If the Mini you're looking at has roll-up windows and no visible door hinges, it was made after 1969.no matter what the owner or the title claims

The success of the new Mini has meant that classic Minis are starting to reappear in the United States, despite the fact they haven't been legally imported since 1967.

However, there's something a little suspicious about many of these cars, with their roll-up windows, concealed door hinges, wooden dashboards, leather upholstery, and fuel-injected engines. One might suspect they were made after 1967. Even Sports Car Market recently added one of these little beasties to its motor pool. So what's the story?

The first Minis were introduced in 1959, which means we'll be celebrating 50 years of Minis soon. They were available in the United States early on and gradually grew in popularity in the 1960s. During those swinging years, the tiny but practical car became a fixture in pop culture and a force to be reckoned with on race tracks and in rallies.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Clean Air Act emissions restrictions effective with the 1968 model year, as well as the new Motor Vehicle Safety Act, coincided with yet another financial crisis at BMC, so 1967 was the last year Minis were officially imported to the United States. BMC morphed into British Leyland in 1969 and the Mk III was introduced, with its squared-off grille and taillights, wind-up windows, and hidden door hinges. With the upgraded models, BL consolidated the dual Austin-Morris badging into a single Mini marque.

Roll-up windows tell the truth

So if the Mini you're looking at has roll-up windows and no visible door hinges, it was made after 1969... no matter what the owner or the title claims. To confirm this, check the top inner edge of the rear hatch near the latch, where the year of manufacture is plainly stamped. If it has been removed, that's proof that not only is the car's title questionable, but also that someone knew it.

There's a possible exception. The Rover Group, the most recent owners of the Mini marque before BMW, licensed production of the Mk III bodyshells to aftermarket companies, and these continue to be available to restorers, so there's an outside chance that a pre-'69 version might have been restored with the new shell. But if the speedo isn't in the center of the dash, and/or the engine doesn't have a carburetor, it's likely a Mini from a later period, carrying the VIN of an earlier year.

Where are all these cars coming from? The story of the Mini from 1967 to 2001, when the new BMW Mini replaced it, is an interesting one.

When the new management at British Leyland took over BMC in 1968, they never intended to keep on making what they saw as a silly little car.

So at the same time they made the slight changes to the Mk III, they introduced a newer model, called the Mini Clubman. The Clubman had a longer and more square nose, squared-off body, grotesque square grille, and square instrument cluster squarely in front of the driver (sense a theme here?).

Buyers would flock to the Clubman

The idea was that folks would flock to the restyled, upgraded model and leave the old Mini behind. Long-term plans specifically indicated that the classic Mini was to go out of production. But like the Energizer Bunny, or one of those horror film serial killers with long fingernails or goalie mask, the original Mini couldn't be killed. (Citroën tried to replace the agricultural 2CV with the semi-streamlined Dyane, but when did you last see one of those?)

Even without the U.S. market, Mini sales grew and hit a record high 318,475 in 1971-a production number BMW doesn't even have in its current five-year plan for the new Mini. How can you argue with demand like that?

The classic Mini continued to sell in strong numbers throughout the 1970s, so BL continued to produce it, though they discontinued the Mini Cooper S in 1971 because the new management resented paying royalties to John Cooper. Over the decade, annual sales never dipped below 200,000, a number that BMW has only now managed to exceed with the new Mini in 2006.

However, BL still thought the old Mini's days were numbered, and development money was poured into models like the Mini-Metro, Triumph Acclaim, Austin Maestro and Montego, and Rover 800 and 200, none of which anyone can recall today.

For the Mini, product development consisted of inventing new special editions each year, using names and themes like Mary Quant, City, 850 Super DeLuxe, Mayfair, Ritz, Chelsea, RedHot/JetBlack, and others, each of which was produced in small, numbered runs.

And the Italians got into the act, licensing the basic technology and styling and then improving on it to produce the Innocenti Mini, which was made from 1966 through 1993.

By 1990, things had come full circle, with the company now known by the name of its primary surviving marque as the Rover Group. The Rover Mini, along with the Land Rover and Rover sedans, soldiered along with the company now owned by British Aerospace, a government expedient to keep at least some auto manufacturing jobs in Britain.

Cooper finally revived in 1990

With over five million Minis sold by 1986, a lot of clubs and enthusiasts in Britain were as rabid then as the new cult is proving now. The drum beat of "revive the Mini Cooper" rolled on relentlessly. Finally in 1990, the Cooper name again appeared on a Mini, first as just a performance upgrade and then as a specific model with excellent performance. The Rover Mini and Mini Cooper S continued in production until the plant was finally phased out in 2000 as BMW prepared to launch the new Mini.

But corporate memoranda from meetings in the late 1990s indicate that Rover management (aside from a few diehards) believed to the end that the Mini was just a marginal brand that should have been replaced long ago.

BMW management, by contrast, realized the Mini was more than that. It had long since passed into the realm of brand icons like Coke and Xerox, names that had a life and value of their own. So out of the dying grasp of the Rover Group, BMW snatched a trophy.

Limited editions returning

The new long-wheelbase Mini that will be introduced this fall is named the "Clubman" after that first attempt to restyle the old Mini, and BMW is already using the limited-edition strategy. There is a Mayfair, a Sidewalk, and a John Cooper edition, among others.

Looking back over the period from 1967 to 2001, we in the United States were largely unaware-with the mere 10,000 or so Minis left stranded on our shores-of the millions of Minis overseas. Many of these have slipped into the States through gray market channels, though U.S. Customs is now aware of most of these.

However, the federal government, and most states, are willing to accept any foreign car more than 25 years old as exempt from EPA and DOT regulations, so more of these Minis-with fairly recent technology and quality-will be coming in. There are some nice Minis to be had out in the world, and as the staff at SCM is now learning: if you don't mind being the smallest four-wheel thing on the road, you can have a lot of fun for the money.

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