B-pillars – and in fact these persisted right up until 1961.
And if you wanted a heater, you had to wait until 1950, when a water pump was introduced, which allowed owners to specify a heater as an optional extra.
The updates for the Series II cars (1952-1956) were minor (sorry), bringing a smaller 803cc engine but with a more modern overhead valve design. With 30 horsepower it didn’t have much impact on performance, but was considered better to drive.
Performance freaks had to wait until the arrival of the final ‘1000’ series in 1956, when the Morris Minor got a larger 948cc engine with 37 horsepower.
And for those who still felt that wasn’t enough, 1962 brought a 1098cc A-series engine with 48 horsepower, taking the top speed up to around 77mph.
This was the version where Morris dropped the wonderful split front windscreen in favour of a regular curved one-piece windshield and, in 1961, swapped the semaphore trafficators for regular flashing indicators.
The changes to the Morris Minor throughout its 24-year production life are relatively insignificant compared to what most popular models go through. The basic shape stayed the same, the engines hardly evolved and the anachronistic styling persisted to the very end.
Even now, the Morris Minor isn’t done. It’s enjoying a long, long afterlife as a favourite amongst classic car enthusiasts. It’s possible to replace the old drum brakes with discs and fit a newer and more powerful 1275cc A-series engine and, unlike many classic cars, the Moggie remains a surprisingly practical proposition on modern roads.