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March 5, 2009

News & Features

Big Mini love: Some cars are transportation and some are legend

Special to NWautos

Mini Cooper

My first ride in an Austin Mini Cooper, in the summer of 1971, was as memorable as a child's first trip to Disneyland. In fact, there was something Disneyesque about the car -- as if it had been designed for a fantasy world.

I was 17 when I first saw my buddy John O'Keefe's 1967 Mini Cooper S. My first thought was, "This isn't a car, it's a toy." It had 10-inch wheels, and it seemed about as long as I was tall (though it was actually a whopping 10 feet). Yet John insisted that there was room to seat four, and that the car had won the Monte Carlo Rally not once but three times.

History of the Mini
  • Only 10,000 Minis were imported to the U.S. between 1960 and 1967 -- the car's heyday.
  • The British manufacturer of Minis ended American exports in 1968, when more demanding auto safety and pollution control regulations went into effect.
  • In Europe, Minis continued to dominate the small-car scene. More than 5 million were sold worldwide from 1959 to 2000, and Minis were voted the "European Car of the Century" in 1999.
  • The Mini name transfered to BMW when it bought the previous manufacturer and production of original Minis ran out.
  • The BMW MINI has been a huge success in the U.S., but it differs from the original. The new car is 2 feet longer, a foot wider and 900 pounds heavier than the original.

We got in. Sure enough, there was ample room for four big guys. John did his best to impress me with the car's legendary handling qualities, its ability to grip the road "like it was on rails," as he described it. The engine wasn't especially powerful, in a drag-racing sense; it never would have won a head-to-head race with a GTO or Mustang. But in the corners, the engine was strong enough to push the car through the sharpest curves.

Riding in John's Mini was so entertaining that I ended up buying one of my own a few years later. It was a white-bodied, black-roofed '67 Cooper S I found in Los Angeles. I drove it up the coast along Highways 1 and 101 in what turned out to be one of the best road trips of my life. But I wasn't the only one bitten by the Mini bug. Two other friends of mine bought Minis -- there was just something irresistible about them.

One of those friends was Bob McGrath. He recently reminded me of one downside to owning a Mini: "One evening a friend and I drove to the Guild 45th Theatre. I parked near a pub called Goldies, a fraternity hangout. When we returned to the car after the movie, we found it tipped on its side, like a turtle on its back. It would have been kind of funny, except it was newly painted and the passenger-side door handle and mirror were smushed. The two of us tipped it back upright, much to the amusement of Goldies patrons, and drove away with some pretense of dignity."

Like many former Mini owners, today I rue the fact that I sold the car a few years after I bought it. They're in demand and very rare now, commanding prices upwards of $10,000. And none of the cars I've owned before or since was half as much fun to drive.

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