West Sussex, England
John Cooper was an independent racing car manufacturer and team owner who overcame incredible odds to win the Formula 1 Constructors World Championship in 1959 and 1960 with rear-engined cars against formidable opponents like Ferrari, Maserati, and BRM. He was also a longtime friend and business associate of Sir Alec Issigonis, the brilliant engineer who created the original Mini (which was known initially as the Austin Seven). Cooper developed a sporting version of Sir Alec’s groundbreaking, front-wheel-drive car, loaned it his name, and saw the Mini Cooper win the World Rally Championship three times in the 1960s, among numerous competition successes. Even after the original Mini went out of production in 1971, John Cooper kept the Mini Cooper’s spirit alive by producing tuning kits and accessories for old Minis. In 1990, the Mini Cooper was brought back to life by then-parent Rover, and over the ensuing decade, Cooper’s firm manufactured engine and chassis tuning kits for numerous special models of the sporty Cooper S, one of which we drove when we visited John Cooper Works (www.johncooperworks.com) in England, where we also drove the brand-new Mini Cooper S Works, which is reviewed in the June 2003 issue of Automobile Magazine.
The modern Mini Cooper is a Lilliputian compared with almost everything else on American roads, but the original Mini Cooper makes the current car look big. One of the hallmarks of the original car is its tiny tires: Our right-hand-drive test car rode on 175/50R-13 Yokohama A539 rubber, compared with seventeen-inchers on the new car. Aside from that, the cars share the instantly identifiable proportions-flat roof, flat sides, bubble headlights-that have made the Mini famous. Unlike the new car, the original does not have a hatchback; instead, the rear window is fixed, and a bottom-hinged deck lid folds down for access to the modest cargo area. In the tiny cabin, you and your passenger are on even more intimate terms than in the new Mini, and it’s easy to accidentally grab your passenger’s kneecap when you’re reaching for the gearshifter. You hunch over the fixed steering wheel, which, oddly, is canted up and back. Your shoulders are easily six inches above the glass line of the thin doors, which in this particular car are outfitted with smart, drilled-aluminum handles with “John Cooper” engraving. There are clear sight lines, with only the thinnest of A-pillars to block vision, through the small but broad windshield. Peer out the side windows, and your head seemingly is closer to the ground than the running boards of many modern SUVs. Three round gauges-speedo, fuel & temperature, and tach-are set into a flat pod half hidden by the steering wheel, and a flat, upright, machined-aluminum dash spans the cockpit. Our car had a tuned 90-hp engine, up from the 63 horsepower that was stock in the last years of the original Mini, and a four-speed manual transmission. Turn the key and the little sewing machine under the hood comes to life with a rorty bark. The clutch is relatively light, with not much travel, but you have to pay close attention to the shifter to snag the right gear, and reverse (down and to the right) is particularly difficult to engage. Of course, the fact that we’re using our left hand to shift and trying to stay on the correct (left) side of the road doesn’t improve matters. Releasing the clutch, we’re off, and the tuned Mini feels anything but slow. The puny tires and the John Cooper Works sport suspension make for a pretty rough ride, but as soon as you turn a corner, you understand why this car’s handling was such a revolution in its day and why it has commanded such a loyal following for four decades. There’s a bit of body roll, but turn-in is still crisp, precise, and certainly flatter than anything that came out of Detroit in the Sixties or Seventies.
Our drive on the city streets surrounding John Cooper Works in West Sussex, England, was enough to confirm that the steering feel, chuckability, and overall demeanor of the old Mini clearly portend the new car’s: BMW did a great job of transferring the Mini DNA into a modern platform.