A Mini Adventure – keeping it real with the original

What’s it like living with a 60s motoring icon that’s only 12 years old?

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Having finally got a permanent job, my usual first instinct kicked in – not having to worry so much about money, I was going to buy another car. With my hobby of liking quirky cars, particularly older ones, it was obviously not going to be a sensible, practical one.

I toyed with fanciful notions of the supercharged Jag XK convertible, which I could just about afford, then looked at the costs for fuel and insurance and rapidly decided against it. After all, we should be doing something sensible like saving to buy a house, not spending all my money on endless stops at the fuel station.

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Lovely. But thirsty.

So, I went back to something I’d been considering for quite a while; the classic (original) Mini. I’d owned a 1978 Mini 1000 back in the mid-90s and had fond memories of it (it even worked, most of the time). And though it was a classic design dating back to 1959, they’d carried on making them till 2000, with comparatively few changes.

That left me with one final choice – to buy a well-restored original, with all its quirks, or to pick up one of the very last, with (slightly) improved engineering and build quality. My head won out over my heart, and despite a tempting looking 1974 1000 in nearby Reading, I slogged up to Leeds by train to buy one of the last of the line – a 2001 Rover Mini Seven.

Actually, the 2001 reg is a bit misleading. The very last classic Mini (a red Cooper S) rolled off the production line in October 2000. The 51 plate on mine meant that, logically, it sat unsold for about a year. Nonetheless, it was as ‘modern’ a Mini as I could get – for whatever that’s worth. So, how does it stack up to my memories from 17 years ago – and how does it compare with other, less superannuated cars from the turn of the century?

Styling

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Alpha and omega – the very first and very last Minis

Timeless. With the exception of a revised radiator grille, roll-down front windows and concealed door hinges, the look of the chubby little charmer was virtually unchanged from its 1959 debut. This was a consequence of celebrated designer Alec Issigonis’ ultra-pragmatic design philosophy; he didn’t really care what the car looked like, and the body was just the most compact way of shrouding the engineering and the passengers. Still, its adherence to late 50s styling conventions gives it a cheery old-style feel.

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I toyed with the idea of buying one of the retro styling kits to give it a Mk1 style grille, but in the end decided against it. The Seven is a commemorative, end of production special, designed to evoke memories of the early ones sold as Austin Sevens. Mine’s as original as you can get it, and modifying it would be like sacrilege.

The interior

Often overlooked, but should be an important consideration. After all, no matter how nice the outside of the car may look, that’s not the bit you’ll be seeing most of the time.

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I’ve found most car interiors since about the 1980s to be dreary in the extreme – acres of grey plastic and cloth. Say what you will about the garish 70s, at least car interiors had colours (sometimes eye-wateringly hideous ones). My ’78 Mini had seats in the archetypal 70s style of orange and beige stripes.

The Seven, in keeping with its retro theme, has an interior deliberately reminiscent of the 60s. It’s actually quite tasteful. The seats are nicely two-tone, red leather and cream cloth, and the full-width dash is colour coded with the bodywork. Clearly it’s meant to look like painted metal; equally clearly, it’s a bit of painted hardwood.

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My one, and another one…

Top marks for trying, Rover, but a shame you didn’t use the iconic central 3 clock dash found on real 60s Minis. There was a reason for it being there – you didn’t have to peer awkwardly round the steering wheel to see how fast you were going. The bonus, I suppose, is that there’s somewhere to put a stereo, rather than the slapdash old habit of letting it slide around the dash shelf next to the instruments.

But the best bit – and this is a big part of what sold me on this particular car – is the sunroof (yes, all right, technically that’s an exterior thing as well as an interior one). It has the optional motorised fabric sunroof that, basically, opens the entire roof like a sardine can; not a bad comparison considering how cramped it is! Given that a Mini with both windows open is already a rather airy (ie, windy) place to be, an open roof too is the next best thing to a convertible.

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Equipment

None. Really. No electric windows, no central locking, no air con, no cruise control, no power steering. Get real – it’s a Mini. Where on Earth would you fit them? It does at least have an airbag and, apparently, side impact beams. I’m sure all that will help tremendously in the event of the inches-away engine ramming itself into the passenger compartment.

The oily bits

This being a Mini, I was expecting them to be very oily; they’re not renowned for trying to keep their lubricant inside the engine. I was actually pleasantly surprised. At 76,000 miles, it’s fairly low in mileage for a 12 year old car – possibly because not many people would drive something this tiny for long distances.

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Looking in at the tiny, packed engine bay, at first glance there’s little different from the Minis of yore. The Mini was one of the first front wheel drive cars to adopt the space-saving measure (now almost universal) of mounting the engine transversely. The venerable 4 cylinder A-series engine fills most of the space, here in its final, spruced up A+ form, with the gears sitting in the sump and sharing the engine oil, as ever. It may be the Cooper-spec 1275cc beastie, but it looks just the same.

Look closer, though, and you’ll see a few changes from the Minis of old. The original Mini had two major engineering flaws, which were finally addressed with the 1997 models – in keeping with British industrial efficiency, it only took 38 years.

The first was that, in order to keep using the pulley driven fan on the engine, the radiator used to be mounted at the side, just behind the offside wing. As a result, the cooling was… inadequate, to put it mildly. Many was the Mini that would overheat from sitting in traffic jams.

The corollary of this, and of a last minute decision to swap the orientation of the transversely mounted engine, was that the distributor sat just behind that big radiator grille. Where the radiator wasn’t. So, whenever it rained, the dizzy would get drenched and the car grind to an annoying standstill. In a country with weather like Britain, this was less than ideal.

These last few years saw the radiator finally moved to the front, with an electric fan (common on other FWD cars for many years before this) that improved the cooling no end. That should keep the distributor dry – except there isn’t one any more. Where the leaky, unreliable Lucas gizmo used to sit is now a snazzy new coilless electronic ignition system. No more cursing while you strip skin off your fingers trying to set the gap in the points!

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Where the distributor was is… this.

And behind the engine (where it’s virtually impossible to reach unless you have fingers like ET), the familiar SU carburettor has been replaced with blindingly modern twin-point fuel injection. This helps the old A-series produce a mighty 63 bhp, which might not sound like a lot until you remember that this car is small enough to fit into the trunk of some Cadillacs.

The plus point of the injection system is no more fiddling with a stubborn choke knob that refuses to stay pulled out on cold mornings. The minus point is that when it goes wrong (and I’m sure it will, it’s British), I won’t have a clue how to fix it. I know where I am twiddling mixture screws on an SU carb, but injection systems run off those newfangled ECU thingies that require a degree in computer science to set up.

Driving it

But enough of this technical stuff. The main point of owning a Mini is how much fun they are to drive. So, how does a 2001 classic Mini feel compared to other cars of the dim and distant 12 years ago?

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Well, the simple answer is, it drives like a Mini. For all the tinkering around the edges with fancy things like fuel injection and airbags, this still feels like a car that was built in the 60s. For one thing, it only has a four-speed gearbox – I doubt there was anything else you could buy at the time that still had one of those.

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Turn the key (after shutting off the immobiliser – how modern!) and you’re greeted with the loud noise and vibration of an engine designed in the 1940s sitting a mere few inches in front of you. Yes, the soundproofing is a massive improvement on my 1978 model, but by 2001 standards, that’s not saying much.

Depress the hydraulically operated clutch (I’d forgotten how heavy that is) and you’re off with a lurch. I’d also forgotten that the way Minis deliver power is not subtle; you have to develop a sensitive right foot not to suddenly surge forward every time you press the throttle, or catapult forward in your seat when you back off the power.

Still, that doesn’t take too long to re-acclimatise to. And once you’re going, the mighty 63bhp of the much-improved A-series makes this a surprisingly eager little car. It can more than hold its own in modern traffic, easily out-accelerating similarly humble machinery from more recent years.

It helps that it’s so comically tiny. It takes up about half a space in an average car park; a work colleague remarked that it looked like a toy. The stubby little bonnet and non-protruding boot mean that you can see every part of it, making it incredibly easy to park, and to thread through tiny spaces in busy traffic.

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It is a bitch to steer at low speeds without power steering, if that’s what you’re used to – there’s a reason the old ones used to have steering wheels wide enough to pilot the Queen Mary. The chunky, modern thing in mine may look nice, but I’d prefer the old style. No question of swapping it though; apart from the ‘originality’ quandary, I haven’t a clue how to disconnect the airbag without disabling the ignition system! Bloody computers.

Once you’re going, though, the steering is a delight, as ever. It’s direct and responsive, letting you feel the road and fully exploit the car’s astonishing handling. True, the angle of the wheel is a bit like driving a bus, but you get used to that soon enough. I quickly relearned that the best place for a Mini is on empty, winding country roads, where you can chuck it about with reckless abandon, comfortable in the knowledge that it will stay firmly planted on the road.

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This is, in part, due to its rather unusual suspension. After a brief dalliance with the forward thinking, fluid-based Hydrolastic system in the mid-60s, the Mini quickly reverted to its original system, which it kept for the rest of its lifespan – rubber cones. Yes, where most cars would have springs of some kind, the Mini bounces around on semi-compressible rubber, giving it a ride which you could charitably describe as ‘firm’, or uncharitably describe as ‘unforgivingly joggly’. Certainly, if you want to find out quite how bad the road surface is, a Mini will let you know in no uncertain terms.

SpeedHumps

Which brings me on to the biggest problem it has, some 17 years since I last owned one. In the mid-90s, local councils had yet to develop their current fetish for strewing absurd speed humps every few yards down most urban roads. Now they have, and the Mini doesn’t take kindly to them. You might be able to cruise over them at 30mph in an SUV, but in the bouncy Mini, it’s a first gear job most of the time. For added annoyance, its low ground clearance means that quite a few of them will scrape on the exhaust.

Swings and roundabouts though; that low ground clearance is why it feels like such a fast car whatever speed you’re doing. And one this modern actually is quite fast. Get it going on a motorway (not somewhere a Mini traditionally feels comfortable), and it will cruise with (relative) comfort at 80mph. My first journey in it was to drive it 150 miles back from Leeds, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that, after making the journey with no breaks, I could get out and not feel like I’d been struck down with arthritis. For all that I love it, my Mazda MX5 is less comfy on a long journey (although it’s quieter and shudders less).

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The other one…

This is down to the fact that the sheer blistering power of that 63bhp enables the gearbox to have a taller final drive ratio than older Minis. In my ’78 model, I’d stick it in top gear at 30 then plough on till the engine screamed deafeningly for mercy. This one, though, is comfortable in second gear up to at least 30mph, and you can’t really shift into fourth unless you’re doing over 40. It certainly makes up for the lack of a fifth gear.

All that speed is lovely until you have to stop. It’s fair to say that the brakes are… there. Somewhere. Modern cars have obviously spoiled me, because what with the hi-tech servo, these brakes are, logically, better than those on my old Mini. But on first drive, I was slightly shocked at the amount of pedal pressure it took to have not much noticeable slowing effect. If you’re going to stop, plan ahead – and slow down through the gears rather than relying on the brakes as you’re probably used to.

Practicality

None. Well, not much. The ’78 Mini actually had more room inside, mostly because the front seats were tiny deckchairs with no back support. The Seven has plush, Rover-sourced recliners with headrests – lovely for those in the front, but cuts an enormous amount of room out of the back. Together with the sunroof motor seriously eating into the headroom, this makes it not so much of a four seater as the old ones. Still, it’s fair to say it has about as much room inside as the BMW ones, which are half again as big on the outside.

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And don’t expect to take four people on a long holiday – the boot’s about large enough for two small bags, what with (still) having the fuel tank and battery crammed in there together (an explosive combination if ever there was one).

Reliability

Hard to tell – I’ve only had it for a few weeks. Mind you, the rubber seal on the front of the sunroof has already started to peel off. I will fix this with the industrious application of glue – that’s how Rover had it held there in the first place.

Running costs

Cheap as chips. It only costs about £20 to fill up the tank, but I already know that will have a range of about 200 miles. On the initial 150 mile journey back from Leeds, it did 48 mpg – not great for a modern car, but considering it’s basically from 1959, I was impressed.

It’s also only £190 to insure fully comp – and not even on a classic policy. Bargain!

Depreciation

The nice thing about scarce classic cars is that they don’t. It should actually gain value.

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On deciding I wanted a Mini, I was rather shocked to find that they cost somewhat more than the £200 I paid for a half-decent one in the mid-90s. A lot more. I paid £4000 for the Seven. Yes, a bit mad for such a tiny car. But this particular one of the multifarious Limited Editions is quite sought after. Mine’s in good nick, but not perfect – those ones go for over £8000.

Rust

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Yes, yes, and yes. It’s a Mini. Issigonis’ economical body design may look charming, but it hides a plethora of mud traps. Even most mid-90s Minis, if they’re still on the road, will likely have been restored to keep them there. Less fortunate cars ended up in the scrappy, by the hundreds of thousands, which is why classic Minis are now a rare sight despite more than 5 million of them having been built.

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Mine isn’t bad, but it has the beginnings of serious rust in the usual Mini spots – the front wing join to the windscreen scuttle, the A panel in front of the doors, and the bottom of the doors themselves. To stave off the time when I actually have to do something about his, I’m keeping it in the garage, where fortunately it fits with loads of room to spare.

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You must be mad.

Maybe. It takes a certain amount of bloody-mindedness in this day and age to drive around in a tiny tin box with virtually no safety equipment that has little more refinement than a go-kart with a roof. But if you’re worried about that sort of thing, you probably won’t be buying one.

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This is a car you buy with your heart, not your head; and it’s safe to say it’ll reward you with the sort of emotional attachment you’re never going to get with a Vauxhall Corsa. It’s fun to drive, it puts a smile on your face, and people notice you – the other day I had to stop at a junction to let a tourist take a picture of me in it. The modern accoutrements make it easier to live with, but at the end of the day, it’s still a Mini. A proper Mini.

RoryMini

5 thoughts on “A Mini Adventure – keeping it real with the original”

  1. The less said about our trip to Bournemouth in my old Austin Maxi 1750 in 1989 is probably best mate LOL still fond memories though

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  2. I like your post Simon. Congrats.
    I found your site looking for some help, and maybe you can help me.
    I would like to cut and install a fabric sunroof like yours, and it is quite hard to get one from another car that fits on Mini, to spend only a few coins as you can undestand. So i got one from Corsa C, and the dimensions are 1140×870 (milimeters). Can you please check your sunroof dimensions to check whether this one is ok for me?
    Many thanks.

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    1. Thanks Ricardo!
      It’s pretty dark right now, but I’ll measure the sunroof for you tomorrow if I get a chance. It’s a very complicated thing though, what with the necessary frame, and the mounting for the motor. I’ll give you as many dimensions as I can without taking the roof apart, but you might actually find it easier to scour eBay for a Mini with a sunroof that’s breaking for parts, then you can weld in the complete roof panel.

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