The Mini: Small is still beautiful
How do you stay in love with a car that you've outgrown? James Ruppert gets some Mini counselling
I've never been a very clubbable person, but when one not only asked me to become a member but also to present the prizes at their annual gathering, it seemed a bit churlish to refuse.
The Norfolk Mini Owners Club had requested my presence not because of my campaigning automotive journalism in The Independent. I am, however, a contributor to the "specialist" Mini publications, a writer of a book called the Mini: the Complete Story, and since 1977 have always had a small, rusting, leaky, but loveable small car in my garage.
Yes, I love Minis, but not as much as the Norfolk Mini Owners, or the dozens of other clubs that congregated in Field, in East Anglia. I got some idea of the sheer scale of the adoration as I approached Fakenham racecourse and saw what I can only describe as a sea of small but perfectly formed small cars.
Indeed, I was meant to be arriving in my own 1964 Mini Cooper, but an MOT malfunction meant that it was stranded on a ramp. No matter – I don't think my car would have stood a chance against the magnificent examples that were being judged in the concours competition. More on that later, because what strikes you first at these events are the trade stands, which are piled high with spares and Mini specific products.
If you want a Mini badge with a Union Jack in the middle or a chequered flag, or chrome hinges, or, most importantly, that elusive part to finish your Mini, it was going to be there. I found a tiny indicator stalk light bulb that cost 50p and could have eanbled my Mini to pass the MOT. A company called Specialist Components had beautifully machined alloy parts that replaced standard steel items, which saved weight and looked like works of art.
There is certainly no limit to the amount that you could spend on a Mini, because there was a £30,000 one as kitted out by an insurance company: Chronic Orange Kandy paintwork, orange leather and day-glo orange furry carpet; basically, an orange Mini. Inside, if your retinas had not been over-oranged, you could watch a DVD or even the in-car CCTV. Of course, this was not representative of the majority of Minis on show, which had been returned to their former glory and were up for an award.
Ian Nicholls is the chairman of the Norfolk Mini Owners Club and introduced me to some of his members. He was very pleased with the event, which was much larger than previous years. First, I met John Fielder, who has a red-and-black Mark II Mini Cooper and reckons that Minis were made to be driven. "I really can't see the point of polishing a car all day long, which is why I take this to track days," he said, beaming. "I am going to all the classic circuits such as Silverstone and Brands Hatch, which is huge fun. Noisy, but fun."
Now, Minis are not just boys' toys. Frances Graham's green Mark I Mini was remarkable for the simple fact that she had owned it from new. "I bought it in 1964, registered it in 1965 and since then have gradually replaced the bits that went rusty," she told me. It was, though, staggeringly original and Francis was herself as fascinating as the Mini.
"I used to be a government chauffeur in the 1960s," she recalled. "If you think that ministers muck around with their secretaries now, it was no different then and I saw it all in the rear-view mirror," she laughed. She went on to tell me about George Brown, the legendary Labour deputy leader who regularly passed out in the back of her ministerial Humber.
And you don't have to be mature to appreciate the Mini's charms. Emma Appleby, 25, owns one of the earliest Minis I have ever seen outside of a museum. "I bought it when I was 16," she said. "It was a local car and had covered only 39,000 miles since it was registered in October 1959."
Finished in a light grey called Farina on the colour charts, this Mini was beautifully basic, with a single central speedometer and not much else inside. Those BMW MINIs – notice the trademarked uppercase text – are twice the size, but with half the interior space and despite trying really, really hard are not half as charming as the originals.
I got to meet John, Francis and Emma again a few hours later when I presented them with prizes in the concours competition. Meeting up with these owners confirmed my own unscientific findings – that anyone who owns and is enthusiastic about a Mini is always a very nice person. Maybe Pol Pot ran a Mini 1000 for a few years back in the Seventies, but I've never met an unpleasant owner.
I had first met Kate Perrins, who had driven from Walsall to Norfolk to win her class, a decade before when I photographed her beautiful black 1275 GT. She greeted me like a long lost family member, which was nice.
Trouble is, I don't think that I'm nice enough to be a Mini owner any more. I couldn't meet up in a field every other week to talk all things Mini. I don't even use my Mini much, and for the last eight years it didn't turn a wheel. All I ever do is get my Mini MOT'd every few years, then something breaks and it takes me a decade to sort out. When I was an enthusiastic 17-year-old a Mini made plenty of sense, but now I'm fat, middle-aged and cynical, and it couldn't be more wrong. Despite my Cooper incorporating parts from every Mini I've ever owned and being on the cover of my book, as I left Fakenham racecourse I was mentally writing a classified ad for it.