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2004 Mini Cooper: Mountain Dance

Matthew PhenixwritersMartyn Goddardphotographers

It's been forty-one years since a brigade of private and works Minis first charged through this part of the world, conquering the impossibly grueling Coupe des Alpes Rally and claiming a spot in the hearts and garages of automotive enthusiasts in England and beyond for generations to come. From where we sit, hustling over one-and-a-half-lane country roads and puttering through centuries-old villages, it's hard to imagine anything's changed in those four decades.

We're here to run a quartet of Minis-three new and one vintage-through a small portion of the original Alpine Rally, which abused cars, drivers, and navigators for some 2400 miles in three segments, including two dozen special stages on roads open to the public, eight harrowing hill-climbs over mountain passes, and a brutal seventeen-lap stint on the Monza road-race circuit in Italy. Easily the most picturesque of all international road competitions, the Coupe des Alpes also proved a vengeful beast. Of the eighty-seven cars that departed the rally's start/finish in the seaside town of Marseille on a Thursday evening in June 1963, only twenty-four would make it back on the following Tuesday morning. When the dust settled, the diminutive Mini, a newcomer to such competition, had made a memorable showing, winning the touring-car category, the women's Coupe des Dames category, and the coveted team prize.

Our trio of new Minis includes a standard Cooper with a five-speed manual gearbox, another equipped with a paddle-controlled continuously variable transmission, and a third with the John Cooper Works package, which employs a new cylinder head, exhaust system, and engine-management software to nudge the normally aspirated in-line four's output from 114 to 124 horsepower and its torque from 110 to 114 pound-feet. (The Cooper kit is a Europe-only option, but a version of the dealer-installed package for the Cooper S is available in the States; it bumps the supercharged engine's horsepower from 163 to an even 200.) The old Mini in our group is a magnificent 1991 model, modified to Group N rallying standards with a full roll cage, fire-suppression kit, and racing seats with five-point harnesses. From the outside, however, aside from its flared wheel arches and twelve-inch gold-toned alloys wearing V-rated Yokohama Advan rubber, our little red '91 is a dead ringer for the Mini's inaugural 1959 model.

From the Paris-like hurly-burly of ancient Aix-en-Provence, just to the north of Marseille, we launch out into the countryside for a two-day excursion up and over the French Alps, meandering 500 miles through the mountains before nosing south and rolling into the glam capital of the Riviera, Nice. The highlights of the trip are, unquestionably, the conquest of two of the passes employed for the original Coupe des Alpes's preuves, or high-speed hill-climbs: the 4962-foot Col d'Allos and the 5129-foot Col de la Cayolle.

The whole of France is exquisite, but no place in the country captures the imagination quite like the incomparable French Alps, a region that stretches from the Mediterranean coast north to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. From an enthusiast driver's standpoint, this is nothing short of heaven on earth. The asphalt is smooth and tenacious, and one gets the impression that the road's creators determined its course by chasing a butterfly. Turns, twists, and dips are incessant and unpredictable. A distant cacophony of copper bells on a herd of Alpine cattle, far up over the ridge, beckons through the thin air like a siren call. Switch-backs squiggle up the mountainside with a playfulness that belies the grave consequences of a misplaced tire. It's a free-form roller coaster, and the Mini was born to ride it.

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.

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.

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.