We’re all friends here, are we not? Well, I like to think we are, so I feel this is a safe space for me to make a confession. To expose my deepest darkest secrets from the depths of my soul and expose them to the light. Are you ready?
(photos: Adrian Clarke)
I’ve started liking classic Minis. There. I’ve said it. At a classic car show last year I saw a Mini Rose edition from 1989, and I was totally charmed by it. I’m black of heart and bitter of voice. What the hell is happening to me?
You Need Small Feet and Tylenol
Years ago when I was learning to drive my first car was a Mini. Piss yellow, replica Minilites, straight through exhaust, black Cooper stripes on the hood. Sony CD changer system. The accessories cost more than the car did. Trouble is, I’m 6’2” with size 11 feet. More than once I ended up squealing to stop standing the thing on its nose with the motor screaming because I’d hit all three pedals at once. When it finally rotted through I sold it and bought a Capri, a car I could fit in.
I hated the risible little boxes. Shitty build, shunty engines and the body integrity of a cookie tin. No amount of go-kart steering and stealing Italian gold was going to make up for the spine crunching ride and a din that made Tylenol a Mini road trip travel essential. They’re a pain to work on because everything is crammed into a bodyshell barely ten feet long. I’m pretty sure I’ve got a Mini bonnet latch shaped dent on the top of my skull.
The original Mini appeared in 1959 partly as a response to ongoing gas shortages which had become a thing again thanks to the Suez crisis. Austin considered it a patriotic duty to get British motorists out of thrifty odd-bod bubble cars that didn’t have enough wheels or horsepower, and into a proper small car. Austin and then BLMC (and then British Leyland, then Austin Rover, the just plain old Rover) was a commercial omnifuck of biblical proportions, and not having a complete handle on costs couldn’t be sure if the little car was actually making a profit or not. Ford bought a Mini, pulled it apart, realized they weren’t and promptly designed the Cortina. Fiat 128 engineer Aurelio Lampredi once said about the Mini “If it wasn’t so ugly, I would shoot myself”.
Not So Limited Editions
Whatever the real truth about whether the Mini made any money, most European OEMs believed it didn’t so they weren’t going to bother competing with it. Knowing they had the tiny car market all to themselves, BLMC decided they didn’t need to put any money into developing the little tyke so it lingered around in the range like bad fart, occasionally coming back into fashion every time fuel prices spiked. It outlived its supposed replacement the Metro, and there were hundreds of trim and paint special editions, sometimes named after fancy parts of London like Mayfair, Piccadilly and Park Lane but the basic car remained mostly unchanged until it finally died in 2000.
(image: British Leyland)
There’s no doubt the little car’s cheeky style and considerable motorsport success rendered it a British cultural icon. It’s one of those rare cars like a Defender that transcends class in a class obsessed society. When BMW suffered a head trauma in 1994 and decided buying the Rover Group was a sound business decision, they weren’t just eye-fucking Land Rover for their 4WD expertise; they wanted Mini as well.
BMW And The English Patient
Prior to BMW backing up the money wagen, Rover had already been thinking about a new economy car that would replace the 100 (an extensively overhauled version of the original Metro). In typical Rover fashion they couldn’t really make their minds up; when BMW took over they wanted something more premium and sportier because that’s the market they know inside out. While Rover designers pissed about in Gaydon, over in Munich Frank Stephenson got on with it. His final clay was unanimously approved by the BMW board, beer can tail pipe included.
BMW got rid of its “English patient’ in 2000, but kept hold of Land Rover and Mini, which to this day remains a travesty the UK government should never have allowed to happen. Rover itself struggled on for another five years, and BMW dumped Land Rover on Ford without leaving a phone number, having gotten what it wanted. Under the Germans, MINIs became pint sized front wheel drive BMWs with a sense of humor.
While the core of the MINI range has always been the three door hatch, there’s been some baffling product decisions along the way to attempt to broaden the range. A one point there were both two and four seat convertibles, a coupe, a wagon and an elephantine crossover, the Countryman. There was even a bonkers raised two door coupe, the Paceman. These last two were taking the piss and really pushed the credibility of MINI brand past breaking point.
The MINI Fatman
The third generation of MINIs appeared in 2013, and for the first time shared a platform with the front wheel drive BMWs, a move which bought economies of scale but meant the MINI design language was tortured to fit hard points for a car from the next size up, which it didn’t really fit. Look at the back and side of an F55/F56 hatch and look at how the surfacing bulges out from the belt line; it looks like Homer when he tried on Lenny Kravitz’s clothes at band camp.
MINI tried to mitigate this by extending the wheel arch graphics and throwing on all sorts of unnecessary trim parts. They became visually very loud cars – there was a lot going on and it was all a bit much, like eating a whole box of chocolates at once. On smaller cars you don’t have such a big canvas to work on, so less is usually better. The range of MINIs available might have been slimmed down but the appearance hadn’t.
MINI have been saying for years they want to get back to a simpler, more responsible vibe in keeping with the 1959 original. Everything you need, nothing you don’t. We’re never going to get anything as small as the Rocketman concept, given how genuinely small cars are being legislated to extinction. The next MINI three door hatch fell out of bed and onto the internet with no clothes on the other day, so MINI hastily wheeled the car into the studio car park to media yahoos with some ‘official’ snaps. I’m going off both sets of images, because it’s pretty thin Autopian canteen style gruel here. Let’s see what we think.
When I first saw camouflaged images of this car, I hoped the triangular shaped lights were a ruse. Fuck me gently with a frozen Toblerone, they were actually the real thing. This triangle shape is nowhere else on the car, so it sticks out like a three-sided wart. The main issue though is how the upright outer edges affect the surfaces all around it. I made a similar point talking about the rear lights on the MG Cyberster, but here it’s way more pronounced. Look at how the highlights all rush to a point in the rear three quarter shot. Sheet metal needs space to change direction gradually – because the rear wheel arch is so close to the taillights there isn’t the room to smooth the transition from curved to straight. Like wise the lower rear reflector – if you’re going to give it that rigid shape move it further inboard away from the wheel arch.
Taillights aside, it’s much cleaner at the back. I wouldn’t worry too much about the outboard upturn of the tailgate opening. My designer-sense (it’s like Spider-sense but not as useful at fighting crime. Unless it’s a fashion crime) tells me the light clusters lift with the tailgate, so the actual opening you stuff dud batteries and chainsaws into is smaller for body rigidity and gives you somewhere to mount hidden tail lights for when the hatch is open.
This is probably a pre-production or pilot build car, so we have to cut them some slack for iffy panel fit and ropey trim alignment. It looks like all these were shot in nice bright sunshine, so we can really see what the highlights are doing. If you look at the belt line trim on the bottom of the glazing, you can see it’s a bit inconsistent. There’s also a weird little feature line cut into the area at the lower half of the front wheel arch which looks like it was clobbered by a high curb pulling into a parking spot. Not sure what that’s all about.
Some of these front shots look like they were taken too close on a camera phone. There’s a ton of perspective on them making the grill and lights look a bit catfish. The grill could stand being scaled down a bit but the main issue is it’s a bit rigid and upright in the side view, like part of the nose has been unceremoniously sliced off. I would have given the whole thing a bit more plan shape so it feels softer and blends in a bit better.
All these images are of the EV Cooper, because that’s the way of the world now. But an instant torque urban warrior totally fits what a MINI is all about – whizzing around on the door handles, nipping through gaps and stealing parking spaces other cars balk at. MINI really have cleaned up a lot of the visual clutter more recent models have been afflicted with, reducing part count and materials used, so kudos to them for recognizing they had probably gone a bit too far. I think what we’ve seen looks a little plain, but MINIs were always very color and trim sensitive. I like it, and I hope there’s going to be another Clubman truer to the more upright R55 than the squashed is it a hatch or is it a wagon F54 version.
Why I Loved Mine
(images: Adrian Clarke)
When I first started working after graduation, I went out and bought a 2010 R55 Clubman Cooper. I adored that little car for its quality feel and the pure enthusiasm of the driving experience. It was just fun, from the little barn doors with separate wipers to the tiny third door on the driver’s side which was incredibly practical. It actually broke my heart when I wrote it off on a wet roundabout and the insurance company wouldn’t let me buy it back off them. It’s back on the road now somewhere (I’m sure insurance write offs in the UK are a racket) and I still peruse the classifieds from time to time to see if I can find another one like it.
It’s either that or I do something really stupid and buy a classic.
(image: BMW AG)
Literally while I was writing this piece the sad news was announced that influential British fashion designer Dame Mary Quant, has died. A massive part of the swinging sixties London cultural movement, she was widely credited with the invention of both the miniskirt and hotpants, but really that sells her short. She made fashion accessible by catering specifically to young people. Her pieces were vibrant and fun, and her shop filled the gap in between stuffy department stores and high-end designer boutiques.
In 1988 she created the interior of the Mini ‘Designer’ limited edition. Originally named the Mini Quant, it featured her signature black and white striped seats with red trim and seat belts. The bonnet badge and steering wheel boss were both changed to her daisy logo. Two thousand cars were built.
“Trouble is, I’m 6’2” with size 11 feet. More than once I ended up squealing to stop standing the thing on its nose with the motor screaming because I’d hit all three pedals at once.”
Hmm, I drove a 1966 Mini Cooper, and I didn’t have trouble fitting in the car despite my 6’8.5″ height and shoes in size 13. I was quite surprised that I had about two to three inches of headroom and shoulder room on the right (the car was a right-hooker).
“she was widely credited with the invention of both the miniskirt and hotpants, but really that sells her short”
That’s a great pun!
We had an 86 Mayfair 1000 automatic when I lived in England and used it as a family car for a little while after the normal family car got in a crunch and took a while to fix. I’m 6’1”, my wife is 6’, her mom isn’t exactly a small lady, and we had our newborn daughter in a rear facing seat. It took some planning to get everyone in and if we wanted to take the stroller with us, it went on the room.
Still loved that car! The autos are more fun and I’ll fight over that one. Point it in a direction and floor it. Or slap shift because AP autos are weird.
Fun fact – the Mini automatic was a four speed!
Too bad Mini wasn’t sold to Daimler Benz, then it could have been The DB Cooper..
As a child my mother had a lowered Austin Downton Cooper, that my father would occasionally borrow for club motorsports. It and attending various events ingrained what a Mini was in my head. Mini’s were affordable, crappy cars, with a 1950’s engine design that worked remarkably well for short periods, people loved them just the same.
BMW never got it and never will get it.
It’s time has long past, if you find an original in decent condition grab it. Tall people can fit at the expense of the rear seat, a 6′ 4″ friend of mine drove a Morris Mini 1000 until the front subframe drove away from the rest of the car due to Canadian salt caused rust. BMW makes some pretty good cars and some dogs, IMHO the MINI is a canine.
The grille is godawful, two tiny slits bisected by an enormous body colored bumper cover, like someone playing with their mouth guard and pushing it out with their tongue
Adrian, what are your thoughts on the Mini Marcos GT?
Not exactly a looker (like a lot of low volume/kit cars) but apparently sensational to drive. I’d love a go in one.
I call areas like that on a car its belly-button. A lovely baby is a seamless triumph of nature, except for that one bit where everything needed to come together to connect to their mum. Cars often have places where there was a load of stuff designers wanted to do, and stuff engineers insisted they do, that all have to come together in one place, or a few millimetres of metal, and you get a belly-button.
I think VW must have a belly-button search and destroy unit in their design department.
VW styling suggests that their cars aren’t so much born as grown in a lab
I feel like I’m in a decent position to comment, having owned classic Minis since the late 60’s and I currently own a 2009 Clubman S ordered from new, and 3 (count em) 3 classics – an 89 Racing Green with a 1275 instead of the original 998, a 73 Innocenti 1300 Export and my 94 SPi, which is transitioning to something…..well……more! ) No, not a Honda swap)
I think BMW missed a wonderful opportunity in not naming the Countryman, big Clubman et all under the Maxi name, like BMC did back when, and keeping the hatch, roadster, convertible etc in the smaller footprint of the R53 and R56.
I really like my Clubby, it’s been wonderfully reliable but I could not warm up to the
maxi sized offerings, and I def don’t like the F series cars with their toucan noses.
I prefer the turbo motor’s power and fuel mileage and I prefer the turbo’s responsiveness over the Supercharger’s (so sluggish from stop on a hot summer day with the A/C on!), but it’s not nearly as sweet feeling as the supercharged motors were.
These new cars all just leave me disappointed, Frank Stevenson really captured what Mini was all about in his design. The newer car’s side and back windows just keep getting smaller, and the car gets heavier (and heavier looking too) with each “update”
I could have bought two or three new MINIs since I bought the 2009, but every time a new one comes out I feel they’ve gotten ever further from where it should have been……
My classic Minis are all rough riding, loud, harsh and slow(ish), don’t have that great of ergonomics, miserable seats but there’s nothing more fun to drive in the city….they’re also hilarious fun on tight twisties in the countryside!
I think the Maxi name is too tarnished and doesn’t have anything like the recognition that MINI does. The current range has definitely lost some if it’s individuality and cheeky sense of fun – they’ve grown up as a consequence of being based on the BMW platform. I think the three door still works well, the others not so much.
When I hear “maxi” I think feminine hygiene products, not old shit cars.
My Aunt had a Maxi, it is not fondly remembered.
Yes but……..the Maxi cars were never sold here in the states, so we don’t have the negative connotations that England might. I agree that there might be a negative response due to the feminine hygiene products that were heavily marketed here under that name……My point was only that calling these huge SUV like cars “MINIs” seems silly.
I had an F56 for a while. I loved the car but never completely warmed up to the design. As you mentioned, it was all a bit much. Personally, I found the R56 to be the best design of the three, as controversial as that may sound.
That said, where do you stand on the two vastly different “reboot” concepts produced by BMW? We obviously got the retro, premium version whereas the other concept was more true to the original purpose of the MINI but lacked the more pronounced throwbacks to the classic. To your eyes, does the design of the alternative concept work or is it all just a rather forgettable economy car?
The blue concept was done by Rover, as far as I know before BMW took over the whole project. There was a great deal of conflict between Gaydon and Munich over which direction to take. I suspect in a parallel universe whereby BMW didn’t get to keep MINI and Rover continued as a going concern, we would have got a really space efficient supermini – think original A class Merc or Audi A2 but smaller.
I can see why BMW went in the direction they did. A FWD BMW wouldn’t have been acceptable at the time, but they knew which way the wind was blowing, and it would be something they would have to do in the future. Making MINI a premium brand allowed them to gain experience in that market without jeopardising the BMW brand.
The “blue concept” was actually two cars. I liked them and thought that they were in the real spirit of the original Mini. Whether they would have sold or led to greater things in an increasingly brand-driven, trending-to-larger-and-larger-cars market is, um, debatable.
The grammar is somewhat garbled there: Mr. Le Grice designed the Spiritual concepts.
Rover was looking to the Spiritual to replace both the Mini and Metro/100, that would compete in the broader city car segment. They were going for maximum space efficiency and targeting a low price, plus trying to make the car as modern as possible, given the possibility of a protracted production run like the Mini and Metro (and also the Ford Ka). BMW wanted to go upmarket and retro, not build a modern equivalent of what the Mini had been in 1959, but a modern interpretation of what the Mini had culturally evolved into over time
Absolutely, and BMW were right in business terms. A car based on the Spiritual concepts would have been in the real spirit of the original Mini also as a questionable path to real profit.
I bitched and moaned about the R53 Mini, which I thought was bloated, having no idea what bloated really meant. I also thought it was another retro pastiche, right down to the tacked-on chrome trim on the bumper, which drove me mental.
Then I test-drove one just when we needed to graduate from our MR-S and we ended up with a low mileage Cooper S, the most solid lump of metal I had ever driven (it felt like it was milled out of steel billet) and terrific fun. That led on to a R53 JCW Cooper S, too mad for most roads in Japan.
All my retro and bloat reservations were swept under the carpet and I was left tipping my hat to BMW’s product-planning genius, if not to their electrical engineers: both our Minis blew their alternators at crucial moments, and it is unlikely my wife will ever trust an imported car again!
Yeah, but the BMW plan did leave them with a city car-sized hole in their lineup that they still had to plug, resulting in the CityRover episode.
Although, you could maybe argue that Rover didn’t really need to be playing in that segment in the first place, they only got into it by default due to the branding mess created when BAe discontinued the Austin nameplate and had to stick the Metro somewhere (it sold too well to just leave it an orphan without a badge, like what happened to the Montego and Maestro, they stopped being Austins but never technically became Rovers, so they were essentially nothings), but it was at odds with the more upmarket ambitions they had in the 1990s (as seen by the ambitious pricing strategy on the 200, 400, and 600).
I had forgotten about the CityRover, and now you have retraumatized me.
In 2016 my twin brother and I were shopping for a replacement for the e39 M5 we were daily driving. We had three vehicles in mind, a 2013 R56 JCW, an ordered new 2016 F56 JCW, and an e36 M3. We managed to drive a R56 S, F56 S, and an e36 M3 all in the same afternoon out in Ohio. We had started the day thinking we were going to order a new F56, we ended the day shopping for the R56 and e36, whichever we could find first. The F56 was far more refined, not exciting and felt massive. I have orangutan arms and couldn’t reach the rear view mirror without reaching forward in the F56. By comparison the R56 was a delightful raw little machine. We ended up finding a very hot, modified 2013 Mini S with every GP and JCW part one could throw at it installed. It was a stunning little car, red with a white roof, sport stripes and checkerboards down the side. We loved the car, autocross raced it and were very competitive. Ultimately we came to our senses after two years of ownership and seeing what the maintenance was going to be like when the factory warranty and maintenance plan would run out. We sold it and purchased a 99 e36 M3 and couldn’t be happier. The M3 is notably more reliable, easier to work on, and far cheaper to buy parts for. It also has a brilliant, raw inline 6.
I’ve drive an R53 Mini S a few times, I’d like to have one someday. I’d also like to build a classic Mini as an autocross car, though I already have an Austin Healey Sprite with the A series engine so I’m not itching to do that right away.
I owned a 72 Mini 1000 for a few years, it had the A series engine, 998cc, pumping out a whopping 38hp. It was so incredibly slow, but was by far the most fun car I’ve ever owned. People who haven’t driven one don’t get it, yes, the build quality is garbage, the engine is unrefined, but the suspension is great, and it’s so slow you wind up driving it at 10/10ths EVERY SINGLE TIME you drive it, just to keep up with modern traffic. Oh and since it’s so slow and you have no power, you better huck it into that street corner to preserve momentum.
I think the best part about it tho, was the reality it created outside the car. Maybe not in the UK, but here in the states, people adored it, and I was surrounded by a sea of smiling faces, photographs, and thumbs up. Unlike fast cars, sports cars, musclecars, instead of just other car guys, or single women, it was EVERYONE. Old people, adults, children, men, women, others, EVERYBODY LOVED IT.
Ultimately I sold mine for double what I had into it, after changing the head gasket twice (yeah I know about that bonnet dent on the head for sure) but I have fond memories of it, and I would be lying if I didn’t say I don’t look for them from time to time. I tried driving the newer ones a few times, but I just cannot get over the obnoxious 00’s fischer price/toy styled interior.
Most of my “mini lust” is completely satiated by my 90 Civic Si. Phenomenal car, better in every metric. But it does not create a sea of smiling faces- instead I get musclecars with 3x the HP wanting to race me to prove something, old people giving me the stink eye for going 5 over, and most of the public doesn’t even acknowledge that it’s special.
Do it. Buy another one. New cars are lame.
Obligatory pic: https://imgur.com/rAlyt9N
I’ve somehow never seen one with louvers on. It really adds visual length to the Mini. Sharp little ride you had there!
“The grill could stand being scaled down a bit”
So it’s a proper modern BMW.
Fuck me gently with a frozen Toblerone……Well, if you insist.
After my 3rd Mini I moved on to more sensible fare, but you can fuck me roughly with said Toblerone if they weren’t the most fun you could have on a back road that didn’t involve dogging in a layby. They’ve gotten stupidly expensive on both sides of the pond and I’ll occasionally look at the price of imports from Japan, but now that I’m middle aged with a bad back I can’t imagine the driving position will be tolerable for more than 5 minutes.
I’m surprised you didn’t comment on the wheels. Those are the busiest things I’ve seen this side of a chrome spinner.
I don’t know why, but I actually like them. There are a lot of busy wheels I hate, but these feel intentionally busy, rather than busy in service of a design they can’t quite match.
That said, I might hate them in person. I’m rather fickle.
I generally don’t comment on wheels, because there are going to be several styles available and it’s not really fair to judge the car on one style.
That being said normally for PR images you would chose the ‘hero’ wheel you know looks best on the car, so if these are the best ones, then yuck.
“Shitty build, shunty engines and the body integrity of a cookie tin.”
At the risk of exposing myself as a clueless colonial, but shouldn’t that be “the body integrity of a biscuit tin?”
I try to write in American to save however has to edit this dross some work.
So when you wrote that you have “size 11 feet” is that UK 11 (US 12) or US 11 (UK 10)?
Ha! I checked and the conversion page I looked at had UK 11 (US 11.5) so I didn’t think it worth making the distinction. But UK 11, if you’re buying me some shoes.
I frequently find myself commenting in American, it just seems polite.
The original Mini is the car that made me fall in love with cars. I still like my cars tiny and weird. Speaking of Mary Quant (RIP), not mentioned is the fact that the miniskirt was named not because of its size, but after the Mini which was Ms Quant’s favorite car.
Ade, I think you’d look amazing in the Mary Quant Edition Mini.
Also, is anyone else getting Moira Rose from the pic of Ms Quant?
She looks fucking boss in that outfit.
Aren’t they meant to look like stylized bits of the Union Jack? I seem to recall them doing that on an earlier model, but may have imagined it.
No you’re correct. I always thought they were a bit tacky, but apparently were very popular outside the UK, and I’ve actually grown to like them.
My biggest beef with BMW owning Mini is that they killed off Tamiya’s licensing deal, meaning no more Mini model kits or RC models.
Huh really? That seems like an odd decision, but these things are always complicated. Maybe BMW wanted a royalty payment or something and Tamiya said no?
It was something to do with BMW wanting back-royalties all the way back to 1994 before they would renew the deal. We had a lively discussion about it at the time…
I only got tangentially involved in licensing stuff – it was handled inside the design studio (because of lead times and access to our data) but I know one accessory company was told to take a hike because they wanted us to pay them money.
Huh! Always a downer.
Do something stupid. Check out the interior on this Balmoral edition up for grabs on BaT. It’s what Mary would want.
Nice, but I think I would want a cheekier color than that. And it’s expensive.
Well, USA tax applies – I am sure it would be less than half that on the other side of the pond.
Yes, but most of the Mini’s left on this side have twice the rust…