Why we love the Classic Mini

Everyone has different reasons for holding the humble Mini in such high regard, but there is something we can all agree on – the classic way it drives

‘Success is the ability to go from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.’ Whether or not Sir Winston Churchill actually said this during rife wartime austerity is open to debate – but you know what? The reputed quote perfectly sums up Britain. During the first half of the 20th century we suffered an indignant series of horrendous events, laced with death, crime and disease. Yet we ploughed on, pushing the boundaries of technology, design and engineering in the face of asceticism.

Our damp little island gave the world television, telephone communication and the computer – but if you’re looking for an example of Blighty defying the odds, one example stands out from the rest. The humble Mini.

Launched in August 1959 to a sceptical and reserved buying public, Mini sales initially started off slow despite the theatrical media inauguration. Yet, by the time Birmingham’s Longbridge plant produced the very final ‘classic Mini’ in October 2000, with singer Lulu driving the last one off the line, the car’s shape and image were not only iconic but also globally adored.

No other vehicle, before or since, has whipped up the same universal acceptance; everyone loves the unassuming Mini. The fan scene holds a tailored hysteria usually reserved for prepubescent boy bands, with cult pop art utilising the legendary outline to sell posters, music albums, films and all things British to the starry-eyed tourist.

As with the original Land Rover before it, and William Lyons’ Jaguar E-type, alongside miniskirts, The Beatles and 007, the Mini provides rose-tinted glasses for a decade of free love and freedom. It typifies the 1960s, capturing the spirit of Swinging London, and as much a part of Great Britain as the Union Jack.

But is that the only reason we love the little car from the brilliant mind of Alec Issigonis? On the contrary; the Mini may never shake off its cutesy, nostalgic image, but as a driver’s car and engineering marvel, it deserves the kudos equally on its own merits – and that’s something we set out to prove in the Welsh countryside.

A welcome in the hillsides

Not far from the outskirts of Cardiff, amid the natural beauty and impossibly steep gradients of the enviable Welsh scenery, live Ian Edwards and his family. Having previously been in the employ of Austin-Rover, he knows a thing or two about the offerings of Cowley, Longbridge and Solihull. Ian was successful enough to climb the sales ladder, eventually earning himself a MG Montego Turbo company car; something now highly sought after, despite being – as Ian calls it – ‘highly dangerous’.

‘I’d seen another sales-team member swanning about in an MG Maestro Turbo, and I knew I’d outsold him. I was furious,’ Ian laughs, the nostalgia for the long-dead brand misting his eyes with melancholy.

‘I stormed into the manager’s office to let rip, and without looking up, he slid some keys across the desk towards me. They were for a bloody Montego Turbo. I didn’t say a word, besides my thanks, and I went out to play.’

He continues: ‘It was dangerous. Really dangerous. I’ve never experienced Turbo lag or torque steer like it. The chassis wasn’t able to cope with the power. It was frightening, but unbelievably fast. I loved it, but I had to hand it back before it killed me.’

Whereas a Montego Turbo can crack 0-60mph in seven seconds, boasts 150bhp and has the ability to eat a set of tyres in under 15 minutes, Ian’s current Austin-Rover offering is a tad slower. In fact, on paper the car sounds like a damp squib, bumbling its way to 60mph from a standstill in 13 seconds, and just about capable of 90mph. However, for fun without boundaries, this classic gem could crack a smile on a stone golem.

As Ian’s garage door slowly retracts, two peppy headlamps reflect the crisp mid-morning sunlight. The encroaching rays illuminate that heart-melting stance. With a solid thump the door is fully open, and there, on a street full of Audis and modern tat, sits an unpretentious classic Mini. I knew the oil stains on the drive alluded to a British product…

Ian’s example is beyond special, however. Not only is it a Mini 25 – so called to celebrate the model’s 25th anniversary in 1984 – but it’s also bespoke, and unique enough to be given ‘world heritage’ status. B821 ANY may have started life as an already-scarce factory special, but it’s been tuned, breathed on, and injected with more cabin ambience than the Britannia royal barge.

The seats wear Rover-style Grey Flint velour fabric, complemented by contrasting red velvet piping and seatbelt webbing. Deep carpet lies underfoot, as well as on the kick-strips on the doors and storage bins. It’s all several steps up the ladder from the stereotypical utilitarian Mini – and the storage bins aren’t even standard; Ian has pinched them from a Metro.

Other 25-model special items include velour headrests, embalmed ‘25’ motifs on the fabric, zipped seat pockets – the only Mini on record to feature such a handy storage option – a tachometer within the triple-dial instrument binnacle and an upgraded stereo. For improved safety, disc brakes were fitted, apparently after the drums weren’t sturdy enough to prevent the Rover boss’s wife from crashing into a wall.

Ian’s car also has a retractable Webasto sunroof lifted from the 1992 Mini British Open Classic – the largest-ever such item fitted to a Mini. That also means people over 6ft can fit inside in relative comfort...

Mini anoraks may find the September 5, 1984 registration date even more interesting; 5.9.84 combines the digits of the first-ever year of Mini production with that of the 25th anniversary. Anyway, moving along…

‘My aim was to create an understated Mini from a visual standpoint, but the sort of car that Rover should have produced if it had been braver,’ explains Ian. ‘It runs on 12-inch Minilite wheels under Wood and Pickett arches. The original Nimbus Grey bumpers are now chrome, with over-riders from a MkI, and the badges including the Union Jacks on the A-frame are from a late Rover Group model. The fuel cap is even from an Aston Martin.’

Ian’s carried out a few tweaks under the bonnet as well. A Stage 1 kit has been installed behind the Mini’s charming little face, along with an upgraded camshaft. The engine was completely rebuilt a few years back, ensuring that the original 40bhp 998cc unit churns out more than the original owner would have strictly enjoyed. It means Ian can now climb hills without anxiety – or resorting to second gear.

‘I pictured in my head how I wanted the Mini to be,’ explains Ian. ‘I saw it in my mind’s eye for years before I had the money to get the car done. I shared my thoughts with Nigel at Somerford Mini, and he did a brilliant job.

‘The wooden dashboard isn’t original, nor is the sound system, but the respray and decals are perfect. I’ve owned the car since May 15, 1990, and it’s never let me down.’

With that omen, it’s time to hit the open road…

’Put your foot down; you’ll lose them easy’

While a modern incarnation of the Mini thunders up the road to an exhaust note reminiscent of an electronically manipulated choir of Furbies, the turgid tone spat out by the 25’s pea-shooter exhaust is sturdy yet faintly hilarious.

A current Hyundai i10 – perhaps as close to the original Mini’s concept as you can get today – may omit a noise like an animatronic kitten, but the Mini’s sound is raw. This car is undiluted joviality on wheels. You can never be angry with it, even when stranded at the side of the road with smoke and oil bellowing from every orifice. All you can muster is a sly ‘Oh, you,’ followed by a slight smirk.

It doesn’t matter if no production Mini ever cracked the 100mph barrier, thanks in part to the model having the aerodynamic properties of a piano. When you’re sitting in the cabin with your knees inches away from a slab of dashboard, and a steering wheel were your genitals should be, any turn in speed feels sufficiently amplified to produce goosebumps. A steady 50mph can result in a childlike sense of occasion that tingles the senses and tickles the heart.

Purely due to cost, Rover shelved the engineering required to add a much-needed fifth gear, while road and engine noise, plus a harsh ride, all help give this car a false impression of speed. However, the animated little A-series engine packs a punch. Accelerate into a corner, and the Mini grips like a scalded Velcro cat. The heavy steering provides pinpoint accuracy while you gleefully pretend to be one of Michael Caine’s Turin gang.

As the long-standing joke always went, besides rust and Gloria Jones the Mini’s greatest enemy was a steep incline. That’s rather ironic, as we approach some impossibly lofty hills – yet Ian’s 25 tackles the gradient no slower than any vehicle around it. There isn’t even a backlog of traffic as the little tyres scramble away to keep a firm grip on the Tarmac, slinging into the next bend to an intoxicatingly rudimentary whine from the gearbox.

Power steering remained a luxury never to be bestowed upon an Austin-Rover Mini of the 1980s – or ever, for that matter. But when screeching around tight S-bends on the edge of a Welsh crevasse, this car’s instant and unmolested feedback provides the ability to hit every apex without tumbling down the levee in a debris-spewing fireball. When the driving becomes spirited, the under-developed drivetrain assaults the senses.

Every bump resonates through the interior like a bomb blast, overpowering the revvy engine’s high-end drone, and juddering your elbows and shoulders. The Mini’s front end digs in determinedly as you skate around each challenging bend in complete control.

The chassis may hark back to a world of small-print rags and distorted black-and-white television, but its capabilities are phenomenal. Overcook it and the front end can slide on like the family Jack Russell on laminate flooring, yet you need to push incredibly hard to lose control.

We’re eventually pursued by the clichéd silver Audi sitting nine inches from the Mini’s chromed rear bumper, but not even the unfriendly German can match the 25’s taut vivacity through corners.

When the road straightens out, Lord Audi’s mannerisms change from annoyance that we are in his way to sheer fury that he can’t get past. Team Mini may be sitting at 6000rpm and praying, but it isn’t until these budget Goldeneye re-enactors encounter a long, undisturbed straight that the Panzer tank proceeds on its way. He might power on by, but Ian and I are the ones laughing.

The feeling is reverberated by those who witness the little car clattering past, as we turn into the village of Ferndale. Distinguished individuals of all ages turn their heads to watch us scuttle down the potholed street, projecting a look of approval as they tear up with nostalgia or simply revel in such an intricate design appearing before them.

Children point and shout, the Mini’s dinky shape pulling at their heartstrings in the same way their stressed-out mothers pore over a time before nappies and endless reruns of Peppa Pig.

The Mini captures the trends of every decade, culminating in a cocktail of bygone, younger days where everyone and anyone harbours nothing but happy memories and laughter. It may once have been rejected by the curious customer on launch – resulting in a desperate tact where 60 were given away to any celebrity with a licence, purely for exposure – but the Mini was eventually so endeared by Brits that it literally became a part of the family.

Human nature is to anthropomorphise inanimate objects, bestowing them with a personality and reading human faces into machinery. When it came to christening cars with names and a gender, the original Mini was the ultimate cute relative who could do no wrong. It slipped through the social network to join the Range Rover on the classless plinth to which so many designers aspired. You could literally get away with anything in a Mini – as we’re about to find out.

Whirling across roundabouts and tearing out of junctions, our lurid behaviour is instantly forgiven by other drivers. If we’d cut up that many people in a Ford Focus in our haste to reach the next stretch of open road, our heads would have been kicked in. Nostalgia gives us the ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Narrow streets can be barrelled down with enough gusto to give your passenger a heart attack – as Ian keenly demonstrates as I cry for mercy, clamping the passenger door handle and whimpering excessively. Where usually only one car would fit past parked vehicles, Ian is darting through the automotive assault course like a lunatic.

Yet upon seeing the silver Mini, other drivers smile and wave with wistfulness. This demonstration of the model’s responsiveness in town soon hammers home just how useful these dinky classics remain in urban areas.

By the time our afternoon out in this very special Mini 25 comes to a close, and the little car is parked back in its garage, I feel the same disappointment as when my childhood best mate’s mother would call him in for tea. Left out on the street devoid of the company so enjoyed over the past few hours, the world strangely felt less colourful. Stupid car, making me feel actual emotions.

Why do we love the classic Mini?

Now, we can’t talk about how great the Mini is without mentioning the downsides. For one, they can corrode horrendously. They can also offer all the reliability of a Cabinet politician, and are rather fond of burning oil if not cared for. Run one into the ground and it will give you hell to pay.

There is also crash safety to consider, although the Mini is not quite the death trap you may believe it to be. Sure, a rusty example will fold like a paper bag and mince everything within should you collide with a wall at 40mph – but what other structurally compromised car wouldn’t? In fact, Channel 5’s Fifth Gear tested an old Mini in an accident to see whether the urban legends were true, while Parkers gave the 1996 Rover Mini three stars out of five for safety after the installation of a driver’s airbag and side-impact bars.

So, just like any classic car, potent design flaws are hidden behind that trademark darling face – but that doesn’t take away from the Mini’s sheer brilliance. The imperfections give it an endearing quality not unlike those of your childhood stuffed toy. In period, everyone’s Mini was different, tailored to their own circumstances; some were polished to within a micron of their life, whereas others were abused and ignored yet an integral part of everyday being. The Mini was once the backbone to the British economy, in van form for businesses, and for family and commuting duty.

It seems everybody had one, or knew someone with one, as their first car. It witnessed first experiences with the opposite sex, and was ever present in the background as you collected your diploma, gained your first job, went for a day to the coast, got married or laid a family member to rest.

When the day finally came to bid farewell after one MoT test too many, with filler dripping from the rotten sills, the heart was broken and the eyes shed tears. We all reflect our happiest, and often darkest, times upon the humble Mini – and that’s why we love it.

As a car, it was far from perfect when new. It was hopeless on motorways, largely underpowered and incapable of carrying more than a few shopping bags in the boot – but it was the first taste of freedom for many. A real ticket to ride. As generations grew up and life got in the way, sadly many Minis fell by the wayside, but they left so many of us with potent memories that we will never disregard.

For these reasons alone, we adore the little vehicle; it was our little friend who became a global icon. Besides the driving experience, it was – and remains – as close to a living thing as mankind has ever been able to manufacture on an industrial scale.

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Mini 25 pictures courtesy of Calum Brown

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