1980s / British / Mini / Quick drive / Rover

A quick drive in a 1988 Austin Mini Red Hot

austin-mini-red-hot-vehicle-passportThe term “oil crisis” is often associated with fuel shortages during the 1970s, but the first sizable oil crisis of the 20th century arguably started on July 26th, 1956, when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.   In response, Britain, France and Israel joined forces and launched a controversial attack against Egypt on October 29th, 1956.

As expected, the conflict had repercussions on the oil industry.  In addition to numerous pipelines in Syria being set on fire or otherwise destroyed, King Saud of Saudi Arabia showed his support for Nasser by initiating an oil embargo against Britain and France.   Fuel became scarce and expensive in the British Isles and city-dwelling motorists flocked towards bubble cars such as the BMW Isetta and the Messerschmidt KR200.

The new-found popularity of bubble cars irritated the British government, and it urged BMC to quickly develop a small, affordable and economical car with four seats.  The task was given to Alec Issigonis, an engineer that had made a name for himself during the development of the Morris Minor, and work on what would become globally known as the Mini began. Affectionately nicknamed “Orange Box,” the first functional Mini prototype was built in 1957 and months of rigorous testing began.

The Mini went from a concept to a production car in just 27 months and rushed to production.  To save precious time, story has it that Issigonis personally designed most of the machinery required to build the car in BMC’s Oxford, England, factory.

Launched in England in August of 1959 as the Austin 850 and the Austin Seven, the Mini stood out from everything else on the road, including the hoards of bubble cars that had led to its creation and other popular economy cars like the Volkswagen Beetle and the Citroën 2CV. Its exterior design was penned largely by Issigonis himself and was characterized by rounded lines and tiny ten-inch steel wheels pushed as far towards the corners as possible.  

Inside, it featured a speedometer mounted in the center of the dash to facilitate the conversion from right-hand drive to left-hand drive, storage bins mounted in the doors and below the rear seats, and door windows that slid open horizontally to free up extra inches of shoulder room.

The Mini’s most innovative aspect, however, was found in the engine bay where a water-cooled four-cylinder engine was mounted transversally on top of a four-speed manual gearbox.  This highly compact setup cleared up a large amount of interior space and eliminated the need for a bulky transmission tunnel.

Once the problems encountered with early cars were solved, the Mini became an instant hit and it took BMC just six years to build one million examples. The car outlived Issigonis – who formally became Sir Issigonis in 1969 – and exceeded all period expectations by staying in production until October 4th, 2000.

The Mini inspired others, too.  Dante Giacosa’s Autobianchi A112 was designed as a direct competitor to the Mini and it single-handedly kept the Fiat-owned firm alive for the better part of two decades.  Lamborghini chief engineer Gian Paolo Dallara considered the Mini a masterpiece of engineering and he carefully studied the engine bay before mounting the Miura’s V12 engine transverally behind the rear seats.

More recently, BMW’s resurrection of the Mini put it on the map in the premium compact car market, something it certainly couldn’t have done as easily with a sub-1-Series model.

The Mini Red Hot

Based on the entry-level Austin Mini City, the Red Hot was one of the numerous limited edition Minis offered during the 1980s in order to lure buyers into showrooms. The Red Hot and contrasting Jet Black editions featured model-specific decals, velour upholstery with red seatbelts and noticeably more equipment than the bare-bones City for a modest price increase. 3,000 examples of each version was built in 1988 for Europe and Japan.


We’ve made a list of thoughts and impressions that came to us while driving a 1988 Red Hot on back roads and through small villages.

  • Every positive thing you’ve ever heard about how the Mini drives is true.  Nimble and fun to drive, it truly does handle like a go-kart.
  • Unfortunately, every negative thing you’ve ever heard about the Mini is also true.  With a very short travel distance, the suspension is surprisingly stiff and the slightest bump in the road is felt in every single vertebrae.  The seating position is a little awkward and the car is rather noisy at high speeds.
  • The Mini is exceptionally roomy for a such a tiny car.  Two average-size passengers can sit side-by-side up front without rubbing shoulders, and trunk space is more than adequate.
  • The steering is precise, fast and very sensitive to input due to its high ratio.
  • Minis were successful in racing but don’t be mislead into thinking that stock, entry-level models are essentially street legal race cars.  The 998cc is a little gutless at low rpms and the sprint from zero to 62 mph takes a lackadaisical 18.5 seconds.  However, since it’s so low to the ground and sensitive to input it feels quick to drive regardless of how fast you’re really going.
  • Helped by a brake booster, disc brakes up front and drums out back firmly stop the car.
  • Although the basic exterior design stays roughly the same, the Minis that were built in the 1980s – and the 1990s, for that matter – are quite different than the first examples that rolled off the Oxford assembly line in 1959.  With minor upgrades such as larger wheels, additional creature comforts, rear windows that open with a latch and more powerful engines, BMC and British Leyland did a remarkable job at modernizing car while keeping the same overall feel.
  • Name and silhouette aside, the old Mini and the current, BMW-designed MINI have very little in common.  Both are fun to drive, but they’re totally different machines.
  • Overall, the Mini is a brilliant design and its spot as an icon of the British automotive industry is well-deserved.  The city car as we know it today was born with the Mini over half a century ago.
  • About our test car

    The 1988 Red Hot pictured above was purchased by a member of our extended family a little over a year ago.  All-original down to the dealer stick on the trunk lid, it has been used as a daily driver but it is now for sale as the owner needs a van for work.  When we took the picture the odometer displayed 130,000 kilometers, which converts to roughly 80,000 miles.

27 thoughts on “A quick drive in a 1988 Austin Mini Red Hot

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  3. Nice. 2 points… 1 they didn’t help keep BL profitable (when they first launched Ford broke one down and costed each component and worked out that BL were selling them at a 10 % loss. They even sent the report to BL manager who studiously ignored it) 2 the racers were the 1275cc versions and are a lot quicker, but it’s amazing what you can do to free up the little 998 engine

  4. Belongs to a different age to be honest. And when you see one in the metal these days it is amazing how tiny they are – a Hyundai i10 dwarfs the original Mini

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