BMW Mini Cooper (first-generation) Buying Guide

First-gen modern Mini Cooper retains much of what made the original so desirable, but it does have issues. Here’s what to look out for, before jumping in

How much to pay

Project £500-1500 • Good £2000-4000 • Concours £5000-7000 •
Most Expensive at Auction: £17,000 (JCW GP Kit)

Overview

Practicality ★★★
Running costs ★★★★
Spares ★★★★
DIY friendly ★★
Investment ★★
Desirability ★★★★

More about the Mini on AutoClassics…

Sir Alec Issigonis’s original Mini was a revolutionary design that forever changed the way small cars would be built. And while its modern replacement was not quite so ground breaking, it did offer a uniquely different package to just about anything else on the market. This ensured it was an instant sales success.

Designed by an American and built by Germans (by now, BMW owned the Mini name) the revitalised modern Mini still has much of what made the original so desirable. The base Mini One and Cooper are perfect runabouts for the city, where their quick-witted handling and small footprint are real assets. The supercharged S and JCW models are a good deal quicker – but make sure you can live with the rock-hard ride, as they are unforgiving over rougher surfaces.

Early cars were not quite as polished as BMW would have liked, but continual improvements and updates addressed most problems. The first-generation Mini has now become a sought-after used car that still offers a lot of driving enjoyment for the outlay.

Your AutoClassics Mini Cooper (first-generation) inspection checklist

Engine

The base engine for all first-gen Minis is the Tritec 1.6-litre 16-valve inline-four. S models have a supercharger and a reduced compression ratio. They are generally reliable if looked after, but aside from regular fluid and belt changes there are some issues to look out for.

A number of ECU problems plagued earlier cars (pre-2003), showing up as lurching in gear, idling issues and random stalling. However, factory software updates should have resolved these by now.

Oil leaks around the crank seal and the crank-sensor O-ring are common and are relatively easy to rectify – but are labour intensive, which pushes costs up.

The original coolant tanks tended to fail with monotonous regularity on these cars. Most should have had updated replacements by now, but it is worth checking the maintenance history of your potential purchase to see whether it was one of the cars affected.

The steering is direct and sharp, but power-steering pumps are known to fail. Parts are relatively reasonable, yet check the reservoir level (pump will be noisy if this is low) and inspect for any leaks under the car.

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Gearbox

The base models could be had with either a CVT automatic gearbox or an ancient Rover-derived five-speed manual. The latter was upgraded to a Getrag unit in 2004, which tends to be far more robust. CVT transmissions are not the most reliable, either, and issues here can be quite costly to rectify so avoid them if possible. Regular gearbox oil changes are highly recommended.

The Cooper S could be had with a Getrag six-speed manual, which received tighter ratios from 2004-onwards. A conventional six-speed auto with steering-mounted paddleshifters was also available, but did not prove particularly popular on the UK market.

Suspension and brakes

While the handling received rave reviews from early on, there were some fairly serious issues with suspension components that only became apparent as the years wore on.

Two recalls were carried out for cars manufactured between September 2000 and August 2001. They were both done to rectify an issue where the front lower arm or outer ball-joint could detach in extreme situations.

Be sure to check that these were both sorted – and look underneath the car for any signs of weak suspension links and worn-out bushes, too. At least one owner of an early car had their rear suspension arm mounting bolts shear off.

Unless you’re intending to use your Mini as a track toy, it’s best to stick to the standard suspension set-up. This is already quite firm, even on the more complaint high-profile 15-inch wheels.

Front tyres can exhibit odd wear patterns, which can be a sign that the lower control arms or tracking need attention. Supercharged models have their battery in the boot and no spare wheel, so check that the puncture repair can still works. Most should also be fitted with Runflat tyres.

Bodywork

Rust is not a major issue on these cars, but as certain models are now over 15 years of age some may exhibit signs of corrosion. The door sills are a particularly troublesome area, and also take a look on the underside of the bonnet, where the radiator could make contact with it and rub away the protective coating.

Interior

The funky interior mimicked the original Mini’s centrally mounted speedo, and was peppered with retro-styled switches and buttons. Overall quality levels improved over time, but the hard plastics can look tired and scratched on older cars while cabin rattles are par for the course. Convertible tops are generally trouble free, but check that the fabric has not shrunk over the years and that the seals are watertight.

The wide range of interior trim options allowed a high level of customisability, and standard equipment was sparse, so check the specs of your potential purchase to make sure it suits your needs and tastes. The top Cooper S and JCW models had sporty Recaro front seats, while the limited-edition JCW with GP Kit had no rear bench, less sound deadening and the radio and air-con became optional to help reduce weight.

History

  • 2001: R50 Mini Cooper released just as iconic original finally ends its 41-year production run
  • 2002: 200bhp John Cooper Works introduced featuring upgraded suspension and numerous bespoke design elements. JCW upgrade kits introduced for both standard and S models
  • 2004: Facelift with minor interior updates and a Getrag five-speed manual transmission for base Cooper. Limited-slip differential becomes an option
  • 2006: Limited number of JCW GP Kit models made available in UK. Changes included weight-saving measures and a bump in power to 215bhp. Approximately 450 sold. Three-door hatchback variants replaced with second-generation model
  • 2008: First-gen convertible model ends production

AutoClassics says…

The first-generation R50 Mini Cooper has proven itself as a successful modern interpretation of what made the original so desirable. Unlike its current counterpart it is still usefully small, while the large range of trims and engine options further broadens its appeal. It isn’t in short supply, either, and with prices starting at next to nothing shopping around is advised before committing.

Any well cared-for Mini can make for a great buy, and the very first Cooper and One variants can be real bargains. With such low values, regular servicing and maintenance may have been somewhat lacking, so be sure to conduct a thorough inspection. For our money we would opt for a post-2004 model Cooper or Cooper S, as they offer uprated transmissions and interiors as well as being more reliable than the earlier cars. The 2006 JCW GP Kit is the closest you will get to a collectable model, but be wary of track-abused examples.

Specifications

Mini One 1.6-litre 16-valve inline-four
  Power 90bhp
  Top speed 115mph
  0-60mph 10.9 seconds
  Economy 43.5mpg

Mini Cooper 1.6-litre 16-valve inline-four
  Power 115bhp
  Top speed 124mph
  0-60mph 9.1 seconds
  Economy 41mpg

Mini Cooper S 1.6-litre Supercharged 16-valve inline-four
  Power 168bhp
  Top speed 138mph
  0-60mph 7.2 seconds
  Economy 33mpg

Mini Cooper JCW 1.6-litre Supercharged 16-valve inline-four
  Power 200-210bhp (215bhp JCW GP)
  Top speed 140mph
  0-60mph 6.4 seconds
  Economy 31mpg

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