Thursday, August 27, 2009

Phursday Photos: Mini varieties

If I had time I would have found 57 varieties of Mini (I'm sure there are many more than that around!) but here's a smaller selection of the different shapes and sizes (OK, not much variety in sizes!) to have appeared over the last 50 years...

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Accidental Legend

A few weeks ago I mentioned that it has been 10 years since I became a published writer, and made a vague threat to reproduce that first article here. I'm not going to do that, because it was very specialised and likely only to further alienate the fans of Christian spec-fic who are often disappointed by my coverage of the topic at the best of times...

Instead, here's another little piece I wrote, a potted history of the Mini, which is 50 today!

Accidental legend

When Leonard Lord, chairman of the British Motor Corporation, asked Alec Issigonis to come up with an alternative to the bubblecars that became popular after the 1956 Suez crisis, he expected a practical family car in as small and economical a package as possible.

What he got was a revolution.

Sketching on the backs of envelopes, paper napkins, and at one point a restaurant tablecloth, Issigonis designed the car we now know as the Mini. To keep the car within his target length of ten feet the engine had to be turned sideways, driving the front wheels directly, with the gearbox in the oil sump. This layout is common in modern cars, but was unheard of in the 1950s.
The engine was turned sideways

Everything about the new car was small, from the barely practical boot and tiny ten-inch wheels to the development budget. The developers couldn't even afford to have the cars built on jigs, giving rise to the characteristic external seams. To cut costs further, the 948cc A-series engine, used in the Morris Minor since 1956, was used as a stopgap, although Issigonis declared this too powerful and had the engine size reduced to 848cc before launch. He also had the car made two inches wider, the net result of which was a reduction in top speed from around 90mph to 72mph.
An early Austin Mini

In this form the Austin Seven and Morris Mini-Minor were launched to the public on 26 August 1959. Internal space was maximised by fitting sliding front windows and a pull string door release, and the combined speedometer and fuel gauge sat in the centre of a full width parcel shelf. The seats were designed to keep the driver alert; for the same reason no provision was made for a radio - even later models had these slung under the parcel shelf by the passenger's knees. Such luxuries as carpets were only available on the De Luxe model.
By the 1970s the interior comforts had improved, but not by much...

As the first British small car launched after the Suez crisis, the Mini was expected to take the biggest slice of this new market. However, despite being priced at £496 - its nearest rival, the Ford Anglia, cost almost £100 more - the Mini was not an instant success. Much of the buying public considered it either too revolutionary or too cheap. Those who did try the early models found faults that had been missed in the rush to launch the car - the floor leaked, and because of the positioning of the distributor inside the grille, the engine would splutter to a halt in heavy rain.

However, the Mini was quick, and one of Issigonis' friends immediately saw the sporting potential of its low centre of gravity and wheel at each corner design. Had John Cooper not liked the car, the story of the Mini would have been entirely different.
Mini Cooper 35th Anniversary edition from 1996

Issigonis disapproved of the idea of a tuned Mini, so Cooper went straight to the new BMC chairman, George Harriman, and convinced him. A trial run of 997cc Mini Coopers began production in July 1961. At the time John Cooper was best known as Formula One World Champion racing car constructor of 1959 and 1960, but when the initial 1,000 cars sold within a week, Cooper's link with the Mini was cemented.

Minis had been rallied since the beginning, but with the Mini Cooper it gained enough competition successes to warrant further development, and when the Mini Cooper S was launched in 1963 even Issigonis was keen. The Cooper S quickly became the definitive Mini, and has remained so ever since. Between 1965 and 1967, having already earned a reputation as a giant killer, an army of works Coopers took twenty-two overall victories in European motorsport events.
The 1967 Monte Carlo winning Cooper S

Meanwhile, back in Swinging London, the Mini became an essential fashion accessory. Eighty public figures had been lent Minis by BMC to evaluate in the year following the launch, in an attempt to boost the slow initial sales. As a result the car was seen at major social and political events throughout that year - and the celebrities loved it.

Peter Sellers gave the trend for personalising the Mini a kick-start when he came up with the wickerwork side panels seen on his Mini in A Shot In The Dark. Later he took the concept a step further, when Rolls Royce coachbuilders Hooper fitted his Mini with a lifting tailgate - an idea later used by Ringo Starr to accommodate his drum kit. With coachbuilders specialising in luxurious Minis, and pop stars and royalty enthusiastic owners, the Mini had become the classless icon of the sixties.
A 1960's Mini hatchback

There was a Mini to suit all tastes and pockets - the Mini and Cooper were joined by van and pick-up variants, and the more practical Austin Countryman and Morris Traveller estate cars. The army rejected the Mini Moke, which went on to become a popular fun car, made famous in the TV series The Prisoner. There were also the up-market Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf, with extended boots, traditional style grilles and interior luxuries including leather seats and wood veneer dashboards.
The completely frill-free Mini Moke

Most of these Mini variants were discontinued in 1969, as British Leyland took over BMC. The Countryman and Traveller were superseded by the less charismatic Clubman Estate, and the Mini Cooper was replaced by the Clubman based 1275GT, although the Cooper S stayed in production until 1971. Its glory days were over, but more Minis were sold in the 1970s than any other decade.
Apologies to Yoda for the 'less charismatic' comment - it was 6 years before we met!

Nonetheless, the Mini's planned replacement, the Metro, was launched in 1980 - and although Mini sales halved that year, shared components between the two cars and the Metro's more efficient production line meant the Mini continued to be viable - even after Metro production ceased.

Forty-one years and 5½ million Minis later, though much refined, the classic Mini shape remained unchanged when the last one rolled out of Longbridge; the external seams were still present, as was the A-series engine, evolved into a 1275cc fuel injected version.
The official 'last of line' Mini

The late Sir Alec Issigonis once said: "My car will still be in fashion after I've gone." From the number and sheer variety of Minis at the recent Mini 50 celebration in Longbridge, it's easy to see how right he was.

This article is (C) Steve Trower, and first appeared in Best of British, some time in 1999. All photographs by Steve Trower.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tuesday Tunes: Mini Week

There were a couple of ways I could have approached this Top Ten. I could have gone the generic motoring songs route (Driving In My Car by Madness, for example); I could have played cheesy word play games (I Want That Min by Debbie Harry); or I could have picked some really obscure Mini references (British Racing Green being both a popular Mini colour and a sublime piece of pop songery by Black Box Recorder). However, it turns out that if you look deep enough into the obscure, foreign and just plain daft corners of popular music, there are at least 10 more directly Mini related songs. So here are a few:

10. Stavangerensemblet: Morris Mini
I have to put this at the bottom of the Top Ten because I’ve never heard it, and it may well be rubbish. It is certainly Norwegian however, and has a good title.
9. Antonelli: Mini Cooper
Not quite sure what this little electroloungepop number has to do with the greatest car of all time, but it’s pleasant enough, and has a good title.
8. Richie Kavanagh: Courtin' In A Mini Car
It’s cheeky, but it’s kinda fun.
7. Christian Fischer & DJ Murphy: Mini Monster
Keeping up the traditional 7 minutes of electronica per top ten.
6. Echo and the Bunnymen: Rust
Echo and the Bunnymen, denizens of the dark side of 80s pop, wrote this tribute to the Mini for it’s 40th birthday. Probably.
5. The Sisters of Mercy: 1959
Spooky ethereal goth music is ideal for anyone who owns a black Mini named after Death’s horse.
4. Horace Andy: Mini Mini
I have a suspicion that the Mini Horace Andy loves to see young girls in is not one designed by Alec Issigonis, but the song works either way.
3. They Might Be Giants: Seven
OK, so one slightly obscure Mini reference slipped in (the Mini was launched as the Austin Seven, for the uneducated), but I could resist the sheer insanity of this track.
2. Corduroy: Mini
Finally, a song which was actually about the car, released around the time of the Mini’s 35th birthday, publicised at the event and with an actual Mini!
1. Quincy Jones/Don Black: Get a Bloomin' Move On!
Sorry Corduroy, but there’s no topping this as the ultimate Mini song, better known as The Self Preservation Society, or 'that one off The Italian Job'. Get yer skates on mate...

Monday, August 24, 2009

It's Mini Week!

On August 26th, 1959, two brand new cars were officially launched into a completely unsuspecting public: the Austin Seven, and the Morris Mini-Minor. These cars soon became affectionately known as the Mini - and the rest, as they say...

So this week, because I'm just a little bit partial to the world's favourite small car, I'm going to forget all about spaceships and time travel, and have some self-indulgent Mini wibble instead.

Christianity and science fiction will be back on the menu next week, but do feel free to drop by for a Mini-flavoured version of whatever normally happens here...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

CSFF Blog Tour: Something Else by Robin Parrish

It occurs to me that, as Offworld by Robin Parrish is a science fiction book, I might be expected to contribute something a little more relevant to this tour than a list of obscure pop songs.

But it is an important and popular fact that we do things differently here, and as my offering of relevance I therefore present a review of something entirely different: Merciless, by Robin Parrish.

Merciless is volume three of the Dominion Trilogy; my reviews of the earlier volumes Relentless and Fearless can be pretty much summed up as ‘flawed page-turners’.

And it has to be said that Merciless pretty much follows in the same mould. That’s not to say it’s a bad book – on the contrary, Robin Parrish is undoubtedly good at what he does, which is Hollywood blockbuster on the printed page. The action in Merciless is even bigger and faster than in the earlier books, the stakes are global, the climactic battle huge, and the journey to it a great ride.

However, the flaws remain, and from a writer’s perspective, this book looked a little like it was edited on a Friday afternoon. Some sentences have no place in a professionally published book. Like:
They could do nothing but watch as the hole grew in size, first to the dimensions of a fist, and eventually bigger and bigger until it was half the mass of a man.
And then there’s the car chase. The car chase with a complete absence of internal logic, even as car chases go: one minute our heroes car can’t outrun a garbage truck, but the next chapter, having been bashed about a bit by said garbage truck, can ‘accelerate with the best of them’, and keep pace with a Mustang. Garbage trucks in the US must be a lot different than the humble British bin lorry, that’s all I can say.

But despite its flaws, Merciless is overall an enjoyable novel in the ‘superhero gone bad’ mould, in which our band of Ringwearers are pitched against ubervillain Oblivion (try saying that when you’ve had a few beers), a mysterious civilisation descended from Cain (yes, that’s right, an actual Bible reference, right at the end of the book!), and an army of superzombies. Add to that the fact that time is on the blink and planet Earth is rapidly turning into DarkWorld in preparation for all kinds of supernatural nastiness, and you have a pretty action packed 400 pages. In between times a few confusing loose ends about Grant Borrows and his origin are tied up, and Grant himself manages to have a spiritual epiphany, albeit one without any overt Christian influence.

Flawed, but fun, and I suppose this last volume leaves space for discussion between Christian and non-Christian readers of the trilogy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

CSFF Blog Tour vs Tuesday Tunes

This month the CSFF Blog Tour is Offworld with Robin Parrish, having returned from Mars to find everybody has vanished, and since we've done those two, you will be relieved not to have to sit through another dubious Top Ten.

At least, you would, but Ms Miller seems to like them, and that's good enough for me. So here it is, your Top Ten Astronaut Songs:

10. Duran Duran: Astronaut
It's Duran Duran, but from 2004. I know, it sounds like science-fiction...
9. The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band: I'm The Urban Spaceman
If you haven't encountered the Bonzo's, well, the name should give you an idea of what to expect.
8. Snow Patrol: I Am An Astronaut
I'll be checking out this album - a compilation of childrens songs written and performed by decent bands. Follow the link if you have kids!
7. Babylon Zoo: Spaceman
Those Levi's people have a lot to answer for - one-hit wonders like this for a start...
6. The Killers: Spaceman
Not a Babylon Zoo cover, thankfully.
Röyksopp: In Space
This one has turned out to be quite electronica heavy, the first slice coming from Norway...
4. Kraftwerk: Spacelab
...and the second from Germany, from the form's original masters.
3. David Bowie: Space Oddity
Well, it's a classic, pure and simple.
2. Jean Michel Jarre: Last Rendez-Vous (Ron's Piece)
This was written by Jarre to be the first piece of music played in space, by sax playing astronaut Ron McNair. He never got to record his part, which he planned to do during the Space Shuttle Challenger's 10th mission, leading to the track being renamed in his honour.
1. Lemon Jelly: Space Walk
This is very cool. Samples from a proper space walk (I assume) over a nice mellow piece of, yes, electronica, infused with a touch of guitar. Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Now take your protein pills and put your helmet on, it's time to continue the tour:
Brandon Barr Jim Black Justin Boyer Keanan Brand Gina Burgess Canadianladybug Melissa Carswell Valerie Comer Karri Compton Amy Cruson CSFF Blog Tour Stacey Dale D. G. D. Davidson Jeff Draper April Erwin Karina Fabian Linda Gilmore Beth Goddard Todd Michael Greene Katie Hart Ryan Heart Becky Jesse Cris Jesse Jason Joyner Julie Carol Keen Krystine Kercher Dawn King Melissa Meeks Rebecca LuElla Miller Mirtika Eve Nielsen Nissa John W. Otte Lyn Perry Steve Rice Chawna Schroeder James Somers Speculative Faith Stephanie Rachel Starr Thomson Steve Trower Fred Warren Dona Watson Elizabeth Williams

Monday, August 17, 2009

CSFF Blog Tour: Offworld by Robin Parrish

This month, the CSFF Blog Tour will be featuring Offworld, by Robin Parrish.

Here's the blurb from the author's website:

Christopher Burke and his crew of NASA astronauts are the first human beings to walk on the surface of Mars. Their return to Earth was supposed to be a momentous day. But a surprise is waiting for them there that's beyond imagining.

Safe after a treacherous landing in Florida, the crew emerges to find the unthinkable: every man, woman, child, and animal has vanished without a trace.

It's not a dream.

It's not a trick.

It's real.

Alone now on their home planet, the crew sets out to discover the extraordinary secret behind the disappearance of mankind. And whether or not everyone can be brought back.

But they may not be as alone as they thought.

Now if I didn't know better, I'd say that astronauts on a mission to Mars in the year 2033 suggested that this may be a science fiction novel...

Lost meets the Rapture meets any number of sf tales in which a small band of people find everything they knew gone or changed beyond all recognition.

Robin Parrish appeared in the CSFF Blog Tour a couple of years ago, where I reviewed Relentless, the first volume of his surprisingly religion-free Christian superhero series the Dominion Trilogy. I will be interested to see, when I finish reading Offworld, if the same low-key approach to spiritual elements has been taken (early indications are that it has) and how that works for me, because, as I mentioned in previous Parrish reviews, I like a bit more Christ in my Christian fiction.

While I get on with reading that, please tour the deserted blogosphere with your band of wandering survivors:
Brandon Barr Jim Black Justin Boyer Keanan Brand Gina Burgess Canadianladybug Melissa Carswell Valerie Comer Karri Compton Amy Cruson CSFF Blog Tour Stacey Dale D. G. D. Davidson Jeff Draper April Erwin Karina Fabian Linda Gilmore Beth Goddard Todd Michael Greene Katie Hart Ryan Heart Becky Jesse Cris Jesse Jason Joyner Julie Carol Keen Krystine Kercher Dawn King Melissa Meeks Rebecca LuElla Miller Mirtika Eve Nielsen Nissa John W. Otte Lyn Perry Steve Rice Chawna Schroeder James Somers Speculative Faith Stephanie Rachel Starr Thomson Steve Trower Fred Warren Dona Watson Elizabeth Williams