When I was about 11 years old, the idea of owning and driving a Mini never made its way onto my radar. Flicking through the classifieds, my eyes would be drawn more to the likes of Valiants and Kingswoods, hell, even the odd Celica or two, but never a Mini. So, how was it that, in the not so distant future, I would find myself entangled in a four-year relationship with one?
Much like when any new relationship forms, I had no idea of the gravitas that would soon follow. From a car that originally only needed a tidy-up and an interior, to that in dire need of a full ground-up restoration, it’s safe to say that things went from 0–100 really quick. (Unlike the Mini itself, but more on that later.)
While I could go into great detail of the gruelling two years of owning several boxes of parts for a 1973 Mini as opposed to a 1973 Mini itself, and all the dead rat finding, lock-tab forgetting, junkyard foraging fun that went along with it, I’m not going to. Simply because, beyond that small highlight reel, the rest of the tale is quite boring and irrelevant to what I believe fits into the spirit of an owner review. Usually drawing focus more towards the subject of drivability, fuel consumption and whether or not my dog liked it (he didn’t).
So with that in mind, let’s press on.
What originally drove me to drive a classic Mini was a combination of a few things. Initially, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some influence from popular culture. From big-name owners like The Beatles, Steve McQueen, Enzo Ferrari and James Hunt, to starring roles in films like The Italian Job and the Mr Bean series, the Mini’s influence was hard to ignore. Next was the fact that nearly everybody I had spoken to over the age of, maybe, 30 had an experience either owning or driving one.
Ultimately, the idea of driving a classic Mini just grew on me. The mixture of pedigree, style and go-kart-like qualities almost became absolute necessities that were definitely cemented when Top Gear’s own Jeremy Clarkson exclaimed in an interview with singer Will Young that “it [the Mini] is the right place to start … Everyone should start with a Mini".
When the time came to actually buy one, though uncommon, I managed to find a few cars local to me to choose from. Despite the fact that this was before the price of chrome-bumpered cars skyrocketed, I was still restricted to a Clubman due to the collectability of the more renowned round-nose models.
In the end, I wound up looking at a total of three cars, including a 1978 Mini advertised through an eBay auction that I tried to buy after going to see it in the flesh, though I was unsuccessful as the owner wanted to persist with the auction (I offered him more than the car ended up selling for anyway, so I don’t feel too bad).
The next car in my sights was a 1974 Clubman riddled with rust, and lastly, a lime green 1973 Clubman S that had been sitting in a barn for the better part of 25 years. This particular car had a rust-free shell, front disc brakes, a running 1100cc motor, and appeared to be a pretty straight car beyond a bit of surface rust, its broken door handles and an absence of an interior.
Once I got the car home and started dissecting my new toy, it quickly became apparent that this car needed a lot more love than previously expected, and it would need more hard work and persistence than I ever imagined. At the end of what turned out to be a two-year rebuild, though, sitting in the garage was something that I never imagined possible. Something I, as well as my Dad and many friends lending spanners along the way, had built.
My Mini was built pretty true to stock beyond some driving lights, extractors and a bigger carburettor, so I believe that what I could say about my Mini could apply to many out there today. Starting off with the features, the Mini was a pretty basic car when it came out, even for 1973 standards. It had a heater, and that’s about it. For my own sanity, I installed a head unit, as well as some gauges, but beyond that there isn’t really anything on the inside of this car to write home about. However, what it lacks in features, it makes up for in sheer driving pleasure.
This brings me on to, first and foremost, the handling. Though I have not driven many small cars, I can say with full confidence that the experience behind the wheel of the Mini could be incomparable. The combination of the small wheelbase and low centre of gravity makes this little thing grip to the road like nothing else, giving the driver confidence that the car can take anything thrown at it with ease.
Living in the foothills of Adelaide was, I believe, the best place to own a Mini. Every day being like the start of a new hill climb. The phrase 'go-kart' has been mentioned before and I’ll mention it again, because it’s the closest thing I can compare it to. The acceleration and power that the 1100cc motor produces is surprisingly good. Helped perhaps by the fact that the total weight of the car is only in the ballpark of 600 kilos, the Mini pulls relatively hard. I would not second-guess its ability to get me out of any tight situation that may arise. What sets this car apart the most, though, is honestly just how fun it is.
The Mini, above everything else, is a fun car to drive. Even if, in hindsight, the 45bhp A-series engine isn’t really taking you anywhere at ground-breaking speeds. Although, sitting in such a small car, only maybe 20cm from the asphalt, you sure do feel like it is. My only real criticism about the driving experience is the gear shifter, which has a large amount of free play, even when in gear. This is quite a nitpick, though.
The last point, and I would argue quite an important one when it comes to owning a car, is convenience. Stating the obvious for a second, the Mini is a small car. However, it does have ample room for storage under all four seats, in the doors, and in the rear quarter panel areas. Not to mention a boot, which is definitely big enough for a bag or two.
The seating arrangement is also adequate for a driver and three passengers, although I would advise against going on any long road trips for both comfort and fuel capacity's sake. While some Minis had the advantage of a 35L tank, unfortunately mine was fitted with the standard 25L tank, which made going great distances a little annoying.
Though my personal experience with the Mini has been relegated to a memory and a licence plate above my bed, I do think about it often. Funnily enough, it only recently occurred to me as to what made it so great beyond its driving ability. This is what I’ve come up with...
I’ve recently begun looking at buying an E36 BMW (bear with me). My main deterrent from doing so is that I don’t want the majority of people thinking I’m a dick who doesn’t indicate. My current car, a Commodore, has the tendency to come off as a bit of a bogan chariot. After mulling this small thought over in my head, I came to the conclusion that, ultimately, whatever car you may drive brings with it negative connotations and people who will dislike your car based on a preconceived idea.
Whether it’s BMWs being paired with assholes, Holdens and bogans, Skylines and hoons, MX-5s and hairdressers, or WRXs and vaping, chances are, if it’s on the road, it brings with it a stereotype. The Mini, on the other hand, could be one of only a handful of cars that carry no baggage (both metaphorically and literally because it doesn’t fit) or preconceived idea about its driver. Anyone and everyone can drive a Mini.
That’s what makes it, I think, so respected and loved by both enthusiasts and the general public alike. More than anything, the Mini is a very special little car. Damn, now I miss mine.