Sir Alec Issigonis put a bomb under the small car concept with the classic Mini. And then his buddy John Cooper tossed in a grenade of his own for good measure. When the small car with a big heart joined the fray in circuit and rally racing, it turned the established order on its head. Tuning guru Cooper staged an impressive demonstration of what was possible with a classic Mini. The Mini and Cooper names soon merged into a kind of “super-brand”, etching grins onto the faces of enthusiasts past and present.

From the start, the classic Mini was majestic through corners, almost unfeasibly nippy and undeniably good-natured. And it didn’t wait long after its 1959 presentation as a road car to introduce itself to the motor sport world as well. Trouble was, it didn’t really have the power to bother the big boys at the sharp end of proceedings. Enter John Cooper, who was running his own workshop at the time, building racing cars and often getting behind the wheel himself. Cooper enjoyed a close friendship with Sir Alec Issigonis, the creator of the Mini. Here were two proper car guys who could wax lyrical about the intricacies of automotive engineering. Cooper immediately recognised the potential bubbling away under the skin of his buddy’s new small car. And he wanted to get his hands on it asap.

“For Superperformance” – the Austin Seven Cooper.

The Cooper Car Company duly plumped up the Mini engine’s displacement to 997cc, modified the cylinder head and camshafts, added a pair of downdraught carburettors, lashed on a sports exhaust and replaced the front drum brakes with discs. A racing car was born. 55 horsepower provided the requisite shove, while extra instruments and a stubbier gear lever caught the eye inside. The production run of 1,000 examples was designed to rubberstamp homologation for motor sport competition, the arrival of the Austin Cooper and Morris Mini Cooper on the roads in late-summer 1961 accompanied by a brochure entitled “For Superperformance”. And a contrast-colour roof gave the new pocket rocket another distinctive calling card. Excitement about the new model was such that 25,000 cars had to be produced to meet demand – instead of the 1,000 originally planned.

The ultimate fun machine. The Mini Cooper S.

In 1963 the Mini was given an upgrade that secured it legendary status once and for all. The 70 hp developed by the Cooper S equated to more than double the Mini’s original output. Which meant anyone wanting to beat it across the line would have to bring out their big guns. But even without the magic S at the end of its name, the Mini Cooper displayed its class in circuit racing and rallying from the word go. Stirling Moss’ sister Pat drove it to victory in the Tulip Rally and Deutschlandrallye in 1962, while Rauno Aaltonen laid down a marker with a fifth-place finish in the exacting RAC Rally. Then, in 1964, Paddy Hopkirk won the Monte Carlo Rally for the first time in a Cooper S and history was made.

No respect. When Mini went racing.

But it was on the track where the real Mini miracle could be witnessed up close and personal, where this peskiest of fleas swirled around the bullish might of the Jaguar Mk II and Ford Falcon, and elegant sedans like the Ford Lotus Cortina. On long straights the Mini could put up little resistance, but that all changed when the next bend arrived. Its low weight meant it could brake extremely late into corners and its chassis brought to mind a go-kart. Smoking front tyres became a signature Mini feature – and the crowds lapped it up. Indeed, no other car had such a keen sense for the spectacular, not least when Mini drivers were dicing among themselves and drifting through corners door-to-door.

Four wins in the Monte Carlo Rally (one of which was subsequently chalked off – but that’s another story), plus countless class, group and overall victories in circuit races and rallies, enshrined the Mini as the ultimate sporting protagonist. Plus, it was still relatively cheap. Factory involvement in motor sport ended in 1970, by which time a new generation of competing exotica had got their act together to rival the Mini. However, the Mini continued to thrive in privateer hands through the 1970s and 80s – in hill climbs, slaloms, rally and autocross events. Today, it has long since enjoyed classic car status and garnered the affection of admirers far and wide. But, as visitors to Goodwood (and elsewhere) each year can testify, it is the limitless fun factor that has set this extraordinary car apart for almost 60 years.

Smoking tyres are part of the appeal – and every centimetre is a prize for this trio of Mini drivers at Crystal Palace in 1966. The front-wheel drive of the classic Mini was a safety-conscious configuration, but also allowed plenty of slip through the corners.

Stick tape over the headlights, daub your car number on the doors and fasten your seat belt. Back in 1965, drivers could line up for races with near-standard production versions of a car.

The classic Mini was equally at home on a track or rally stage. Its low weight and exquisite roadholding gave it the edge through corners.

Rauno Aaltonen in a Mini Cooper S at the 1968 Acropolis Rally. Despite its small tyres, the classic Mini was also a tough nut to crack on gravel.

Mini Coopers gather at the Coupe des Alpes 1963. It was soon clear that the closest competition for Mini drivers would come from other Mini drivers.

On tight circuits, the small Mini Cooper often had its stubby nose in front. Pictured are a pair of Mk I cars in race action in 1964.

The Mini Cooper remained an extremely popular sporting machine in the 1970s. Here it tackles an autocross event in 1975.

No Respect! Larger of engine they may have been, but even giants of the track like the Ford Mustang and Falcon had a job getting past the sprinkling of Mini Cooper S racers at Brands Hatch in 1966.

Spectators loved the gloves-off, wheel-to-wheel racing served up by the Mini Cooper – as here at Silverstone in 1965. They didn’t cost the earth to race and were hugely popular among drivers, often hunting in packs at motor sport events.

How to make history. Paddy Hopkirk steered the Mini Cooper to victory at Monte Carlo in 1964, earning some appreciative words from the local royalty.

Paddy Hopkirk at Silverstone in an Austin Mini Cooper, 1963. A smoking front tyre and more powerful rivals in its wake were both familiar sights.

The Mini 1275 GT also put up a good fight. In this race in 1979 it came up against the next-generation-but-one of compact racers.