Bloody Minis… I’ve had it up to here with them… ‘Here’ being my shin, which is currently enduring the familiar seething cramp that is associated with driving BMC’s range of front-drivers. It is a symptom of the lack of comfort which, according to its designer Alec Issigonis, was supposed to keep you alert – but which instead manages the contrary. Discomfort saps concentration. It chews, gnaws, throbs, draws, pummels and tires you until you either just want to get where you’re going or pull over. And perhaps contemplate doing the unthinkable: catching a bus, saddling up a handy sheep or – heaven forbid – riding a bicycle.
Issigonis Shin usually doesn’t reach such a profound pitch as this, but today I’m in a 1963 Austin Cooper S Works replica bearing former Works driver, Rauno Aaltonen’s autograph. A car which has a space-robbing rollcage, driver’s padded door-bin lip and a bucket seat bolted too closely to the wheel. A wheel mounted on a steering column which has a lowering bracket fitted. Gone is the familiar sensation of TARDIS roominess. Fractions of inches have gone missing, a little here, a little there and it’s all adding up to one grumpy so-and-so behind the wheel as the agony rises up past the knee and heads for my hip. It’s like rising damp in a condemned building. Luckily though, there is just enough room for my left foot to make it onto the throttle. A technique concocted and honed during distance stints in the not-quite-so painful and roomier Landcrab.
To be confronted with the contrast between brilliance and that’ll do half-arsedness
To some, slagging off the 10ft wonder is heresy. The vanquisher of bubble-cars, smiter of the rally mighty and cheeky constituent part of the swinging ’60s cliché is beyond criticism. Enthusiasts love it without question. They refuse to accept that any other car can possibly go across country faster than their mighty pygmy Morris Oxford. To these disciples, it is a religious icon. They polish them. Park them in fields. Give them cutie-pie names. They worship them. Bang on about originality and the evils of the GerMINIs.
Okay, calm down… I’m not going to do a complete hatchet job on ADO 15 just because of one car’s non-adjustable bucket seat, but the Mini is not all perfume, Love Me Do and sunshine. It was flawed, it was too expensive to build (yet ironically under-priced thanks to BMC managerial incompetence), and it helped to give Issigonis an unchallenged reputation and standing within the company which he didn’t really deserve.
You see, the Mini’s fingerprints were found on the weapon that mortally wounded its parent combine, BMC. It inspired the company’s 1100/1300 range, which although it was Britain’s No.1 seller for eight years, its complexity and build quality cost the firm mightily in warranty claims. Issigonis then tried to unsuccessfully replace BMC’s mid-market family Farina saloons, not once, but twice. Yet both the 1800 ‘Landcrab’ and Maxi were nowhere near as successful as they should have been. One was an answer to a question that no-one had asked, the other was unleashed on the public in a horribly under-developed state. Both wore styling which were and are an acquired puritanical taste.
Thus, in the 1960s, BMC went from poorly with a sniffle to critically ill patient (BMH) and then just before that giant house of cards came tumbling down, thanks to Wilson government meddling, it was taken over by Leyland Motor Corporation. The resultant BLMC was a fractious combine that was as disastrous as it remains a byword for monumental car industry cock-up.
Powered by a 1085cc engine – the 1071 was enlarged – and capable of 90bhp at a sadistic 6200rpm
Left to Issigonis and BMC high-management, the Cooper S and its Cooper sisters would not have seen the light of day. The Mini’s early motor sport achievements were really down to the wizards at BMC’s Competitions Department. Rally appearances which had inspired John Cooper to approach BMC about an official performance derivative. Even when the green light shone, head-honcho George Harriman doubted they would sell the planned run of 1000 Mini Coopers. Yet by the end of 997cc production, BMC had sold just shy of 25,000. Finger on the pulse? What’s a pulse…?
To drive a 1963 Mini Cooper S is to relive all of this palm-to-forehead incompetence first-hand. To be confronted with the contrast between brilliance and that’ll do half-arsedness, in areas which should have been so much better. Like the gearchange, which in this replica has a reinforced gearstick due to the vile, rubbery, gristly change quality; it feels somewhere between trying to set Excalibur free and repositioning a limb on a week-old corpse. Initially it magnifies the misery caused by that Spanish Inquisition driving position and fires a broadside of f-words each time a different gear is needed.
Eventually though left-hand and gearstick stop bickering and progress is swift. The Cooper’s brilliance gets a chance to dazzle amid the gruff voice of the A-series, the wind roar and the demented scream from the idler gear. A device necessitated by a last-minute 180 degree rotation of the A-series, intended to cure carburettor icing.
Road conditions are mixed. Mostly dry with patches of damp and surface water. We’re warned about the Falken tyres’ doubtful wet weather performance, but for anyone used to beaten up Minis shod with a mixture of dubious rubber – from nearly legal to a cracked basket case with all the grip and compliance of Bakelite – they offer plenty of grip.
Powered by a 1085cc A-series – the 1071 was enlarged – and capable of 90bhp at a sadistic 6200rpm, your ears beg you to change up long before the tacho needle approaches the red paint. These roads are a perfect playground for the Cooper S, as it sprints along straights, shimmies and dances through the bends o’er hill and dale.
Its steering is light, quick, beautifully geared and talkative. There’s plenty of mechanical grip. The front-end seems to experience little inertia, deftly changing direction with all the alacrity of a swift after its lunch. The painstaking extent of this Works replica’s details – from heated windscreen to Comps style dashboard and tools on the parcel-shelf – goads on exuberance. Free of the burden of authenticity a replica affords, you are presented with a chance to drive a Works Mini Cooper S as Comps intended – ruthlessly.
The pain is forgotten. The grin gets wider. And suddenly you can’t remember what you were moaning about. It is this, which is the Mini’s greatest talent. Its blend of human contradictions and Jack Russell joie de vivre resonate with something inside of you. Then, before you realise it, you’ve forgiven it its failings. It’s become a mechanical mate, a noisy thrashing chum full of glee and mischief. And precious few cars are capable of this.
As I might have said before – bloody Minis…