It still conjures up Ealing Comedy images of Miss Marple meandering absent-mindedly through rustic English villages at 25 mph

The whole "people's car" thing never went over particularly well in the upwardly mobile post-war U.S. Cars like the Crosley, Citroën 2CV, and VW Beetle screamed austerity at a time when the U.S. was sick of it. It was no different with the Morris Minor, which like the BMC Mini a generation later, also failed to make a splash in America.

Both the Mini and the Morris Minor were the brainchild of the great Sir Alec Issigonis. Development of the car began at an odd time-1943-when most of the world was preoccupied with news from Stalingrad, Tunisia and Guadalcanal. The prototype was named the Mosquito after the famous de Havilland aircraft, and although not constructed out of plywood like the aircraft, it was also unique in that it was of unit construction. At a late stage, it was widened four inches to achieve more convenient dimensions.

Proposed engine hopelessly outdated

Another five years passed before the car was launched at the 1948 London Motor Show, the event that also saw the launch of the Jaguar XK 120. It was a testament to the advanced design of the Minor that it drew crowds nearly on par with the Jaguar. Like the Citroën DS19 in 1955, the entire development budget had been blown by the time anyone realized that the proposed engine was hopelessly outdated. Against Issigonis's wishes, the car was launched with the pre-war, 27-horsepower Morris 8 side-valve engine. Sixty miles per hour was an ambitious claim.

Initially launched as a two-door saloon and a convertible, a four-door saloon, Traveller wagon (with aluminum rear panels and wood framing), a boxy van, and a pickup truck were soon added. Headlights were initially fitted low in the grille, but these ran afoul of U.S. minimum headlight height laws and were raised to the tops of the fenders in 1950, initially to announce the new four-door.
The formation of the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1953, which combined Austin and Morris, meant the Minor had access to the much better Austin A-series overhead-valve engine. At just 803 cc, it too was no powerhouse. You could hard-boil an egg in the time it would take for the car to go 0-60 mph and about 65 mph was it.

More power, fewer semaphores

The 948-cc engine familiar to Bugeye Sprite owners arrived in 1956, along with a curved windshield and larger rear glass. Wider-opening doors appeared in 1961 and turn signals replaced the ridiculous semaphores, at the same time as the 48-horsepower, 1,098-cc engine debuted.

Those cars could do 0-60 mph in a blazing 25 seconds, but at least the unit was reasonably durable.

As always, there are some things to watch for. Low oil pressure and a warning light that is slow to go out when started, accompanied by a low rumble means the bottom end has had it and it's rebuild time. Parts, however, are dirt cheap and the engine can be pulled without a hoist by two burly guys. First gear is almost always noisy, but a box that jumps out of gear means trouble. A stronger "rib-case" transmission is a desirable improvement.

Rust is another matter and was seen as a useful tool to force owners to buy another car every few years when they failed the MoT test. Since it's a unibody car, nearly everything is structural. The door bottoms and the back of the front fenders are all visible rot spots, as is the spot on a two-door just behind the door. The trunk floor next to the bumper is also rust-prone, as are the inner fenders.

Most survivors are amusing body styles

Always get a Minor up in the air and check the sills, cross members, spring attachment points, and floors. The front shackles on the rear springs can punch through the floor in extreme cases. Convertibles can be checked by standing inside with the top down and trying to close the doors. If they won't shut, the situation is catastrophic. And when it comes to stopping, the combination of aluminum wheel cylinders and aluminum pistons can lead to "plenty of pedal, no brakes."

For reasons that remain unclear to this day, BMC sold relatively few Minors in the U.S., odd since it was the first U.K.-built car to sell over one million units. When you do see them here, they tend to be the more amusing body styles such as the convertible, the Traveller, or the pickup, often with a Conestoga canvas top. Hop-up potential is infinite and includes 1,275-cc units and disc brakes. It's worthwhile, as with anything less, highway travel is not advisable. However, it will still be immediately apparent that the Minor was designed for a much smaller country.

Although rather scarce in the U.S., the Minor remains a cheeky and easy-to-live-with starter classic. Whereas a VW Beetle cabriolet is an expensive restoration project, an unrusted Minor is dirt cheap to fix cosmetically, and a mechanically freshened Traveller, hopefully without a supercharged V8 as seen at some dragstrips, is a great way to advertise your pub.

With modest performance, over one million made, and production ending in 1971 (though vans and pickups dribbled out for longer), it's difficult to imagine Minors suddenly becoming sought after. Nevertheless, of all the post-war people's cars, the Minor is perhaps the most practical and most rewarding to own. It still conjures up Ealing Comedy images of Miss Marple meandering absent-mindedly through rustic English villages at 25 mph.

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