“What fresh hell will today bring?”, wondered our anti-hero as he stared ruefully out of the window, exhaling cigarette smoke. If you’ve been tuning in recently (and if not why not?), you’ve read that here at Casa de Clarke things have been a little, well, rough. To recap, in the last few weeks, on the way to the Historic Masters Grand Prix festival at Brands Hatch the Ferrari took an almighty shit on my Visa bill to the tune of nearly £1,800.
Shortly after, my special little best buddy Mr. Tigg crossed over the rainbow bridge. Then I had an unscheduled trip to the emergency room in the back of an ambulance, with crippling abdominal pains. And finally, my long anticipated trip to the Royal International Air Tattoo was a total washout and I scraped a wheel on the Honda Civic Type R press car I was driving.
In between all of this, there’s been continuing family drama and ongoing house redecorating. If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.
How did I deal with all this existential trauma? Normally like any not-that-well-adjusted person I would replace my feelings with new clothes and boots. Mind you, if I WAS well adjusted I wouldn’t have found a home here.
But my wardrobe Is already bursting and I don’t get much of an opportunity to wear all the boots I do have. No. On the advice of my therapist Dr. Torchinsky (at least the hand-crayoned certificate hanging on his basement wall said he was a real doctor), I got a new car. Is that not the Autopian way of medicating away bad emotions?
I’ve been driving my 2010 Range Rover Sport for about 18 months, having traded in my 8J Audi TT for it in December 2021. The Audi was a car I liked but didn’t really love. When I bought it I really wanted a Golf GTi, but for the same age of car they were thousands more expensive.
I reasoned the TT was a GTi in a cocktail dress, but that didn’t really turn out to be the case. So the decision to get into a Range Rover was threefold: they can be spectacular value for money; it would be more practical for taking Mother Dearest (who is disabled and used a mobility buggy) out, and I needed something a bit more practical for clearing a load of crap out of the house.
The old saw about Gaydon’s finest being a wheeled hell portal to emotional and financial ruin? I got mine a bit under book (£11,000) and used the money saved to get the timing belts done. When it came time for the yearly MOT inspection, a wheel wobble under hard braking had appeared which necessitated the fitment of new lower suspension arms on the front. And the nearside rear brakes had seized so it was new calipers and discs across the back axle. Because mine was a late second facelift I was able to fit a box that provided Apple CarPlay through the existing touchscreen. All in I spent about £2,500 over the time I owned it. But there’s only room for one high-maintenance drama queen in my life, and I’m it. But it never left me stranded and was a brilliant daily. I completely understand why people say there’s nothing like driving a Range Rover.
So why get rid of it? The reality was it was now more car than I really needed, and through no fault of its own it was becoming financially inconvenient. In the UK every vehicle under 40 years old has to pay something known as Road Tax. This was historically used for the maintenance and upkeep of the nation’s highways, and to fund new road construction. These days it just goes into the big pot of tax collected by HM Treasury. The rate you pay is based on when your car was registered, and its carbon dioxide emissions. For the Range Rover, this was £675. Per year.
Worse that than that, because Land Rovers and Range Rovers are particularly attractive to the criminal community, the yearly insurance jumped from around £300 last year to nearly £900 this year. Despite the fact I just turned 50 and live in a quiet middle-class town full of coffin dodgers. This is why I disabled the passive entry on the first day I had it. Oh, and the wheel wobble had returned.
On top of all this, there’s the looming specter of Ultra Low Emissions Zones (ULEZ). The one in London is due to be expanded all the way out to the M25 orbital motorway in August, and other large cities around the UK are following suit. The Range Rover, being an older Euro 5 compliant diesel (it doesn’t have any kind of urea additive system) doesn’t qualify for an exemption so is liable to be charged.
Mother Dearest (who lives in London) is housebound now, but I took a trip down to the big smoke to see my beloved West Ham United play a European semi-final at home and had to pay a £12.50 ULEZ charge for the privilege. Because you pay for every day you drive in the zone, a weekend trip earlier in the year for the Royal College of Art grad show cost me £25 (the day I drove in and the day I drove out). The stupidity of all this is highlighted by the fact the Ferrari, which probably gets 15 mpg around town and you can actually smell the unburnt hydrocarbons coming from the exhaust pipe, will be exempt this year on account of it being 40 years old.
But the truth is I had never really gotten over the enforced breakup with one of my old flames. I know you’re not supposed to go back to an old love, but what if you have unfinished business? I usually get itchy feet with my daily drivers after about three years. My 2010 Mini Clubman, which I bought shortly after starting work at Land Rover, had been cruelly wrenched from my life after I wrote it off after little over a year into our relationship. I was driving back from seeing The Alarm in Birmingham, it was dark and wet and the road was unfamiliar. I crested a hill to be surprised by a small roundabout, which I clouted and it bounced me off the road and through a fence.
It was a low-speed impact (none of the airbags fired) but the front suspension damage was extensive. I absolutely adored that little car, and the feeling of yearning for another one never really left me. During the intervening years, I kind of kept half an eye on the classifieds in case another popped up, but I could never find one in exactly the right spec: black on black, with black exterior trim, roof rails, big wheels and Bluetooth and iPod connectivity.
The issue is the first- and second-generation MINIs were offered with a bewildering array of options packages, and nailing down exactly what you’d be getting without physically seeing a car for sale you couldn’t be 100% sure. I was going to have to compromise. The trim surrounding the tailgate and upper rear bumper could be changed, but this was more faffing about than I really wanted. The roof rails couldn’t easily be added without pulling out the headliner and a cursory Google revealed it might involve removing the curtain airbags. Again, more hassle than I was willing to entertain. A Bluetooth/iPod integration retrofit would be next to impossible, so that left the wheels. If I could find one with all the above, I could change the wheels at a later date. And then as if the universe was sending me a message, three candidates popped up on Autotrader.
The first was a mega spec that included a full-length panorama sunroof and no doubt hideously dated iDrive, but the dealer was in London and wouldn’t entertain taking the Range Rover in part exchange because you guessed it, ULEZ. The second was local, and I did go and look, but it didn’t have Bluetooth/iPod integration. The third, which is the one I bought, was cheaper and had 20k miles. I took a bit of a bath financially, but the MINI is £150 a year to tax and the insurance is less than £300 a year. So I’m already a thousand pounds in front for the year, not counting any economy savings (the MINI should get 40mpg. The Range Rover was usually about 30). And the MINI being petrol and Euro 4, is ULEZ exempt.
How is it these little cars have chiseled their way into my hard, black heart? For a start, I love the way they look. As I’ve discussed before, the current generation of Minis are a bit overdone – lots of trim pieces and vents, and they have been stretched to fit over a platform from the next size class up, leaving them with slightly odd proportions and surfacing. The second generation R55/56/57 are much more successful, building on the themes of the R50 original, while slightly increasing the size and accounting for passenger impact regulations which necessitated an increase in hood height.
They are brilliant fun to drive, being taut, responsive and lively. Insert go-kart cliché here, but it’s true. And like the original 1959 Mini, their handy size means the road is suddenly a lot wider. The engine isn’t the most refined unit ever but it’s willing and has a nice little step in the powerband as it gets on the cam. They’re packed full of fun little touches from the hidden glovebox to changeable color interior lighting, and the barn doors on the back. Even the third door, which conventional wisdom would have is on the wrong side for RHD markets is incredibly useful because I can use it to chuck my jacket and bag onto the back seat. The interior is a cozy, nice place to be, and the whole car has a premium, solid feel because it’s essentially a FWD BMW.
So what does my new (old) paramour need? As of this moment, nothing mechanically. But there are a few cosmetic wants. The bonnet badge is a bit scabby and faded so a NOS one is on the way. The flap over the vanity mirror on the driver’s side is loose, so I’ll need to replace that before it falls apart in tribute to old British Leyland build quality. But I’ve spotted a complete black headliner and interior pillar trim set including sun visors, on the dreaded eBay for £300 which I will keep an eye on and hope the price drops a bit. And I wouldn’t mind swapping the silver trim on the dashboard for gloss black either.
But these visual tweaks are as and when. There’s nothing preventing me from enjoying the car as it is. (Editor’s Note: As a former two-time Mini owner myself, let me just add: for now. —PG)
Fortuitously, I kept the special Lightning to USB/Aux Y lead (£60 from your friendly BMW dealer) so I can connect my phone and the car sees it as an iPod. The romance is all set to be rekindled.
But obviously the first change is going to be bigger OEM wheels.