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Wednesday 25th June 2008


PH HEROES: MINI COOPER

Low power, small engine and front-wheel drive? That's all the Mini Cooper needed to become a hero, writes Ollie Stallwood


In many ways the original Mini Cooper seems more relevant now than when it was launched in 1959. Tiny proportions, economical, low-powered but lightweight – the perfect car for our congested city streets.

And whereas fashions have come and gone (and come and gone again) over the last fifty years – platform shoes, bellbottoms, short shorts and tank tops – somehow this little car has remained as stylish as the first day it was built. Many iconic cars have had their moment in time but the Mini has had so many moments it would be impossible to list them all.

It is almost inconceivable now that a car like this could win the Monte Carlo Rally, but it did three times. Steve McQueen had one, as did the Beatles, and Peter Sellers bought one for Britt Ekland. Minis were the stars of the Italian Job and Enzo Ferrari had one. Mark Boland even crashed one into a tree in Barnes, West London, killing himself.


But it is the Mini Cooper, the original hot-hatch-without-a-hatch, that deserves its place here. The great thing about the Mini Cooper is how it makes you rethink how to define a performance car. On paper at least it doesn’t really seem to have any of the ingredients.

The early 997 or 998cc engines were hardly going to set the world alight, and ‘1275cc four-cylinder’ was never going to win you a game of Top Trumps. But the combination of a light weight and the wheels-at-each-corner platform made it a giant-slayer.

Mini designer Sir Alec Issigonis didn’t originally want his friend John Cooper meddling with the car and making a performance version, saying the concept relies on a simple, basic design. But Cooper won and set about creating the Cooper and Cooper S which had front brake discs, something that was almost unheard of on such a small car.

Tens of thousands of Mini Coopers were sold and became an unlikely performance icon, before it was effectively replaced by the 1275GT, although that wasn’t as sharp as the Coopers. Then, throughout the eighties, when small performance cars were exploding onto the market, the GT and Cooper versions of the Mini disappeared.

It was only in 1990 that the Cooper returned, with a similar spec engine to the MG Metro, and in 1991 it gained fuel injection to comply with emissions requirements. Thanks to various bits of John Cooper Works clobber that could be further added, the Mini Cooper was back at last.

When I was young I was never a fan of the Mini, I probably associated it with the kind of car supply teachers would drive at school. My friend had one of the nineties Coopers and as a 6”2’ passenger it never seemed that much fun. But the more and more I see the old Minis the more and more I like the look of them, although before today I’ve never actually driven one.


Pull up outside the London Mini Centre (www.londonmini.com) and you are instantly in Mini heaven. Today they have kindly offered to lend me a Mini Cooper for a few hours and now I am itching to have a go.

There are all sorts dotted around, some with bulging wheel arches, others with the more traditional skinny Minilites, and Anthony and Grant from the centre make me a cup of tea and talk me through all the different variations. It’s fascinating and Grant tells me that Mini-owning celebrities such as Paul Weller often pop in to chat about the little car.

I’m handed the keys to a red X-reg 1.3i Cooper - it is totally standard apart from a cheeky middle-exit exhaust that gives it a rasping note. Once you’ve got the seat right and are in the slightly ape-like driving position, slouched over the wheel, it actually feels quite roomy and comfortable inside. It’s an interesting blend of Spartan and Rover 75, but I forget that within seconds of setting off.


You just start smiling, plain and simple. Other people smile at you; it just feels so quirky and fun. The wheel’s position has clearly been nicked from a bus but you are totally connected to the driving experience. A few miles later I open it up and get a decent squirt of acceleration. When I look at the speedo however I’m doing just 35mph – but who cares?

There is so much basic, honest feel from the wheel that you become totally engrossed with the experience. I can’t think of another car I have driven that makes you feel so part of the process of getting down the road.

After a few miles you know exactly what it’s going to do, intimately in control of the car. Squeeze the throttle and there is a crisp response, and while 70lb ft of torque may not sound a lot it’s plenty for such a small car, meaning that power is always readily available.

63bhp isn’t much too but it’s enough to give the little tyres a workout as you fling the car into another bend. You can find the limit easily and then push a bit further, confident in the knowledge that the Mini won’t catch you out.


The more I drive it the more I am smitten. The four-speed gearbox is a bit awkward at first but with just a few forward ratios you can concentrate on hustling the car through the urban sprawl, having the time of your life.

It is utterly addictive and so simple you don’t want any driver aids, the steering wheel and three pedals will do just fine, thank you very much. This is what motoring these days is so often missing. In the Mini it's all about having fun and finding a car's limit at normal speeds, not at the helm of a 500bhp super-saloon while you drift around the 'Ring.

I could spend all day just ripping around London, and there’s few cars that would make me want to do that. The go-kart analogy is far too overused and I really wanted to avoid it, but it’s the best way to describe this thing.


There’s little roll as you enter a roundabout, you just turn-in and feed in as much power as you need. If it's too much, ease off and the line will tighten. The whole time you have the same manic grin plastered across your face.

This car is said to have come about because of the Suez Crisis and ensuing fuel rationaing, so people wanted smaller, more economical cars. Strange then that in the current climate, with gridlock everywhere and petrol prices going through the roof I can’t think of a better way of getting about town than in a 50-year-old car.

Author: Oli S