by Tom Yates
2002 Mini Cooper (3/31/2002)
It was early on the first day of press days at the 2002 North American International Auto Show and I wasn’t wandering the displays or rushing to one of the 15 press conferences scheduled for the day. The New Mini was at this year’s show and I wanted to see it.
This was more than professional curiosity. Granted I’d love to sell some articles on the car, but this was different. It was a mission. I was more than a journalist checking on a story owner — I was a former Mini owner.
No, “owner” isn’t right. You don’t own a Mini. Like a cat it owns you, and trains you to its satisfaction. I was a former Mini addict looking for a fresh fix of pure Mini. And that fix was nearby.
Over a period of years I owned 13 Minis, from my original purchased-new 1966 Austin-Cooper S with the “big” 1275-cc engine to a well-worn 850 that burned only slightly less oil that gasoline. During many of those years Minis weren’t only fun or hobby cars for Ellen and I, they were our only form of transportation. If a Mini wasn’t running, we didn’t go anyplace. The backup was the Mini I was working on at the time. Not that working on a Mini was a problem: I could pull a Mini in my garage and have the engine sitting on the floor in one and a half hours. If someone was helping it took two hours.
The span of time I owned Minis was broken by several years of non-Mini ownership. My first was the above-mentioned 1275. The last I saw of my final few Minis, more than ten long years ago, they were on a roll-back transporter being trailed by a ¾-ton van filled virtually to overflowing with engines, transmissions, nuts, bolts and boxes and boxes of Mini parts. There was a lump in my throat as the disappeared down the street.
When I first met Ellen, I was driving an early 1960s Ford. I made a date with her and showed up in my other car, a Mini, the (in our minds) legendary 1275 Cooper S. For Ellen it was love at first sight, a love that has not only lasted, but has grown over the years. Over time she developed affection for me, too. But she still sighs with regret when she sees a Mini.
Now the Mini might be coming back. Maybe our youth would be rekindled. I was skeptical but willing to keep an open mind. I stepped around the Porsche display and there it was. Not it, them! A handful of shiny new Minis. My pulse rate increased. My mouth felt cottony. I looked. They were definitely Minis, even New Minis. The same stubby shape with a wheel at each corner, same snub hood, same flat trunk. But they were different: stronger looking, like maybe they’d been taking moderate doses of steroids. Not enough to overdo it, but enough to bulk up.
As I moved closer I could see it wasn’t exactly an illusion. The New Mini is bigger than the old Mini. Longer, wider, taller, but so well proportioned it looks like a regular Mini, only a little bigger. Circling it I saw bumpers, bumpers that would even withstand a five-mph impact. The original Mini had “chrome trim pieces” instead of bumpers. They were only the politest of nods to body protection.
It looks like the old Mini, at first glance. Closer inspection reveals differences. The seams are butt joints, not the folded up, spot welded seams on the old Mini. Something is odd about the New Mini’s exterior look. More than the “bigger-ness”. It finally hits me. The original Mini had 10-inch wheels and tires, while the Cooper S came with Dunlop SP-41s. The New Mini has monstrous wheels, pizza-dish size 15- and 16-inchers. This car is going to stick even better than the original.
I had to look under the hood — sorry, bonnet. When I opened it I was temporarily lost. There was the traditional “east-west” engine layout. But there was no radiator in the left fender well. I looked at the front of the engine; no distributor to get flooded out by a large puddle or heavy rain. Leaning over I checked the rear of the engine. No SU carburetors. The head was even a crossflow type. This may be the New Mini but it borders on blasphemy for a true Mini owner. I looked closer. The New Mini’s engine is not only an OHC, fuel injected, four-valve unit, it even faces the in opposite direction from the original. I was beginning to suffer technology overload. I retreated from the engine to the hopefully less advanced interior.
Settling inside I'm stunned to find not only roll-down windows, but power windows, light years ahead of the original Mini’s sliding windows. The commodious door storage pockets were gone, replaced by window motors, door locking assemblies, side-guard beams and radio speakers. Radio speakers? The center speedometer is still there, but different from the original. It’s larger and easy to read with just a flick of your eyes. And the gauges are actual gauges. In the original Mini, even the Cooper “S” you had a speedometer, fuel gauge and temperature gauge. All other engine information was covered by red alternator and oil pressure warning lights. No tachometer, no voltmeter. The New Mini has all the normal gauges. This could lead to information overload.
The shift lever is immediately to your right, and falls nicely to hand. The throws are short and sharp, nothing like the infinite length throws of the “willow stick” shifter of the standard Mini or the shorter throws of the extended shifter on the Cooper S. Air conditioning, AM/FM radio with CD player, power windows, power mirrors, airbags front and side. Is this a Mini or a damn Camry?
Still, with all the accessories, all the comfort, all the un-Mininess of it, the New Mini still feels like the old Mini. There’s still the “stuffed into a sardine can” feel, but it’s a comfortable feel now. The car is low, but now your tender parts are more than eight inches off the ground.
Unfortunately it’s impossible for me to drive the Mini, as tempting as it is to try and hotwire it right there on the show floor. But there will be models available for test drives. Ere long I may be able to get my hands on one and discover if it’s as good as the original. It has the looks, but does it have the performance. Will it snarl, growl and spin its front tires when I launch from a stop sign or traffic light? Will I leave amazed faces in my wake as I zip down the road or roar down the interstate? The proof is in the pudding, and this is one pudding I’m dying to try.