Motoring: It's 40: time to grow up

The Mini's birthday bash is this weekend, but the old girl is looking her age - despite all the makeovers.
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The Independent Online
HAPPY BIRTHDAY Mini! In case you hadn't noticed, one of Britain's most enduringly popular cars turns 40 this year, and Rover is throwing a party at Silverstone race circuit this weekend.

Although thousands will be there, I won't. Yet I've owned Minis since the day I learnt to drive. I even wrote a book about them and I still have a 1964 Mini Cooper in my garage - although it failed the MOT this year and I haven't got around to fixing it.

That's one reason why I won't be driving my Mini to Northamptonshire, but it's not the only one. You see, I don't think there's that much to celebrate.

The Mini has stayed virtually the same since it first appeared. But not because it was perfect. Instead BMC, British Leyland, Austin Rover and finally Rover (now owned by BMW) could not afford to develop or replace arguably the most innovative car of the century. Instead of improving with age, the Mini gradually became little more than a loveable, if dated, institution. Arguably. it should have been retired decades ago.

I love the Mini, but I'm tired of all the pointless special editions; and it is irritating that, with prices starting at pounds 9,325, it costs more than a "proper" small car. Most of all I'm suspicious of all the careful branding: the official magazine, the website, the clever little 40th birthday logo. Clearly the Mini has little to do with motoring anymore and everything to do with marketing.

The rot set in sometime in the early Eighties. As annual sales regularly topped 200,000, production was trimmed back to allow room for the new Metro. But the predicted 300,000 extra customers never appeared, so the Mini got a reprieve. Unfortunately the marketing men then discovered the restorative sales effects of the "limited edition", which all but halted proper development.

Rover has obviously not learnt the lesson, launching the Mini John Cooper LE in joint recognition of the car's 40th birthday and racing legend Cooper's first Formula 1 world championship win. Now, if anyone deserves a Mini dedicated to them it's Cooper, but not this cosmetically tweaked version.

A CD tuner, black leather handbrake grip, "ruched" door pockets, alloy fascia and chrome-plated badges don't amount to anything much, despite a production run of 300. Back in the Sixties, a Cooper really was special. The engine was bigger, there were twin carburettors, disc brakes and wider wheels. Most exciting of all, the speedometer read 100mph, and 120mph on the extra special "S". Obviously it would never do that speed, but it was quicker than the majority of contemporary sports cars and saloons, plus it was more fun to drive. These days, a heavyweight Cooper lags behind most superminis, with an unforgivably harsh and noisy ride.

The Mini succeeded because it was conceived and designed by one brilliant, obstinate individual - Sir Alec Issigonis. He hated fripperies such as wind-up windows and radios, so he would have disliked today's boutique Cooper. Yet the fact that the car is still much as he left it in 1959 would probably depress him even more.

"If one pioneers something, and it is not copied, then it is failure," Issigonis said, adding: "Small cars are so boring; they all look the same because they are all designed by committees trying to copy the Mini."

In the Sixties, celebrity endorsements weren't part of the marketing - the Mini was just something that the classless set latched on to. Peter Sellers bought Coopers because they were quick, then kitted them as limousines because he could afford to.

Visit the Mini website and you see the word "cool" an awful lot, plus pictures of Paul Smith's, David Bowie's and, heaven help us, Kate Moss's designer Minis. Who really cares? Worried that I might be feeling just a little bit too cynical, I spoke to Gerard Hughes, the ediitor of Mini, who said: "I have actually been amazed by the response to the 40th birthday celebrations. Enthusiasm for the car has actually increased.

"What you have to do is talk to the owners. They believe that their car reaching 40 is a massive achievement. They are just like proud parents really"

Hughes is right, although it is clear BMW has bought a brand and now has to do something with it. The new Mini has a lot to live up to and has to be more than a premium-priced lifestyle package.

Mini Party: Silverstone (01327 857273), 21-22 August. Or check the website on: www.mini.co.uk

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