Mini Magical Tour: Exploring ’60s London in the U.K.'s Quintessential Classic Car
A rocking journey in a vintage version of the British city car.
Turn on, tune in, and join us on a magical, not-so-mysterious tour of 1960s London. No, we're not talking about visiting famous tourist sites like Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London. Instead, we'll search out the special places that were at the forefront of swinging '60s culture. And no, we won't travel by open-top double-decker bus. Small is the answer for driving around London; it was in 1960, and it most certainly is in 2019.
When you're talking small, you're talking Mini, of course. The special 1963 Austin Mini we have in our employ, owned by fellow automotive journalist Richard Bremner, is absolutely original—a one-owner car bought new by the lady whose name is on the car's logbook ahead of Bremner's.
As I climb aboard, I'm surprised by the amount of room in the cabin, even in the rear. A quick odometer check reveals the car has covered only 26,000 miles in its 56 years. The Bluemels number plates have been on it from new, as have the Champion spark plug caps. The wiring is as it was when it left the Cowley factory; the same goes for the worn and fraying carpets. The fuel, oil-pressure, and temperature gauges are all original.
The Mini is the perfect conveyance for buzzing the former locations of Chelsea Drugstore, now proudly featuring McDonald's, and Bazaar, now slinging trendy drinks.
I've owned several Minis over the years, but never one as perfect or as old as this. There's a floor-mounted starter switch, sliding side windows, a simple pull cord for a door handle, and a really long shelf flanking the famous trademark speedometer; today the shelf holds my mobile phone, but it would have held cigarettes and refreshments back in the day.
We start our tour on King's Road in Chelsea, at the site of the famous Chelsea Drugstore. Inspired by the Le Drugstore on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, The Chelsea Drugstore was designed by architect Antony Cloughley and designer Colin Golding. The exterior is clad in travertine and brushed steel. It's a McDonald's now, and the Golden Arches bring it into the noughties. But otherwise the facade is the same as it was when the store opened in 1968.
In its heyday, the Chelsea Drugstore was an emporium that contained record shops, coffee bars, and various other outlets. It even had a service called "The Flying Squad," which enabled customers to place an order by telephone and then have their purchases delivered by girls on motorcycles wearing purple cat suits (yes, really). The Drugstore was a setting in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" and was also mentioned in the Kinks song "Did Ya" and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
Just down the road on the corner of King's Road and Markham Square is another fast food chain outlet. Called Joe and The Juice, it serves up smoothies and other right-on beverages. But in the '60s you would have come here to buy clothes from Bazaar, the shop owned and run by fashion icon Mary Quant. Although it's debatable whether Quant actually invented the miniskirt, she certainly gave it its name, inspired in part by her favorite car. People didn't own and drive Minis in London because style leaders like Quant owned them but rather because they fit so well into the city's tight avenues and alleyways—unlike the Bentaygas, Cullinans, and the like that roam Chelsea's streets today.
Back aboard the 850cc-powered Austin, we head off toward the West End. For such a small engine, there's a remarkable amount of torque. It's not difficult to pull away in second gear—a good thing because there's no synchromesh for first. I forget this a couple of times, to the owner's horror as he winces with each graunch. It's an easy car to drive, though; the steering is light and turning circle tight. The latter is what makes the Mini such a perfect city car.
Our next stop is one of London's jewels: The Troubadour. The baroque-style coffee house and live music venue founded in 1954 is still going strong. It's the first place in the U.K. where Bob Dylan performed. Led Zeppelin jammed there, and everyone from Paul Simon to Jimi Hendrix lit up its stage. More recently, the likes of Adele and Ed Sheeran played there early in their careers. But the most wonderful thing about The Troubadour is that it has evolved without becoming overly commercialized. Today you can still eat, drink, and, of course, watch all manner of live acts from across the musical spectrum there.
Every enthusiast of music culture needs to make a pilgrimage to The Troubadour. From there, it's on to Savile Row, where the Beatles played their final live concert.
The traffic gets thicker as we head toward the Mayfair commercial district. Our first destination is the street made famous the world over for its tailoring: Savile Row. My dad worked at No. 20 Savile Row in the '50s and '60s as a sales representative for a textile mill in Devon. Born in 1915, he was one of London's last bowler hat-donning, rolled umbrella-carrying, pinstripe suit-wearing businessmen.
He'd have no doubt stood out back then, and it's not unlikely he would have been a figure of some amusement to the occupants of 3 Savile Row a few doors down had they bumped into him. For No. 3 was the headquarters of Apple Corps—the legendary music publishing company of The Beatles. It was on the roof of No. 3 that The Beatles played their last concert on January 30, 1969. Funny, I don't recall Dad mentioning it when he got home from work that night.
Everywhere we go, the Mini attracts an enormous amount of positive attention. If the car made sense for 1960s London, it does doubly so today. We can park it in tiny spaces, open its doors without them being knocked off by passing SUVs, and make our own lanes through the often snarled traffic.
The London Palladium, The Scotch of St. James, Abbey Road, and the Mini guarantee a smile of satisfaction.
From Clifford Street in Mayfair we head north, crossing Regent Street into the famous Soho area. This was the heart of 1950s and '60s bohemia, a mix of coffee bars, drinking clubs, and music venues. Of vice, too, when the gaudy and seedy strip clubs of the 1970s emerged. We cruise past Ronnie Scott's jazz club at 47 Frith Street. It opened over on nearby Gerard Street in 1959 but moved to the current location in 1965. It's still a fantastic night out, and I've seen many great acts there.
We're not allowed to drive along Oxford Street, but at No. 165 is where the famous Marquee Club was founded. By 1964 it had moved to 90 Wardour Street, where it became one of the hottest venues in London. Pink Floyd had a Sunday afternoon residency there in its early years; the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, The Who, and virtually the whole of British rock royalty played at the Marquee Club. Although I was too young to catch the earlier legends, I did see The Clash play there in the late '70s.
Just before we leave Soho, we pass by the famous London Palladium. "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" is playing, which was the first successful musical from the creative fountain of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, back in 1968. But we've stopped by the Palladium because on October 13, 1963, The Beatles headlined the bill on Val Parnell's "Sunday Night at the London Palladium" TV show. Eighteen million people watched that night, a performance that launched The Beatles into Britain's, and soon the world's, collective consciousness.
A few days after the big show, it was a journalist at the "Daily Mirror" tabloid who coined the term "Beatlemania."
Back south of Regent Street and into Mayfair, we pass by the blue plaque on the wall of 23 Upper Brook Street. George Frideric Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in the 18th century, but in the upstairs flat at No. 23 lived another musical genius: Johnny Allen Hendrix—better known as Jimi.
It's tucked away and not easy to find, but off King Street in St. James we find Masons Yard and, in a corner, No. 13, The Scotch of St. James. Still a nightclub after a relaunch in 2012 after 25 years of closure, The Scotch of St. James first opened on July 14, 1965, and swiftly became the go-to venue for swinging London's most swinging occupants.
On September 24, 1966, fresh from his arrival that day at Heathrow airport, a young Hendrix played live for the first time in the U.K. That evening he also met Kathy Etchingham, who became his girlfriend and who set up their flat in Upper Brook Street that we've just visited.
As we press on, it's hot in the Mini, but not uncomfortably so, and the car itself performs flawlessly otherwise. It wasn't designed for sitting in this dense traffic for so long, and despite the temperature gauge's needle doing the wave, the A-Series engine is not overheating. That said, even though we have the heater off on what is a warm day for London, a lot of heat emanates from the hoses that lead to it. Thankfully, the sliding windows let in a good breeze as we slowly roll on.
We have one last place to visit, and it's the best known of all of London's '60s-era cultural landmarks. It is a pedestrian crossing. Yes, the famous one outside Abbey Road Studios as used on the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album cover. If you want to be pedantic and needlessly disappoint the dozens of tourists taking selfies on the crossing and the outside of the famous EMI studios, you could tell them the crossing isn't in the exact same place as it was when the Fab Four were photographed there on August 8, 1969, by Iain Macmillan. But hey, it's close enough.
As we point the Mini toward home after a long day shuttling around London, we know we've only scratched the surface of the city's 1960s cultural landmarks. London is full of them, a city that has been and continues to be a worldwide center of music, culture, food, and entertainment. During our journey, the 1963 Austin Mini proved to be an arguably even more proficient method of transport now than it was in the days and decade-plus after it came out of the factory.