In a world where things move on in the tiniest of increments - a moderate improvement in fuel consumption here, a more easily adjustable seat there - how in the name of all that's holy did Alec Issigonis and his team manage to avoid little fairy steps and take one massive leap with the original Mini in 1959?

It still takes your breath away. It is absolutely tiny. Standing next to it, your sense of scale is knocked out of kilter - a phone box looks massive, and other cars loom up like whales. And yet inside, there seems to be enough space to seat ten for dinner; the dashboard, with its simple, central dial and straightforward switches sits about 40 feet from the driver. And there's still room in the back for two passengers.

How? I know they went against the norm and mounted the engine sideways up front with its power going directly to the front wheels. I know all that stuff. I've rebuilt two of them and have seen how neat and simple they are. But an original Mini remains the cutest piece of automotive cuddliness ever created. You want to pet it and stroke it. Sit somewhere with it and just examine it, like a child with a new toy, turning it over in your hands and looking at it.

But it's important to get past all that stuff, because the Cooper S exists in the real world, not a world of fantasy and sentimentality, and it has to work there as well as in the imagination. And it does.

The 1275cc engine first appeared with the MkII Cooper S in 1964 and gives 75bhp. It chunters away and sounds utterly brilliant... I couldn't help my mind wandering a bit as I let it warm through: recalling using a peg to hold the choke lever out on cold mornings and covering the exposed distributor cap with a washing up glove, holes cut in the fingers to let the HT leads through, all the stuff that sits in the memory of anyone who encountered one of these in the past. And the smell, that wonderful, indefinable Mini smell.

But does it work? Yes. Gloriously. With a smile-inducing whine from the transmission, that 75bhp is enough to give a chunky, determined pull straight from the off. If anything, it feels slightly pugnacious; this is a car with ‘small
man syndrome' - and if there's one thing about which I know anything, it's that.

The suspension consists of rubber cones at each corner, making it all-round independent, and it delivers a characterful bounce on the straights that makes it feel eager to get going and a lot like a cartoon character. I tried throwing it into corners in a cartoon way too, and it digs in, grips and hoons round them, daring you to try harder.

Admittedly, this particular Mini was set up using lasers for the suspension and tracking and is pretty much race-ready, but even in straight-from-the-
box form, the four-square lay-out and resulting wide track and short wheelbase means it was always going to corner like the proverbial go-kart.

And the Cooper S isn't just fast in a toytown way; it is properly fast enough to live with today's cut and thrust too. The 0-60mph time might not read well on paper - 10.5secs - but you'll be smiling so much that you'll not miss any extra shove, and anyway, you can always hurl it into a corner and watch modern stuff slither about while you go round like the Mini is sitting on a toy train track.

I could linger forever over the details - the external door hinges, the shape
of the bonnet, the fog lights - because this car gets to you, and you can only walk away from it wanting one. But the most remarkable thing about the Mini
is that it proves we have completely forgotten what ‘cute' really is in a car. Well, here it is. Feast your eyes and want one. I know I do.

 

 

 

[cite:Top Gear 2011]



This feature first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Top Gear magazine