Mini Cooper's Convertible: Not for the purists

The Mini's creator would have hated it, but the new convertible is very tempting says Sean O'Grady

Despite his family connections (he was a distant relative of the one-time BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder) and his Greek origins, Issigonis's affection for England was so pronounced it became a little Germanophobic. When I got into a new Mini Cooper S Convertible I noticed on the windscreen a warning sticker about fitting child seats. It was headed "Achtung!" Issigonis would have exited the car immediately.

I never met Issigonis, but I know all this because - after many years during which both he and his reputation were rather neglected - two scholarly biographies of Issigonis have come along at once by Gillian Bardsley and by Jonathan Wood, and they make for entertaining reading. He died in 1988, when his little miracle was still rolling off the production lines at Longbridge. It seemed then that production wouldn't last much longer, but it was to carry on until 2000, and it would outlast its cousin and would-be successor, the Metro.

Both authors come to much the same sort of conclusions about Issigonis's career. In a nutshell it is this: the Mini concept that "Issy" created for his beloved British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1959 was technically brilliant, as was the 1100 and even the ungainly 1800 that followed them. The problem was that the cars were expensive to make, had too many niggling faults that led to costly warranty claims and made little, if any, profit.

Ford's unadventurous Escorts and Cortinas provided what an increasing number of motorists wanted, and they made financial sense. Issigonis's obsession with design purity and maximising interior space was fine on the Mini and 1100, but less well advised on the bigger models such as the 1800 and Maxi, and those understyled, unglamorous machines proved to be commercial disasters. It wasn't Issigonis's fault that no one challenged his autocratic ways and arrogance when he was running things in the 1960s, but his refusal to listen to others didn't help his beloved BMC to survive. It made a loss in 1967, was taken over by Leyland Motors the year after, went bust and was nationalised in 1975, and bought, sold and dismembered by British Aerospace and BMW, with the final closure of Longbridge coming this year.

It took a long time, but the seeds of financial failure were sown in the 1960s, and by Issigonis, that flawed genius, himself. Design icons are all very well, but if they are to prosper they must make a return.

One of remnants of the old BMC/British Leyland empire that has survived is the Cowley works, now known as BMW Group Plant Oxford and home to the new Mini after the assembly lines were moved there from Longbridge.

BMW was warned that its new Mini would make mini-profits, too. I don't know how much the company does actually make on them, but given that you can easily spend more than £30,000 on speccing up a Mini to your own tastes there must be a bit of margin in there somewhere.

The Mini Cooper S Convertible I tested had a list price of about £17,500 - hefty enough, you might think, but loaded with its various extras it would sell for more than £21,000. These days that's enough for a new Jaguar, or (almost) a BMW Z4.

Yet the Mini I drove had a special quality that, by accident or design, it shares with its illustrious predecessor, a sort of must-have factor. You know that it's insane to spend £21,000 on a cramped little convertible, but you just want to say: "I don't care." You have to get out of the Mini, avert your eyes from its baby-like "face" and repeat to yourself "it's only a car" while recalling all the better things you could do with the money, like stick it in your pension fund.

For the Mini has a jewel-like feel to it, with that rich, lustrous paintwork and big shiny headlamps. It seems better made than Mini convertibles of the past. As a one-time proud owner of a "classic" Issigonis Mini, I have attended plenty of Mini owners' club meets where professional and amateur conversions alike have left their owners just a little bit damp.

On the new model, I'm pleased to say, the canvas, electrically powered roof doesn't leak (although I'd like to learn precisely how durable it is). It's still a little pram-like, but offers better visibility when lowered than Rover's last official convertible, which had a pretty awful body kit grafted onto it as well.

The BMW Mini may be inferior to Issigonis's 1959 original when it comes to design and functionality, but the convertible version is far, far better than any topless Mini that has gone before. It also goes like no old-style Cooper could ever manage. Just don't take one for a test drive. Your pension fund would never forgive you.

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