Somewhat chastened by the experience of driving a mobile stately home, I set my sights a little lower this time. A tiny Mini Cooper. Not the modern BMW version, but the last of the last century BL/Rover era models.
So have you ever owned a real Mini? I have – and should have known better. But do read on, this isn’t only about cars.
My own Mini was also my very first car – and cost £30. I bought it from my girlfriend! It was a very old and very basic 1963 Mini 850. But it did have a very special go faster accessory – a Mini Cooper boot lid.
It was a testament to the high quality of British design, and the terrible quality of British manufacturing. Apart from the rusty ‘see through’ floor, symptoms of the car’s excellence included… if it rained heavily the mats in the footwell would float, when I slammed the driver’s door, the window would get in with me, the speedo would often show 30mph when stationary, the gear lever would become detached and once had to be bolted back together by a passenger in time for my next gear change… and the ride could induce a slipped disc and double vision. It came to a final halt in the back garden of the rented house where I lived in Grantham – and might still be there. See the photo below with me still trying to start it.
As mine was a very early Mini, I was keen to see how the last of the line compared. You will be pleased to hear, that after nearly 40 years of unceasing development, nothing had changed. Rust? yes; dodgy gear change? yes; terrible ride? worse. But the brilliance of the design was still there too. It was love at first sight. The old Mini really is very small and very cute. You feel you could pop it in your pocket – or inside a new Mini. It’s short and low and yet, sitting inside, remarkably roomy. The rather upright windscreen seems yards away – as does the top of the steering, which has roughly the same angle as the one on an old Routemaster London bus.
A little bit of ‘luxury’ had been added in the form of a leather gear lever knob, but the gearbox still whined like a nagged teenager and would jump out of gear going round roundabouts. The tiny seats were now leather and the dashboard made of wood – a really modern touch I thought. But there are no pointless electric motors doing what a healthy human can do – like winding down the windows or turning the steering wheel.
Bouncing across the London speed bumps soon brought back the frenetic magic of the mini. It was like going for a walk with a Jack Russell. It could change direction instantly and being so narrow could squeeze through any gap. And while only an ancient 1.3 engine (originally designed for the Morris Minor in the late 40s) it felt very quick. It wasn’t, but it felt it, and that’s what matters if you’re going to enjoy driving these days. With all four spotlamps switched on you can imagine you’re winning the Monte Carol rally while still in the Morrisons Car Park taking Mum shopping. On that subject, Mum liked it too and it’s boot almost carried her shopping. While her hearing is not so good, she was able to report that it was indeed very noisy.
Luisa much preferred the Mini to the Austin Martin (as she called it) and, in the end, so did I. Borrowing the Mini coincided with a bank holiday weekend of lovely weather. With the huge sunroof wound back and the wind in our hair, trundling down country lanes was lots of fun.
I aimed to get the car back to London for 6.30 on the Tuesday morning and left Colchester at a very unsociable 5am. Despite the early start I was quite looking forward to the drive. My weekend Mini adventure nearly over, I was a little disappointed not to have more of a story to tell. But I didn’t need to worry, the Mini still had a trick up its sleeve.
All went well for the first 30 miles when there was a bang and the engine began to lose power. We ground to a sad halt on the side of the A12. This is not a great road on which to break down – as there is no proper hardshoulder. Early morning trucks thundered threateningly by as I sat on the damp grass and waited for the AA.
When the patrolman arrived so did the police – who put their car across all three lans and stopped the traffic dead. I felt a bit sheepish at this point. The AA man towed me to the nearby services to try to sort the problem in a less dangerous location. A blown fuse was replaced and I was soon on my way.
I made very good progress for the first 100 meters and the fuse blew again. Thankfully, The AA hadn’t left and I was soon back in their care. With the fuses going, there was no choice but to stick the Mini on a set of dolly wheels out the back of the van and tow it back to London.
And the story takes a different turn there. We chatted cars – as you would. There were plenty of stories of hopeless drivers who call the AA to change a wheel. I asked him what he drove and he said a huge people carrier – despite the fact that his four children were grown up. It turned out he needed the seats as his former primary teacher and he had become foster parents. What followed were modestly told, but moving, stories of helping kids from 2 to 15 years old. Often the victims of teenage pregnancy and parents hooked on drugs, it sounded like this AA man really was part of the emergency services. Not content with fixing cars, he’s fixing lives too. We got the Mini to its home 5 hours after I left Colchester – but it was a really worthwhile journey.
And what of the modern Mini? Well it hasn’t been allowed to soldier on for 40 years without development. BMW have already completely redesigned it twice in a third of the time. It still looks like the old mini, or rather like one that has had far too many Big Macs. Daughter, Kat learned to drive in one that we owned and it was almost as much fun to drive as its older relative. It was almost as uncomfortable too. But it didn’t go rusty and it had all the electrical toys we want these days, like air conditioning and central locking. But Alec Issignois designed the original Mini to be as small, light and simple as possible. He would not be impressed by this travesty.
A car designer that shared his vision, a very appropriate one for our times, was Colin Chapman. So my next stop might be a Lotus – some say an acronym for Lots.Of.Trouble.Usually.Serious. We either have brilliant design or brilliant quality – we can’t seem to have both. I think I’d better book the AA ready.