EVERYONE, well, almost everyone, knows what a Morris Minor is.
The little English car arrived at Earl’s Court Motor Show in late 1948 and went into mass production in 1949.
A ‘minor’ of a different kind was born in late 1930, but in a different country — and it was a very different car.
It was the Czech-made Jawa-Minor, which few people today know much, or anything, about.
While the Morris was a wee family runabout, the Jawa-Minor was a fastback saloon.
Yes, from the same outfit that made the famed Jawa motorcycles and later another Czech company, Aero, used Jawa bits to build their own car.
It was called the Aero-Minor, and the small company, headed by a Dr Kabes, got excited by the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and produced a couple of lightweight sports models to run in the 1949 event.
It was a particularly important race in that it was the first post-war running of the classic event that started in the French town back in 1923.
Why it took so long to get racing again after the war, which ended in 1945, was because major rebuilding throughout France meant it was put on the proverbial backburner until the nation had established itself again.
Also, the circuit needed extensive repairs.
During the war the the Luftwaffe used the airfield by the pits, as well as the 5km Hunaudières straight as an airstrip, which made it a target for Allied bombing.
So it was four years before the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) was in a position to revive the great race.
With government help the pits and grandstand were rebuilt, a new 1000-seat restaurant and administration centre built and the whole track was resurfaced.
Le Mans tragics all know the 1949 race was won by Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon in a Ferrari barchetta.
Chinetti drove for more than 22 of the 24 hours, but back in 15th and 19th places came the two Aero-Minors.
It was no mean feat, considering the race attracted more than 100 entrants, which the ACO trimmed to 49 starters.
The little bull-nosed Aero-Minors were driven by Otto Krattner and Frank Sutnar in one, and Jacques Poch and Ivan Hodac in the other.
Incredibly, one of them had to be driven all the way from Czechoslovakia to Le Mans after its transporter truck broke down.
Both cars ran in the 501-750cc category.
The Krattner car won the class ahead of a 500cc Simca 6, while the other Aero-Minor finished third in class.
A year later, in 1950, an Aero-Minor won its class again in the hands of Dutch aces Maurice Gatsonides and Henk Hoogeven.
The cars used Jawa twin-cylinde, two-stroke engines and the company itself is quite a story.
It was started by František Janeček, who worked in the arms industry and had just been promoted to open a new factory in The Netherlands when he was knocked off his bike by a motorist.
The daughter of the driver gave him first aid, they locked eyes — and pretty soon they were married. Maybe ‘first aid’ was a term for ‘kissed him better.’
Janecek got his start after the 1929 Depression when the German Wanderer brand decided to stop production of its cars and sold off its motor cycle division.
Janecek bought it, then set up business as Jawa, the name derived from the first two letters of his Christian name and the first two of Wanderer.
His motorbikes became super popular and in 1934 he produced his first car, the Jawa 700, which was based on the DKW F2.
Then came the Jawa Minor and production continued in limited numbers throughout WWII.
It was allowed by the occupying German military because he told them his product was a branch of BMW, so they left him alone.
Some 14,000 vehicles were produced and more than half were exported.
Aero then had a go and built cars from 1946 to 1952.
But back to the 1949 24 Hours of Le Mans.
There was severe petrol rationing at the time, hence considerable interest in the Index of Performance — the measure of cars making an improvement on their nominal assigned distance, based on engine size.
Entrants had to choose to run on either petrol (which was then of 68 octane), diesel or ‘’ternary’’ fuel, a mix of 60 per cent petrol, 25 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent benzol — the latter itself a mix of benzene and toluene.
Fuel, oil and water could only be topped up after 25 laps and ACO inspectors sealed the radiator and oil-caps after each refill.
A spare wheel, fire extinguisher and toolkit had to be carried in the car and on-circuit repairs could only be performed by the driver, with the onboard tools.
Finally there was the Hors Course rule, whereby after 12 hours, any car that had not completed 80 per cent of its corresponding Performance Index distance was disqualified.
Also, the car had to be running to take the chequered flag with a final lap taking no longer than 30 minutes to complete.
Prize money favoured the Index of Performance, awarding 1 million francs to that winner (about $38,000 Australian), while only 10 per cent of that went to the outright winner — plus bonuses to the leader at the end of each hour.
So even a car leading start-to-finish would still only reap 675,000 francs compared to the 1 million prize for top Index of Performance.
There was also a 50,000 franc prize with the Coupe des Dames for the top female driver.
The S3000 and S5000 categories had the most entries, among them two Ferraris, a stack of French cars, such as Talbots, Delahayes, Delages and a Delettrez, the latter the first diesel-engined car to compete at Le Mans, using an engine from a US Army GMC truck.
The S2000 and S1500 categories had 16 cars. Entered from Britain were a new Frazer-Nash ‘High-Speed’, driven by British motorcycle ace Norman Culpan, and company owner Harold Aldington, and a works trio of lightened and Singer-powered HRG 1500s.
David Brown, who had just bought Aston Martin and Lagonda, entered three works prototypes.
Three privately entered Astons also took the start.
Charles Deutsch and René Bonnet fielded a couple of their Citroen-powered DBs.
The rest were in the small classes (S1100 & S750). featuring Monopoles, Simcas, Gordinis, an MG TC, the two Aero-Minors and a privately-entered Renault 4CV — the first rear-engined car to race at Le Mans.
So overall it was the Chinetti/Selsdon Ferrari 166MM, just 30km ahead of the fast-closing Louveau/Jover Delage D6-3L and third, and 145km astern, came the Culpan/Aldington Frazer Nash HS.
The Aero-Minors were the only team to finish intact – and one of them was second on Index of Performance.
Did someone ask who won the first Le Mans, back in 1923?
All of 20 manufacturers entered, all from France aside from a single Bentley from Great Britain and a pair of Excelsiors from Belgium.
It was the Chenard-Walcker team and the Bentley that set the pace, chased by the 2.0-litre Bignan.
The Bentley was delayed through a broken headlight and a punctured fuel tank, and the Chenard-Walckers of René Léonard/André Lagache and Christian Dauvergne/Raoul Bachmann had a comfortable 1–2 victory.
Third was De Tornaco and Gros in the Bignan and the Bentley, driven by Duff and Clement ran fourth.
That particular Bentley is now resident in Perth, owned by collector Peter Briggs.
Fast forward 96 years and the 2019 Le Mans was won by Buemi, Nakajima and Alonso in a Toyota Gazoo TS50 Hybrid, with a similar hybrid second.
Somehow that doesn’t quite cut the excitement mustard with me, as much as the cars and people of yesteryear.
And what about Mr Janeček?
He was born in Bohemia in 1878, died in Prague 1941, aged 63 after having designed, invented and patented some 60 different products, among them a super-deadly hand grenade, the Model 21, which became standard issue for the Czech army.
Meanwhile, his Jawa motorcycles live on to this day.
They’re now owned by the giant Mahindra conglomerate of India and are such a hit that production can’t keep up with demand.
You need to wait about a fortnight if you want one.
There certainly was nothing ‘minor’ about Mr Janeček’s life and products.