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Tuning: Tweaking the MINI

By Conor Twomey

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2005 MINI Cooper S Convertible by TCC Team (9/6/2004)
You have to put the top down. It says so right here.

Classic Mini Cooper SHave a guess what the very first tuned “sport compact” was. Honda Civic, you say? Good guess, but no. Nissan 240Z? Nice try but try again. Toyota ’s original Celica, perhaps? Not even close. The first compact to get the proper tuner treatment was, in fact, the original Mini Cooper, more than forty years ago. You couldn’t get any more compact than the ten-foot long Mini and you couldn’t get better sport credentials than John Cooper Garages. Cooper was a big name Formula One at the time — World Champions in 1959 and 1960 — and used a tuned version of the Mini engine in some of his other race cars. When F1 started to get too expensive and Cooper decided to go rallying instead, the Mini’s excellent handling and John Cooper’s knowledge of the engine made it a natural choice. The Austin Mini Cooper first turned a 10-inch wheel in 1961 — and with that the pocket rocket was born.

There were a number of Cooper models you could buy but the full-on John Cooper ‘Works’ was by far the best. The full racing package included a re-bored 1275-cc engine, free-flow cylinder head, brake boosters with optional disc brakes, twin gas tanks, and rear-mounted battery for better weight distribution and balance. Power jumped to 91 hp — not a lot by today’s standards but enough to give the 1250-lb Mini four consecutive Monte Carlo rally wins from 1964 through 1967 (though disqualified in ’66 on a technicality).

Mini Coopers, recognizable by their distinctive white roof and wheels, also became known for their supercar-slaying agility on the road and were driven by many celebrities including The Beatles, Peter Sellers, Graham Hill, and even Enzo Ferrari himself. Naturally, these celebrity drivers wanted their Cooper to be different from everyone else’s which is how companies like Radford and Wood & Pickett came to offer aftermarket electric windows and leather seats. Even when the Cooper model was dropped from British Leyland’s lineup in the Seventies, the John Cooper tuning kits continued selling well, prompting Rover (as BL later became known) to reinstate the model in 1990. Small wonder, then, BWM turned to John Cooper Works to be its factory-backed tuner when it took over of the new MINI project in the mid-nineties.

Do it yourself

Modifying your new MINI is pretty straightforward if you stick to JCW parts. By adding a new cylinder head and exhaust system (and possibly an aftermarket induction kit like K&N’s Typhoon system), you should be able to boost the standard Cooper’s power from 113 hp to 130 hp without difficulty. All the parts are installed and backed by your local MINI dealer making it a risk-free endeavour but considering the cost you might be better off just buying the faster and sharper 168-hp Cooper S in the first place. The supercharged Cooper S is one of the most tunable cars on the market today, which makes it a great choice for anyone looking for compact kicks. The John Cooper Works ‘S’ kit upgrades the Eaton supercharger, recalibrates the engine electronics, swaps out the cylinder head and exhaust system and adds a free-flow induction kit, boosting power to around 210 hp which quite a lot for a small, light car like the MINI Cooper S. Zero to 60 mph drops to just 6.6 seconds and top speed is somewhere beyond 140 mph.

We drove a full JCW MINI Cooper S in California recently and the difference is remarkable. It accelerates with such urgency it surprises muscle cars and scampers through traffic in a way that particularly irritates SUV drivers for some reason. Even on steep, mountainous roads above Santa Barbara , the MINI pulled strongly from low revs and never felt out of breath thanks to its improved low-range responsiveness and excellent six-speed ZF gearbox. Other John Cooper Works options include bucket seats, various pieces of trim and, of course, 18” wheels. The big rims look great and dial in some extra grip but be aware that they make the MINI restless and noisy on the highway. The only down side of the JCW kit is the $5000 cost but at least the whole car is covered under warranty if something goes pop.

Off-brand stuff

There are plenty of other parts available if you’re not interested in the JCW stuff. Turner Motorsports in Massachusetts, better known for their work with performance BMWs, offer a range of top-notch components like Zimmerman, Brembo, Stop Tech, and AP racing brake systems, Quaife torque-sensing differentials, Bilstein and H&R suspension systems and Supersprint headers, cats and mufflers. They also sell TMS software/pulley packages for the Cooper S, boosting power to close to 208 hp by simply adding a new supercharger belt and pulley, a set of special Bosch spark plugs and custom Conforti software (via a plug-in Shark Injector unit). At $600 plus installation, it’s a very inexpensive way to generate a lot of extra horsepower. Borla and Remus both do tasty cat-back exhaust systems for just $750, which means you should be able to get close to 200 hp at the wheels for less than two grand installed! If that’s not extreme enough for you Minimania in California offers a high-quality Stage III tuning packages that includes the company’s high-flow ported head, lightweight camshaft, complete Borla exhaust system, remapped ECU, supercharger pulley kit, iridium spark plugs, and throttle-body upgrade for around $5000 plus installation. Power increases to a mind-warping 240-250 hp; and if that’s still not crazy enough, there’s always their M7 Venom Nitrous Oxide kit for the ultimate in straight-line acceleration. Brief bursts beyond 300 hp should be possible, but at this point you might want to get a performance clutch, too, all of which should lighten your pocket by another $2500-$3000.

2002 MINI Cooper STuning your car is about standing out from the crowd, too, and it’s here the MINI struggles. Its design is so detailed to begin with that poorly–chosen changes can upset the looks and cheapen the car. An interesting alternative could be to find yourself an original Mini Cooper, which Rover continued to make in right-hand-drive right up until 2001, and tune it out on the cheap. The Cooper factory ( actually sells original used cars, complete with the 90 hp ‘S’ tuning kits, meaning you could be screaming around in a classic, low-mileage MINI for less than the price of a stock new-model Cooper. More Web trawling will find even cheaper left-hand-drive European Minis or you could talk to import specialists Wallace Environmental Test Lab on Wirtcrest about getting a car imported. If all that’s too much hassle then, again, there’s always Minimania in California . You’ll find lots of ads for old Minis and the parts needed to make them fly on their Web site. Even eBay turned up a few classic Minis, including one imported ’79 Mini, rebuilt in ’96 with a tuned MG Turbo engine, full exhaust system, Spax adjustable shock absorbers, upgraded brakes and 13-inch Revolution wheels. The classic Mini is great way to stand out and go fast on the cheap, but my recommendation is to upgrade the wheels, tires, and brakes before you tweak the engine and install a roll cage and racing seats — safety regulations weren’t very demanding back in 1959.

Or simply get yourself a new Cooper S and start tuning. It might be forty years since its predecessor invented the tuned compact concept, but it’s still amongst the very best there is.

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