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Mini moments in pop culture

Future (New Images Hi Res)

Decade by decade, we go through the diminutive car’s place in culture – one that remained even as the world changed dramatically

The diminutive Mini is a car with a permanent place in pop culture, an iconic ride that’s been adored by popstars, film directors, and the public since its creation in the late 50s. You, reader, have likely ridden in a Mini, driven a Mini, seen a Mini in the movies, seen a Mini on TV. Since the 60s, the car has become a permanent fixture on our roads, and in our minds, one of Britain’s proudest cultural exports.

In 1959, English company British Motor Corporation launched the Mini, a small bubble car designed by Sir Alec Issigonis in response to petrol rationing being rolled out across the U.K. This meant that demand for large vehicles dropped, and companies needed to respond by building smaller, more efficient “bubble cars”. Enter the Mini.

While the Mini may have been created for functional reasons, its aesthetic impact was huge, and the immensely popular car became an iconic staple within pop culture, appearing in films, fashion, music videos, rap songs, and art galleries. Small car, huge influence, and one that hasn’t diminished over 60 years. Indeed at the turn of the millennium, the Mini was voted the second most influential car of the century. In celebration of Mini going all-electric with the Cooper SE, we’re going to walk through each decade and trace the Mini’s place in pop culture – one that always remained even as the world changed dramatically.

CONTENTS

Skip to:

  1. 1960s
  2. 1970s
  3. 1980s
  4. 1990s
  5. 2000s
  6. 2010s

1960s

The 60s were the defining years of 20th-century pop culture, a period of enormous change, and increased social freedoms. Flower-power was in fashion, and “The Swinging Sixties” was a wild time of psychedelic experimentation, sexual liberation, and a whole new world of post-Elvis pop. The war was over, rationing had finished and frankly, everyone wanted to get right on it.

It was also a period of immense technological change and the dawn of an information age that saw the first video game console invented, long distance phonecalls made a reality, and the first commercial satellite catapulted into space. Everywhere, things were changing, and the invention of the Mini was emblematic of the decade’s desire for newness.

If you’re launching a new product, as BMC were, it’s smart business to give the biggest band in the world a Mini each. Even brands gifted influencers back in the 60s baby! All four members of the Beatles had their own Mini – Paul McCartney’s was a Morris Mini Cooper S De Ville. In 1967, McCartney’s Mini showed up in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour movie, and he was photographed driving it with his first love Linda sat in the passenger seat. In September 2018, the car was sold at auction for £182,000, a record-breaking amount for a Mini. George Harrison’s still belongs to his wife, while Ringo Starr’s was sold to Spice Girl Geri Horner, a woman who would go on to define British pop culture herself, only 30 years later, and in a slightly different way.

The Mini quickly cemented its place in fashion too. Mods were a fashion-obsessed British subculture, a youth tribe that emerged post-war, which was hugely influenced by Italian style. Traditionally, Mods rode scooters but for those who wanted four wheels to get down to their scraps with rockers or The Who shows, the Mini was their de facto choice. It wasn’t just men’s fashion where the Mini made an impact, either. The miniskirt was one of the decade’s defining symbols of youthfulness, rebellion, and change, created by the godmother of the Mod movement Mary Quant, a visionary designer who threw away the staidness that dominated fashion at the time, and replaced it with accessible anarchy. Quant admitted that her iconic design – and style revolution – was named after the Mini. But Quant wasn’t the only woman in fashion to adore the Mini. In 1969, British model Twiggy was 19 and learning to drive. Her first car? A Mini, custom-made by the company. “The obvious choice was a Mini,” she said in a 2011 interview. “They were my favourite cars, perfect for London, traffic and parking. It was always a cool car to have. They’re quintessentially British, and I am too, so I always felt quite proud of the Mini, as we all do.”

While the Mini made its mark on fashion and music, one of the Mini’s most iconic pop culture moments of all time came in the cinema, specifically in the most famous car chase in film history. The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and released in 1969, is a British caper film that’s inextricably linked with the Mini, and  it’s impossible to imagine one without the other. Even though Fiat offered the producers as many cars as they wanted for the film free of charge, they were refused, and three different Mini vehicles – red, white, and blue – starred in the film, even if the directors did have to shell out.

1970s 

Ah, the 70s. An unremarkable, dreary decade in which the world seemed to dim the lights down a little. TV looked beige, haircuts got worse, and the radical, multicoloured liberation of the 60s seemed a distant memory. People were desperate to dream of the future, of another world, which is why New Wave sci-fi exploded during the decade.

The Mini found its way into sci-fi folklore when Lindsay Wagner, an American actress best known for her role in The Bionic Woman, posed for a press shot that’s still referenced today. The show is about a superhuman spy who uses her body modifications to assist the government on classified missions, and in 1976 she visited the UK on a promo trip and posed for a photograph in which she is holding up a Mini with one arm, an image that to this day still shows up all over Pinterest and moodboard Instagram accounts. Sadly, The Bionic Woman didn’t drive a Mini in the show, unlike Michael Caine, who would be reunited with the Mini again in 1971 in the classic British crime film Get Carter, while American actor Steve McQueen, nicknamed “The King Of Cool” also owned a Mini until the 1970s, one that he’d bought himself from the Mini co-creator John Cooper. It’s now believed to belong to his friend Lee Brown. “Back in the 1960s, if you didn’t have a Ferrari and a Mini Cooper, you just weren’t a movie star,” said Brown. “Well, Steve McQueen already had his Ferrari Lusso and spotted this Mini over at Hollywood Sports Cars… He called me up and said: ‘I bought it. Go over and pick it up, and I’ll come to the shop and we’ll figure out what to do with it’.”

However, the Mini was also at the centre of a tragedy in 1977. Marc Bolan was the totemic lead singer of punk band T-Rex, a star who famously sang “too beautiful to live, too young to die”. After recovering from the brink of alcoholism and drug addiction by his girlfriend Gloria Jones, she crashed her Mini into a tree. Jones survived, but Bolan died at the age of 29, and the sycamore tree that he crashed into was bought by volunteers who turned the small piece of land into a protected shrine that’s still preserved to this day.

1980s

80s culture was formidable – romantic, garish, and glamorous. In this changing, opulent world, the Mini found itself to be an anachronism after two decades of riding high. After the relative beigeness of the 70s, this bold new decade ushered in new fashion, new music, new ways of thinking. Its place in pop culture may have been cemented, but Mini could no longer say was it fresh. The chic style of the 60s was long out of fashion, and the glamorous New Romantic era had replaced the Mods as the definitive youth subculture, meaning that the Mini’s bubble-chic was no longer an in vogue style, with films and fashion preferring boxier styles and faster, more macho cars, like Porsches and Lamborghinis. Duran Duran weren’t exactly clamouring to use Minis in music videos, and Prince eulogised about his favourite fast car in 1982, when we wrote “Little Red Corvette”.

The Mini dropped out of “Best Car” lists, and production slowed, as many competitors copied the compact model of the Mini with huge success. This would prove to be a period of soul searching for the Mini, as it sought to regain its place in people’s minds as cool.

1990s

Still suffering from the hangover of the late 1970s and the 1980s, the Mini’s first welcome back into popular culture was through Mr Bean, possibly the exact person who a brand wouldn’t want their product associated with – a silent, bizarre loser with no friends. Mr Bean, played by British comic Rowan Atkinson, drove a 1977 British Leyland Mini, and while the show was adored by families across Britain, it’s unlikely that it’s the area of people’s minds that BMC wanted the Mini to be – let’s face it, no-one in marketing meetings is bringing up Mr Bean. 

However, by the end of the decade, there were signs that the Mini was making a comeback. In 1998, British fashion designer Paul Smith created a limited-edition car for Mini, featuring his signature lime-green designs on the boot and glovebox, and a year later in 1999, the V&A celebrated 40 years of Mini by asking celebrities to design their own versions. David Bowie created a mirror-plated Mini, and in typically candid Bowie fashion, he gave a hilariously brief tongue-in-cheek interview for a BMW press release, which gave the impression that he wasn’t exactly enamoured with the project. Bowie praised the Mini’s design for parking, described his Mini as “the Emperor’s new clothes”, and said he chose the colour scheme as “it becomes very hard to see as the viewer’s own image becomes the immediate interface”. His Mini looked exquisite, not that he seemed to care, perhaps he had other things on his mind, such as the critical reception to his dodgy 1999 album Hours.

2000s

The turn of the millennium marked a Mini revival and a comprehensive re-entry into the pop culture canon. In 2001, a new hatchback version was introduced with a new design, spearheading a new era for the car, and making it not quite as mini as it was once was. The 2000s proved to be wildly successful in terms of re-establishing it, with the Mini careering its way through the charts and cinema. How we'll look back on the trashy 2000s themselves remains to be seen, but the Mini was certainly there, during a decade of immense upheaval across all cultural industries.

In 2003 Madonna referenced the Mini in her song “American Life”, and she used her Mini Cooper S constantly during her time living in London, while Rihanna is also rumoured to have a Mini that she drives when she wants to go incognito in London. In 2003, British grime icon Dizzee Rascal rapped in his track “Road Rage”: “But I'm still a trooper, in my Mini Cooper. Went head to head, had a crash with a police car”.

Over in the US, Neal Pogue, who was an audio engineer on the seminal Outkast album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, released in 2003, remembers the role that the Mini played in creating one of the most defining records of the era, and he recalled driving with Andre 3000 and the musician playing him demos. “I just remember we were driving. It might have been on cassette because I remember us driving over Laurel Canyon in a little rented Mini Cooper and listening to all the demos for that album.” The Mini also left its mark on Hollywood, showing up in a number of blockbusters, namely The Bourne Identity, Team America, Rush Hour 3, Crash, and a remake of The Italian Job.

2010s

By now, the Mini revival was well and truly complete. For any company, being mentioned in rap tunes is the holy grail - see premium petrol being referred to in America as “Gucci gas”, a legacy of Gucci being a fundamental part of any rapper’s vocabulary. Throughout the 2010s, Mini was referenced across hip hop and pop consistently.

Flo Rida put a Cooper S in his 2012 video for “Good Feeling”, and cult fashion icon and rap weirdo Lil Uzi Vert released “Sideline Watching (Hold Up) in which he rapped: “Pull up, I'm suited And you know I got my toolie Okay, I might Bentley Coupe it. Heard you pull up, Mini Cooper. Told that lil' bitch that she stupid.” In 2015, Bugzy Malone rapped in “100K JDZMedia”: “Picture that atmosphere, my stepdad had a Mini Cooper from the 80s. And then we drove to the hood, on Princess Park where i've seen a million faces” In 2018, British rapper Plan B mentioned the Mini in his political track “Guess Again”: “From all positions like they reading Kama Sutra, breaking out the EU like they in a Mini Cooper.” 

In the pop world, Bruno Mars drove a Mini in the video for Travie McCoy’s global smash hit “Billionaire”, and Britney Spears included a pink convertible Mini in her 2011 Femme Fatale tour. The car was also involved in some salacious, high-profile celeb gossip too, when in 2013 Kristen Stewart was photographed kissing director Rupert Sanders in a Mini, a tryst that would ultimately end her relationship with Robert Pattinson, and cement the Mini in the annals of Hollywood’s tabloid history.

The 2010s will be remembered as the dawn of always-on celebrity coverage, the dawn of the influencer, and the moment that social media changed the ways in which we talk, live, and feel. The decade has also been witness to an explosion of interest in sustainability, a fairly passive term for the attempts to preserve the planet while continuing to produce. Finally, the climate crisis is the top of the news agenda, and increasingly, humans are hyper-aware that our current model of living comes with a time limit. Consequently, so are companies and manufacturers. In 2019 Mini released the Mini Cooper SE, a purely electric car that is spearheading a global desire to only produce electric cars from hereon in. It’s inevitable that within 50 years, the roads will dominated by electric vehicles, and similarly possible that we won’t be behind the wheel.

In 1959, the Mini set a new standard in terms of revolutionary design, and 60 years later it’s done the same again with the first purely electric premium car designed for inner city driving, which has kept the iconic design and the gokart feeling of its handling. In a world that will depend on radical innovation to survive, the Mini is leading the way into a more sustainable, mobile future. 

Head here to find out more about 60 Years of Mini.