A Tale of Two Mini Cities

General Bunk
Peter Counsell, who once put dishwasher tablets in a washing machine, takes another trip down memory lane, this time at the wheel of a Mini Cooperesque.

“In my mum’s Mini” is the answer to many a question. Fortunately in this case, it is the answer to “in which vehicle did you learn to drive?” Like so many of my generation, the Mini was the starter car and so it was with open arms that I welcomed the opportunity to attend another Great Escapes Media Day, to revisit the car that started it all for me.

My mum was an extremely talented woman, but was rather behind the pace on two skills: swimming and driving. The swimming thing she never really got hold of and in any case this is not WaterBlog. The driving thing she got hold of, but was rather late to the party and, even then, never truly enjoyed it.

I think it was sometime in her late 40s that she passed her test and, either in anticipation of, or because of that, my father bought a second car. At this stage he drove various Capris, which have been documented elsewhere. We had a Minor Traveller for a while and a Hillman Imp, but each of those had progressed to being used by my elder sister and brother and then, perhaps inevitably, to the scrapyard.

A car for Mum was bought, from the same Ford garage in Guildford where we bought all our cars. It is now a Travelodge.

In its secondhand showroom in 1979, the aforementioned Ford dealer had a 1976 Mini 1000. It was only three years old but even then it was far from perfect. The driver’s door had taken a thump at some point and there were other sundry things that suggested that All Was Not Quite Right.

Rather more enticingly, it had twin fuel tanks. This conjured up visions of crossing Europe in a single bound, but as we later found discovered, the second tank didn’t draw properly, so it was effectively a one-tank car, carrying an additional and rather useless tank.

Mum’s Mini had a cute registration, MPH 135P, which neatly encapsulated double its top speed.

This wasn't my car, but that didn't stop me dreaming of how it could be modified to become more appealing. Limited by both cash and parental permission, I did make a few scheduled modifications. The steering wheel was treated to a leather glove – held in place with lacing – and a wooden gear knob. Both of those sound naff now, but seeing as you spend pretty much all of your time in a car touching either the steering wheel or gearknob, these things matter.

Mini HOE

As a further sop to it becoming more like Wood and Pickett, I bought sound deadening felt, which I added to the under-bonnet, underneath the carpets and the boot. And noticed no difference whatsoever.

At this age I was still enthusiastic. Times have changed on that score. I thought that attending to the rust was the right thing to do. Geared up with a wire brush, Kurust, mesh, filler and paint, I hacked away and was disappointed to find that the rust was beating the car and then fresh air was beating the rust. Still it did look white rather than brown. For a fortnight.

I also managed to make an unscheduled modification. With four other guys in the car I drove over a parking post that was laid on the floor. Ground clearance compromised, the floor was opened up like a tin of sardines. Fortunately this was the era when all garages were used to welding cars and used to Minis in general.

That little list was the limit of the mods. Had I,  a) had a budget and, b) ownership of the vehicle, things might have panned out differently. In my dreams – not all my dreams – the Mini had wider wheels, arches, spot lamps, etc. My late teenage aspirations went unfulfilled. I never drove a hot Mini.

But now, thanks to the generosity of Great Escape Classics, that disappointment can be consigned to the history books.

Great Escapes runs the biggest fleet of classic cars in Europe. Many of these cars do 18,000 miles a year and hence the more precious and precocious vehicles do not hire well, as they would spend too long in the workshop. Time in the workshop is not only costly in terms of repairs but opportunity costly in terms of lost hire revenue. Hence, there is a balance to be struck between the glamour and charm of old cars and the commercial realities of a hire fleet.

Mini Cooperesque again

The company could have bought an old Cooper and run that. But the purchase price would have been prohibitive and that would translate into impractical hire rates. And considerable nervousness every time it went out on hire.

So, better then to produce a Mini Cooperesque. After all, most hirers want to experience a Mini, either again or for the first time, and most hirers are not going to appreciate the nuances of a true Cooper.

The base model is a 1983 Mini City, boasting a full 998cc in a car weighing slightly more than a shoebox. What’s been done to it? Well, inside you'll find some tasteful red carpets, small steering wheel and bucket seats. Outside, resprayed in Old English White with a black roof, with the addition of a full bank of spots in front of the replacement grille. And arches and fat tyres. Period number plates. Best of all: wide steel wheels.

Great Escapes could have gone down the Minilite route, and that would have been fine, but the fat steel wheels (still 10-inch) and hubcaps just give it a neat touch. All in all, it looks like the car that I wanted MPH 135P to be.

30 years later, what is it like?

Firstly, a little low. I don’t think anything has been done to the suspension, rather that my own suspension is not quite as flexible as it once was. That said, once you're in, it's surprising comfortable and familiar. The bucket seats that look forbidding are better padded than I expected; the speedo is in the correct place for a Mini; and (cliche alert) the steering wheel falls to hand. Or at least it falls to hand if you have experience of driving a Mini, or a go-kart. The Mini steering wheel makes no sense at all if you have been brought up on modern stuff.

Inside the Mini Cooperesque

The getaway? This is still a basic 1000, so it will take the skin off a rice pudding, but not if the pudding in question has been in the oven for several hours. This is not a Cobra. But it is light and low-geared, so it can move along without embarrassment. Once on the move, the trick is to stay on the move, because building up speed takes time. Drive it with momentum and inertia in mind.

And this approach works very nicely in the twisty bits. In a stream of classics, we were able to hustle along nicely through the curves and then get overtaken by an XJS as soon as the road straightened out.

Drive like this because over revving it does nothing other than reward you with two things: limited progress and noise. Noise like you have not heard before.

I have, on one occasion, put dishwasher tablets in the washing machine. It was late. I was tired. Imagine if you will, that I put all the cutlery in the washing machine and turned it on to a fast spin. And then threw the washing machine down the stairs. That is still some way short of the mechanical cacophony that rewards you if you push on the accelerator. So don’t.

Was it fun to be reacquainted? Yes, yes it was. The Mini is a lovely little thing if you like them and horrid if you don’t. I liked them then and I still like them today. I covered a lot of miles in my mum’s old Mini, but I was surprised by how quickly it all felt like home in the Great Escapes Cooperesque.

Would I have one now? No. A mate has one of the late Coopers, but he has a nice warm garage to keep it in. I remember just how the metal/rust equation used to work and I just can’t be bothered with that, however much they are increasing in value now. Minis are sweet and fun and they are an integral part of our social history of the past 60 years.

They are a perfect high days and holidays type car, which is why Great Escapes put one on its fleet. Go and hire it.

Grateful thanks to Daniel Bevis for permission to use his photos.