Friday 23 August 2019

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Motors

Age is no barrier to enjoyment

Wednesday, 29th May, 2019 4:28pm

What do you think you’ll be doing at 60? Planning for retirement? Maybe taking a few extra afternoons off here and there to get some gardening practice in? Finally booking that round-the-world cruise?

Well, if you answered ‘slathering myself in a gorgeous shade of metallic green, adding some stripes, and slipping into some soft, brown, leather’ then congratulations - you’re a Mini.

Yup, the Mini has hit the big 60 this year. Way back in 1959, the British Motor Corporation’s (BMC) boss, Lord Nuffield, became incensed at the sight of titchy ‘bubble’ cars such as the Isetta and the Messerschmitt roaming the streets as people sought better fuel economy in the wake of an oil price surge triggered by the Suez crisis.

He directed his most senior engineer — Greek-born Alec Issigonis, the man behind the Morris Minor — to create a small car that could seat a family of four, and beat the micro-cars when it came to fuel consumption.

Issigonis set about his task with rationalist relish and the Mini (originally sold as the Austin Se7en or Morris Mini-Minor) became a sensation. Sold for just £495 in old punts when it originally arrived on these shores, BMC lost money on pretty much every one they sold, so complex was the Mini to build compared to other, more old-fashioned models.

That didn’t stop it becoming one of the most iconic cars ever built — right up there with the original Land Rover, the Porsche 911, and the Ferrari 250 GTO. Sporty Cooper versions followed, as did motor sports success, film stardom, and celebrity ownership.

The Mini’s financial failure, though, would set BMC on a path that would see it become part of the doomed British Leyland conglomerate, which eventually morphed into the Austin Rover Group, then Rover Group, which was itself bought out by BMW in 1994.

By then, on its 35th birthday, the original Mini was still in production. It may have had an airbag and fuel injection by that point, but it was still the same ten-foot long car with not a crumple zone in sight.

Even though it had finally become profitable, BMW knew that the whole car had to be radically re-invented. This is did in 2001, essentially throwing away everything but the name. The new Mini wasn’t small anymore, and nor was it especially practical, and there was no way that it was going to lose money, thanks to BMW’s premium pricing strategy and an options list as long as your arm.

What it did do though was drive brilliantly, with that nippy, darty go-kart feeling that reminded everyone of the original. Many grumbled that it wasn’t a proper Mini anymore and they were right — it was bigger, heavier, not as space-efficient, and not as frugal.

Mind you, it was also safer by far, comfier, and a car that could be realistically used day-to-day on 21st century roads. Sales took off, and neither Mini nor BMW has much looked back since.

Well, there is some looking back now. You would, wouldn’t you, if you were celebrating 60 years, a mark that few cars ever get to reach.

The Mini has changed twice again since that 2001 re-invention, but the recipe has stayed mostly the same. It’s essentially now a small BMW coupe, with a modicum of practicality, and the emphasis firmly on driving fun.

To help with the celebrations, Mini is launching this, the Mini Cooper S 60 Years Edition.

You’ll spot it straight away thanks to its lustrous green paint, designed especially for this model. Called British Racing Green IV, it’s brighter and more sparkly than previous Mini greens, and I have to say it really suits the car, giving a familiar shape a touch of new dynamism.

That green is set off by a black roof, and matching black bonnet stripes — those in homage to the original Cooper Formula One racers of 1959, from whence the Mini takes its Cooper name.

Inside, you’ll find gorgeous brown leather seats, an eight-inch touchscreen sat-nav system mounted, somewhat incongruously, in the big round opening where old Minis had their speedos, a seven-speed automatic gearbox, and split-zone climate control.

Being based on the standard Cooper S model, you get a 2.0 litre turbocharged petrol engine with 192hp, and a sporty exhaust note that makes all the right farting noises when you accelerate.

Space is still at a premium — great for those in the front, but the back seats and boot are very small — but quality levels are excellent and the Cooper S feels like a properly high-end car inside. Which is just as well, as this one costs €41,995 in 60 Year Edition trim. Yikes.

The good news, though, is that you can get a standard Cooper S for a much more reasonable €32,000 and that’s just as much fun to drive.

Which is to say, lots and lots of fun. 60 years on from the original, and 20 years on from BMW’s re-invention, the Mini remains one of the most enjoyable cars to drive.

192hp doesn’t sound like much in modern terms, but the Cooper S flies on the slightest touch of the throttle, and feels like a proper hot hatch.

Best of all, the steering — even if it has become a touch more rubbery over the years — still feels great, and points that stubby nose into corners with the alacrity of a whippet chasing a squirrel through the park.

Yes, the bouncy ride quality and excessive tyre noise do become wearing, but you’d live with them for the fun. And the style. And the memories.

60 years on, the Mini still feels special, and that’s worth celebrating.

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