Mini Cabrio

Mini CabrioGiven this is my first experience behind the wheel of a Mini, I thought it appropriate to take a trip down memory lane – or rather a look in the history books – at what made the original Mini an icon, as well as the second most influential car of the century.

The idea for the Mini came about in the time of the 1956 Suez fuel crisis, which sent sales of large vehicles into a slump and in turn saw the rise of the German bubble cars – such as the BMW Isetta. This was much to the disgust of the pukker Pommy manufacturers. Most of all Leonard Lord, the somewhat autocratic head of BMC, who reportedly decreed, “God damn these bloody awful bubble cars. We must drive them off the road by designing a proper miniature car.”

And so Leonard Lord set out a couple design constraints, that included a really small body, with an even smaller engine – however added that a family of four should fit inside there somewhere, hopefully with a bit of luggage.

Leonard commissioned Sir Alec Issigonis for the project. Issigonis was a true visionary when it came to the business of designing cars, calling pure mathematics “the enemy of every truly creative man,” while still thinking of himself as an engineer. Such a challenge was what he lived for and so he exploded into action.

The wheels were smaller than ever seen before, 10 inches to be exact and stuck in the far corners, so they didn’t intrude on cabin space. Sliding windows allowed storage pockets in the hollow doors. The boot lid was hinged at the bottom so that the car could be driven with it open to increase luggage space. The engine was mounted transversely to drive the front wheels with the transmission underneath. All this allowed for passengers to enjoy 80% of the car’s overall volume. Furthermore the Mini was designed as a monocoque shell, with welded seams on the outside. Everything was aimed at making the Mini as simple as possible.

The car was initially manufactured at the Longbridge and Cowley plants in England and later was produced in various other countries including South Africa. Various models also came into being as the Mini’s popularity spread like wild fire.

Most memorable of which being the Mini Cooper and Cooper “S” – sportier versions that were successful as rally cars, winning the Monte Carlo Rally four times. The Mini truly is an icon in the history of motoring.

Then Mini were taken over by the Germans, BMW to be exact, and it seems they made every attempt to make this Mini absolutely nothing like the old one. There are two similarities I can identify. The first is the oversized speedometer that sits in the centre of the dash. Secondly the BMW Mini is still a car that has four wheels. And that’s where it ends.

You see while the old Mini was really small, the new one is about the size of a VW Polo which is considered an adequate car for mom and the kids – so it’s not small. The old Mini had a tiny engine which was economical for it’s time, the new one has a relatively big engine that put plainly isn’t at all economical. The old Mini was cheap to buy and cheaper to run, the new one is priced like a BMW which means you’ll hardly find it in the bargain bin at Shoprite.

Taking all this into account you have to completely ignore the fact that this is called a Mini thus removing all connotations of this iconic name. This is a completely new car from BMW (well newer after the facelift but who’s counting). Take off those rose tinted glasses and see it for what it really is – which is rubbish.

First thing I noticed when I hopped into the new Mini was the distinctly cheap looking switch gear on the centre consol. All the buttons for the air con etc. look like they were manufactured along side toys found in a lucky-dip packet. And why on earth does the front loading CD player stick so far out of the dash? It’s like they rammed a side plate half way into the consol.

Then I figure that BMW did all it’s road testing during German winters, or rather in a place where there is no sun, or any form of light at all for that matter. The massive speedometer, that looks about as ungainly as Big Ben might if you crammed it inside an egg shell, reflects straight into your eyes.

Second thing that struck me is how little space there appears to be in the cabin. While occupants in the original Mini may have enjoyed 80% of the body space, I think you’ll be lucky to enjoy 10% in the convertible. Passengers in the back will especially love the way the mountings for the roof mechanism leave so little space in the side wall that the speakers jut out and poke them in the ribs.

Boot space is even more abysmal. Once again thanks to the roof mechanism, along with the fold-up wind-deflector, there isn’t even space for a regular size gym bag – let alone millions of shopping bags from Sandton City (where no doubt 90% of convertible Mini’s spend their days)

Driving is not pleasurable either. I can’t imagine it was all that much fun in the original, however that was so cheap that it didn’t matter if it was horrible to drive – wasn’t the point. However when you’re paying R 272 500 you don’t expect everything in the cabin to rattle so much and for road noise to be quite so intrusive. At least road handling is pretty good, albeit expected given the car’s go-kart-like dynamics.

Furthermore as a male you cannot own, or even drive a convertible Mini. The number of disapproving glares I received from basically every guy that saw me behind the wheel was simply embarrassing. I hardly drove the car with the top down for fear of having insults, and probably hard objects, hurled my way in traffic.

If you’re a girl though, my word how things change. Every 17 year old girl on the brink of obtaining a driving license (scary I know) yearns to own a convertible Mini – a fact my sister and her friends were all to keen to point out to me and their respective fathers. So I guess my rants might well fall of deaf ears when it comes to BMW’s target market. Oh well…

Price: R 272 500
Engine: 1.6 litre, 4 cylinder petrol
Power: 88 kW
Torque: 160 Nm
Acceleration (0-100 km/h): 9.8
Top speed: 198 km/h
Fuel consumption: 6.1/100km (claimed – as usual, no where near the mark of 7.8)

Verdict – N/A (17 year old girls won’t listen to me anyway)

Miles Downard
Photo Credit: Quickpic
Sources: www.minipassionmini.50megs.com

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