Happy birthday, Mini: A British icon turns 55

Compact, with four seats and low fuel consumption, the classic Mini automobile broke onto the market in August 1959 as gas prices were on the rise and hulking gas guzzlers were mainstream.

And while some auto enthusiasts may have been taken aback by the small car at the time, the Mini soon became a popular and stylish choice for average drivers, according to John Heitmann, president of the Society of Automotive Historians.

The Mini also became the speed demon of choice for some race car drivers, most notably the British legend John Cooper.

A classic Mini racecar. The Mini is celebrating its 55th anniversary.
Source: BMW
A classic Mini racecar. The Mini is celebrating its 55th anniversary.

But when the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act went into effect in 1958, the Mini fell short of federal requirements for lower carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions and fell off of the U.S. market. Still, by 1977, about 4 million Minis were sold worldwide, according to the company.

Fast forward to 1994: BMW acquired Mini and updated its design. And just as larger cars, in the form of SUVs, were regaining popularity, BMW unveiled its own Mini Cooper in 2001, and gas prices were headed for a major upswing.

By mid-2008, when gas prices peaked at more than $4 a gallon in the United States, those who didn't end up postponing new car purchases increasingly opted for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, including the Mini Cooper and competitors like the Fiat 500, Subaru WRX and Volkswagen GTi, according to Heitmann.

By its 55th anniversary this month, more than 8 million Minis, including classics and current models, have been sold worldwide since 1959, according to BMW's estimates.

—By CNBC's Althea Chang