Mountain Dance with the 2004 Mini Cooper

Matthew Phenix
Martyn Goddard
Distant Overhead Views

Old Mini and new are simply sublime out here. As they did in 1963, they are ready and willing to shame cars of exponential value and power on roads like this. As teams in that '63 rally discovered-fielding big cars, including a Citron DS, a 3.8 Jaguar, and even a V-8-powered Ford Falcon from America-long legs, too much power, too much mass, and too liberal dimensions are liabilities on Alpine roads. The Mini's beefy suspension setup and quick steering, abetted by nearly equal track and wheelbase dimensions, give it a kind of Jack Russell terrier willingness to romp.

One after another, we skip through movie-set hamlets that dot the Provenal landscape. Native slate and tile roofs rise from the lolling yellow grasslands like geologic formations, topping walls of timber and stone wherein wine has flowed and bread has baked for eons. There is no suburban sprawl here, no Stop & Shops or Sam's Clubs; there is no squandering of space at all. There seems to be no more expenditure of resources than is required to live well. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Mini-born of a similar philosophy-has a certain celebrity status here. The cars prove to be a remarkable social lubricant, pulling locals out of cafs and boulangeries for a closer look and a broken English question or two. We, in turn, offer a broken French answer or two and savor a moment of Franco-American goodwill, brokered by a foursome of charismatic Brits.

Distant Passenger Side Views

As good as the modern Mini is on its own, you really appreciate the brilliance of it only when it steps out with the car that is its bug-eyed inspiration. The sight is a rare and indelible treat for an American-considering the scarcity of old Minis in the States-and one that fixes the brand's mystique in ways no amount of clever advertising can.

When you drive the original back-to-back with a 2004 model, you realize, first of all, just how far the craft of automaking has come in forty-five years, in terms of occupant protection, level of equipment, and suppression of noise, vibration, and harshness. But you realize something else, too, something more surprising. Heated seats and xenon headlamps are all well and good, but it's the things that make a car a car-how it goes, how it stops, and how it turns-that truly define a vehicle. And by that standard, the BMW-engineered iteration holds remarkably true to the car engineered by Sir Alec Issigonis. In an age when retro too often suggests nothing more than fake scoops or ovoid headlamps, the modern Mini stands apart. It embraces not merely the delightful appearance of its forebear but its soul as well.

Front View

As our second and final day eases to a close and we roll toward Nice and the sapphire Cte d'Azur with the red '91 in the lead, the two-cylinder charm of Alpine France gives way to the twelve-cylinder hum of the Riviera. Mercedes SLs and Ferrari 456s supplant Citron 2CVs, but the Mini's magnetism endures. This cheeky urban runabout turned international motorsport sensation possesses the remarkable ability to bridge social gaps, enchanting leisure class and working class alike. It looks as compelling parked in front of a dilapidated farmhouse as it does in front of the belle epoque hotels of the Promenade des Anglais. Success is a tremendous aphrodisiac, and the Mini has known its share of successes in this pretty corner of the world. The new car basks in the glow of the old's triumphs, and the old car sees its legend grow in the radiance of the new.

That, we would say, is retro done right.

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