- Mini, But Mighty
A road trip is as good a reason as any to rediscover how a little car that could developed a cult following like no other.
Some sexagenarians are distinguished. Some are graceful. Some are even still sexy. But not many are as cute as the Mini. And none can claim to have conceived as many progeny in all stripes, colours and sizes, which the British heritage brand has spawned in the six decades since the very first classic Mini was built in 1959. Our journey to celebrate Mini’s 60th birthday began in Frankfurt where we would drive more than 1,000km to attend the International Mini Meeting (IMM) in the English city of Bristol, where thousands of Mini fans the world over make an annual pilgrimage to celebrate their love for all things Mini.
The very first IMM was started in 1978 by German fans of the classic Mini, and its venue rotates each year before returning to the brand’s British homeland every five years.
Our voyage to the makeshift Mini mecca in south-west England is in the high-performance Mini Clubman John Cooper Works. And as any enthusiast knows, the JCW badge is a guarantee of high-octane fun, ever since BMW acquired the John Cooper Works brand name and engineering resources in 2007.
John Cooper was the legendary race car driver who transformed the classic Mini into a race-winning machine that singlehandedly changed the face of motor racing in the 1960s.
With his father Charles, they founded Cooper Car Company and built their first racing cars in a small garage in Surbiton, England. The single-seat Formula Three racing cars were hugely successful in the 500cc class, thanks to their revolutionary rear engine.
After enjoying considerable success with his own car constructions, John became fascinated with the newly introduced Minis and, intrigued by its potential, envisioned turning it into a champion racer and so he did — with the addition of a more powerful engine, new brakes and sharper steering.
It was a stroke of genius. No one could have predicted that their feisty underdog would defy convention and take the chequered flag against all odds, overtaking opponents with its nimble handling and groundbreaking engine and wheel layout.
By the mid-1960s, the Mini Cooper was a globally renowned marque, winning almost every competition including the Formula One World Championship and World Constructors’ Championship time and again.
Today, the Mini’s JCW models are veritable powerhouses that continue to invoke the legacy and indomitable spirit of its namesake with the same high-performance DNA and racing-grade tuning, a potent combination of precision handling and exhilarating race feel at the wheel.
With great power comes great responsiveness, and power can be seductive. Our Clubman moves confidently to a soundtrack of deep, throaty growls for which the JCW is known. One might even consider the low rasp emanating from its 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder TwinPower Turbo engine sexy. But that’s probably as far as JCW’s sensuality goes.
She seduces more with her sporty profile and powerful performance led by 231 of horsepower while the 8-speed Steptronic automatic transmission delivers a smoother and sportier drive — it lets you choose between the ease of automatic or the thrill of manual shifting.
Then there’s the unmatched agility. We flick on Sport mode for sharper steering and more agile handling and the all-wheel drive rockets across the Autobahn towards The Hague on the western coast of The Netherlands, where we drive onto an overnight ferry bound for Bristol.
The sun is setting as our cars queue to embark the vessel and the temptation to exit our vehicle to photograph ours — decked in melting silver with chilli- red racing stripes, against the fiery sky — is impossible to resist. Like the rest of the Mini models, the Clubman cuts a cute figure. But its propensity to get your heart racing just a little more comes by way of an aerodynamic front bumper with track-style grille, air scoop in the bonnet and lower air intakes.
The Clubman is deceptively spacious considering its compactness. We pack our vehicle neatly onto the ferry and, lo and behold, our full-sized luggage emerges easily from the split doors at the back.
We arrive at the English port city of Bristol at the crack of dawn, drive off the ferry and make our way to De Vere Tortworth Court hotel, a Tudor-style historic estate that once hosted Winston Churchill and King Edward VII; it’s our base from which to visit the IMM over the weekend.
While on the roads that morning, a convoy bookended by the first classic Mini ever built and the Mini 60 Years Edition model in British racing green, with Minis from each production year ending in between, had simultaneously departed the Mini Plant Oxford enroute to the IMM grounds.
Festive excitement filled the air as we spotted other Minis with their distinctive personalities brightening up Bristol’s roads. Alas, we were not fortunate enough to witness the parade en voyage.
Nonetheless, the IMM proved to be the most kaleidoscopic display of Minis imaginable, with eye-catching bodywork designed to reflect their owners’ individuality, even eccentricity.
There were striped Minis, graffiti- sprayed Minis and Minis in every shade under the sun. There were Mini Minors, Morris Minis and modified Minis from days of yore alongside new- generation models like the JCW. It was colourful, fun and guaranteed to put a smile on your face at every turn.
The sheer variety of incarnations was astounding. As is the piety of Mini devotees, many had driven hundreds and even thousands of kilometres from neighbouring regions, from as far as Scotland to the campgrounds, which was organised by country, with each flying their nation’s flag high.
Some had even shipped their beloved Minis over to show them off at the annual celebration. We spotted a Hong Kong “delegation” and met a Singaporean — he had travelled to Bristol just for the event — who regaled us with tales of how he once drove his classic Mini from Singapore to China on an epic roadtrip.
The IMM is a bit of a misnomer, though; less meeting and more festival in vibe. It was a smorgasbord of fun with carnival rides and activities, live music performances, food kiosks and cute merch to tote home. So swept up in the Mini-loving mood, I even dropped £10 ($18) for a raffle to win a Mini, entirely rebuilt during the three-day festival.
Nevermind that I didn’t get to drive home that Mini. I returned with a new appreciation of how this little car that could has wiggled its way into the hearts of Mini enthusiasts the world over and cultivated a cult following like no other.
Is it the petiteness? Is it the iconic design that makes the Mini the perfect canvas for its owners to play artist? Is it because it’s been so lovingly embraced by both big and small screens in Bean and The Italian Job? Is it because everything about the Mini and its branding just screams fun?
Whatever the reason, John Cooper would be proud.
This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of A.