Britain’s push to “Export or Die” brought English cars to North America by the thousands
Minors for the World
Large part of the UK’s postwar exports
In October 1948, two cars captivated the eager crowds who thronged Earl’s Court exposition hall in London, as England held its first motor show since the end of World War II.
The first of the two was a sleek Jaguar sports car, the XK 120. The number referred to its top speed on a highway test, achieved in Belgium because the U.K. then had no high-speed motorways long enough to conduct such experiments. Jaguar had planned to call its new sports car the XK 100, until it proved faster than expected. It was an instant sensation not only in the U.K. but also in the U.S.- and the most significant Jaguar until the E-Type of 1961.
But for the common man, the other new car was equally exciting. The Morris Minor, offered as a two-door Saloon or a cloth-roofed Tourer, was the successor to the sturdy little pre-war Morris Eight Series E. But its smooth styling resembled a smaller 1948 Buick Roadmaster, making the Minor feel modern and up-to-date – a new car for a new postwar era.
Morris Minor at Earls Court October 1948
Designed during long nights of fire-watching duty by young engineer Alec Issigonis, the Minor was originally intended to have a flat-four engine. But austerity intervened, and the pre-war 918cc side-valve Morris Motors engine was fitted instead – albeit in an unusually wide engine compartment.
Early Mosquito Prototype
The car’s width was remarkable for its size, in fact. It was the product of a last-minute decision by Issigonis to have one of the “Mosquito” prototypes sawn down the middle and widened by 4 inches, to make it “look right.” Issigonis pushed the change through, and the Morris Minor remained at the wider size for the 23 years of its production.
The earliest Minors bore the marks of the last-minute change, though: The chrome blade that adorned the stamped metal pans of their front and rear bumpers had already been ordered, making them too narrow. So the curved chrome blades were sawn in half at the factory, with a painted metal piece wrapped around to hide the gap. It worked in the front, where the bumper contained a hole for the jack handle to be inserted to crank-start the engine in an emergency, but it looked a bit odder at the rear.
Later Widened Mosquito Prototype
None of this mattered to the crowds starved for new cars in the post-war era. Few Britons could buy those new Minors. In the midst of the country’s “Export or Die” campaign, fully 90 percent of its industrial production was sold overseas for hard currency to pay Britain’s war debts.
Assembling Minors In the Nuffield Oxford Plant
Canada was a longstanding and logical market for British cars – it was still closely tied to the Empire – but the country to its south offered the prospect of sales earned in valuable U.S. dollars. Amazingly, Morris’s rival Austin sold more than 10,000 of its new A40 Devon and Dorset sedans over two years to Americans who were desperate to buy a car, any car at all. And so some U.S. buyers took a chance on small cars from a British company few of them had ever heard of.
In its first year of export, 1949, Nuffield Motors sent 3,439 Minors to North America. Almost 3,000 went to Canada (2,066 two-doors and 931 Tourers), but the U.S. got 442 as well. Just 95 were two-door sedans, while the rest were the jauntier Tourers.
Morris Minors and Oxfords shipped from England in 1949
All of them used the pre-war Morris 918cc flat-head engine, putting out 28 horsepower. A road test of an early Minor by Mechanix Illustrated a couple of years later recorded in its data panel that it required roughly 30 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 50 mph. The 0-to-60-mph time? “N/A”
Morris Minor USHM2 Engine
The engine of those earliest Minors was primitive indeed. It lacked even a water pump; the hot water simply rose to the top, to fall through a radiator as large as the engine. But all Minors had the torsion-bar independent front suspension created by designer Issignonis. While they were slow, they handled far better any other small car of the day. Cheerful looks didn’t hurt either.
The 1949 Minors sold in the U.S. had “high lights,” with 7-inch sealed-beam headlights in bulges on the front fenders above the grille. The reason was a 1949 California regulation that required headlights to be a certain height above the road. They replaced smaller, lower 5-inch headlights located next to the grille, known as “low lights,” which remained on British cars until January 1951.
High Light US Import Popular Science April 1949
So 1949 production was split – Canada got low-light Minors, while the U.S. got high-light cars. Some of the Canadian cars were later converted to the far more common high lights, especially any that were resold in the States. To be fair, some Minors were converted because the 7-inch sealed-beam units were simply far better headlights than the smaller, lower, weaker units next to the grille.
From that first year of export through 1967, more than 56,000 Morris Minors were sold in the U.S. (The author doesn’t immediately have Canadian numbers at hand.) A few were sold in each of the six body styles: two-door and four-door sedans, convertibles, Traveller wood-framed wagons, pickup trucks, and vans.
The two-door sedan was by far the most common, at half or more of all Minors sold. The Traveller woody wagons were distinctive even then, and stands today as the last production woody in the world. BMC made a total of 280,000 Travellers, out of a total of 1.6 million Minors built from September 1948 through April 1971 – very likely more than the total production of all other woodies put together. And the little trucks often ended up as parts delivery vehicles for local BMC dealers, and are much prized today.
But first-year 1949 Minors are rare today in North America. Only a dozen are listed on the Registry for the U.S. and Canada together, and several of them are no longer traceable.
The very earliest Minors in the U.K. had only a single working Lucas L482 rear light—all that was required under British law—with a matching red reflector on the other side. That setup ran from September 1948 through March 1949, then changed to a pair of surface-mounted L488 lights, which ran into June 1949. From then on, all Series MM Minors for all markets were built with a pair of the familiar Lucas L471 rectangular red-glass “helmet” tail lights.
However, Nuffield photos of 1948 prototypes for the USA showed twin L488 rear lights mounted on pedestals. That was very likely the setup on all USA Minors from January through June 1949. USA cars were also the only Minors fitted with “high-lamp” front fenders until the 1950 model year, when the Canada market got high lamps as well.
Production records show that 418 “USA” Minors—331 Tourers and 87 Saloons—were built with those round taillights from January through June 1949. As far as we know, the earliest Canadian cars built before June 1949 also had the round glass lamps on pedestals. But we don’t know for sure.
Just three USA Minors of the 418 are confirmed to survive, and so far, no Canadian cars from the same period have been located. (They would have low-light front fenders but presumably twin round rear lights on pedestals.)
If you know of ANY 1949 Morris Minors in the U.S. or Canada, please help us keep track of these rare and unusual first-year cars. Whether you own one, know of one, or even saw one at some point, please e-mail John Voelcker: johnvoelcker (at) yahoo (dot) com. Thank you.
NOTE: This article was adapted from one that ran in the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of MINOR NEWS, the bimonthly newsletter of the Morris Minor Registry.
UPDATED Nov 26, 2017:
Based on further research in the British Motor Museum archives and its Morris Minor production ledgers, author John Voelcker has updated this article to correct a few inaccuracies and add new information.
Update: March 28th 2015
Early Canadian Morris Minor On Ebay
This car came up on Ebay in March of 2015.
It shows some of the characteristics of an early Canadian Market Minor
The front bumper is split with separator inserted for the new wider body
This is one step from the earliest Minor. Here we have two tail lights instead of the single tail light of the very very early models