Mini Cooper S Countryman in Chile

Richard Bremner
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Paul Harmer

A pretrip Internet search had turned up some survivors, but Chile is a large country and far from littered with these plastic relics. "Mini de fibra" is what you must type to find one in the online Chilean classifieds. Most are sorry specimens -- no surprise given their age -- but amazingly, there's one in La Serena, and even though it has an odd vinyl roof whose forward half is suspiciously wavy, it appears to run. Carlos makes the call and attempts to explain why a couple of Brits would want to photograph this ancient used car. Luckily, the Mini's owner is willing to let us take pictures. Carlos, clearly wondering how we will explain our oddball photographic requirements, generously says he'll come along.

Fifteen minutes later, we're hunting down a metallic blue plastic Mini. Antonio Romero's 1973 Mini was his grandfather's, in whose garden it languished for years until Antonio resurrected it. An impressive array of engine-rebuild photos are evidence of the effort, as is a dubious modification to the car's roof. One advantage of fiberglass is that it's easy to cut, and Antonio has done just that with his Mini's lid to produce a sliding sunroof. Clever . . . except that he has robbed it of a significant chunk of its strength, as revealed by a prominent windshield shimmy.

The rest of this car is familiar but strangely different. The fiberglass body does without the Mini's characteristic roof gutters and external flanges; the hood has rounded corners; the wheel arches have more pronounced lips; and the cabin trim differs. But there's no question that this is a Mini, plastic-shelled or not, and it feels like it on the road.

Back in commission, the Countryman, by contrast, feels grown-up and civilized. We've so far found it a capable long-distance device, big enough to play confident high-speed cruiser, small enough to scoot along Chile's tighter tracks. It's fast, too, with 181 turbocharged horsepower untensing as the engine revs.

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