Mini enthusiasts gather in Norfolk

Adam GrettonDozens of Mini owners from across the region gathered at a Norfolk race track in the latest in a series events to pay homage to a golden year for the iconic car.Adam Gretton

It was the pint-sized car designed as the answer to Britain's fuel shortages and petrol rationing caused by the 1956 Suez Crisis.

It became one of the most influential cars of the 20th century, and yesterday its fans showed that in their eyes it was far from over the hill as they celebrated the Mini's 50th anniversary.

Dozens of owners gathered at Snetterton race track for the latest in a series of events to pay homage to the car's golden year.

The Mini, a symbol of the Swinging Sixties immortalised in the film, The Italian Job, has been turning heads ever since it first rolled off the production lines of the British Motor Corporation. And despite its falling into the hands of German-owned BMW decades later, older versions and their 21st-century sisters still hold a place in the nation's hearts.

At Snetterton, thousands of people watched the climax of the Mini Challenge race series. Mini owners' clubs showed off their restored and preserved models. Also there to be seen were dozens of the newer Minis, turned out since 2001.

For officials of the East Coast Mini Club, the Mini's 50th anniversary year also sees the fifth birthday of their own organisation, which has more than 1,200 members.

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More than 50 classic and new Minis gathered at the Snetterton pit lane yesterday, including enthusiasts from King's Lynn Mini Owners' Club and Mini Club UK, plus the 24 racers from the Mini Challenge.

Nicci Marget-son, founder of the East Coast club, said: "There seem to be more Minis on the road and at shows this year than there ever have before. You see a lot of classics going around with 'BMW-free' stickers in their windows, but as long as it has a Mini badge we do not discrim-inate."

Paul Harvey, manager of the Mini Challenge series, said there had been bigger crowds this year because of the special anniversary.

"It is an icon, and it is a very popular car. You only have to look at the classic races to see they have been going forever, and the new Mini is following on from that," he said.

James Day, from Colchester, who owns a 1991 Mini Mayfair, said it was difficult to find another car that was so "cheeky". He added: "You feel you are doing 70mph when you are going 30mph, but it is good to handle and has great character."

And Richard Mortlock, from Bury St Edmunds, who took along his 1961 Austin Seven Countryman, said: "It is entertaining and great fun to watch them racing. I remember being here 40 years ago watching Mini Miglias racing, and they are still going strong."

Well over five million Minis have been made, not just for the road but for motor sport. The first prototype was finished in October 1957, with

a space-saving, front-wheel-drive layout that would influence a generation of car makers.

The first Mini was marketed under the Austin and Morris marques, and they rolled out of the Longbridge and Cowley plants in 1959. The huge popularity of the car was just one of the high-points of the career of the vehicle designer, Sir Alec Issigonis.