Happy birthday, Mini

It's a timeless classic and Mini fans are marking its 45-year heritage in style, says James Ruppert

Apart from putting a silly smirk on your face, making you deaf and leaking oil all over your drive, the Mini is also pretty good at something else: anniversaries.

Apart from putting a silly smirk on your face, making you deaf and leaking oil all over your drive, the Mini is also pretty good at something else: anniversaries.

Mini's first "anniversary" came in 1979, when it celebrated twenty years of production with the launch of the 1100 Special, a version of the Mini with silver/rose metallic paintwork, shaded body stripes, bigger engine and tartan seats. After that, anniversary celebrations followed with regularity, with the less imaginatively named Mini 25 in 1984, Mini 30 in 1989, Mini 35 in 1994 and finally the Mini 1.3 40 LE in 1999.

This year marks the car's 45th birthday and it is probably a blessing that Rover stopped production.

One of the distinguishing features of these landmarks has been just how indistinguishable these anniversary models were. Beneath the paint jobs and bolt-on goodies was pretty much what the world first saw in 1959. Clearly, the British Motor Company got it right first time and neither British Leyland or Rover spoiled it much, apart from some crass special editions. BMW's tenure in charge of the Mini marque is another story.

Undoubtedly Mini has cornered the market in anniversaries. The ever reliable Toyota Corolla doesn't celebrate its birthdays with such pomp, though this is probably because throughout its 38-year existence - apart from looking terminally dull - its only claim to fame has been not breaking down.

The Mini has much more to be proud of, not least ts successes at Monte Carlo in 1964, when Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon won the rally. Their triumph is marked by a run to Monte Carlo this autumn.

But it is Mini's 45th birthday that has created the most activity this year. Last weekend was the International Mini 45 meet at Silverstone, and the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in Hampshire is celebrating Mini's 45th with a special exhibition of Minis.

On display areMini-shaped icons such as the 1959 Austin Se7en and the sport Cooper S, as well as the more unusual Mini incarnations- the 1964 Austin Mini AA Van and the 1969 Duckhams Q Car, which has a three-metre high oil can built on Mini underpinnings to advertise a lubricating oil called New Formula Q. The exhibition also features a Mini in the shape of an orange - commissioned by Outspan. There is also an ERA Turbo from 1990 which was the fastest production Mini built.

The inclusion in the exhibition of BMW's MINI, which is almost twice the size and weight of the original, is less appropriate. The MINI is nothing more than a small BMW and bears as much relation to the original Mini as does a Toyota Corolla. BMW may own the MINI brand but it doesn't own the heritage and it should not gatecrash the 45th party - which is why BMW is not marking the anniversary in any way.

BMW has no intention of celebrating prehistoric technology because they would rather you bought their state of the art MINI. Yet, despite its global success - helped by a clever marketing campaign, - and the fact that it is great to drive, I find it difficult to warm to what is essentially a pastiche of the original. The website www.ihatethebmwmini.com has an anti-MINI manifesto that I can certainly subscribe to.

Nonetheless, there were times that the old Mini was rubbish. For a start Minis always leaked oil. Wherever I've lived my Mini has left its inky mark - but then incontinence may be just about tolerable in a 45-year-old car. Probably the most shocking thing was the Brummie build quality, which unbelievably, managed to deteriorate.

By the 1990s most manufacturers had conquered rust, but the Mini remained a 1950s throwback - all bubbling paint and flaky sills. Minis built until the mid-1990s can be so rotten they have to be scrapped. Only the deeply stupid overlooked the fact that the revived Cooper was yet another tarted-up special edition, even if it was marginally more powerful than a bog-standard Mayfair. After 1996 though, a 1.3I and a Cooper 1.3I were much the same, except that the Cooper was slower, especially when buyers ordered the sport pack - which meant fat tyres, alloys and super wide arches, with the turning circle of a Land Rover.

However, the Mini remains a unique driving experience. As good as the new MINI is to drive you still feel isolated and numb, whereas it feels as if you become part of the old car. The noise and the bone-jarring ride are all part of the appeal. And of course, there is the Mini legend: the wins at Monte Carlo, the starring role in The Italian Job, and the legion of celebrity owners from John Lennon to Peter Sellers.

Remember it's only five years to go before the Golden Anniversary. See you in 2009.

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