Until I had to pay for the purchase, insurance and maintenance of my own vehicles, I loved cars. As a small child, I used to bring my collection of Dinky Toys and Matchbox trucks, cars and buses to the dining table with me, and at one time could identify every make on the road, from German ‘bubble cars’ like the Heinkel, through Borgwards, Simcas, Humbers and Vauxhalls, to such exotics as the ugly and cumbersome Soviet Zil limousine. I could differentiate each American car by model year, and was able to distinguish a Ford Zephyr from its stablemates the Consul and Zodiac by their grilles. I still possess a collection of lavishly-illustrated pocket guides to the world’s auto manufacturers that are now collectors’ items, as so many manufacturers have now gone out of business. The car I recall with the greatest affection, however, was one I never owned myself, the true first love of my teenage years, the first-generation Austin 850, as it was first known in Canada, the famous Mini, three models of which my mother owned over 14 years until 1980, when the last one, in a bright orange colour called ‘Blaze’, was plucked from honourable and dusty retirement in my parents’ garage, and lovingly restored by a young Polish enthusiast to whom my mother had given it because he had fallen in love with it at first sight.
Small cars, once derided and dismissed by Detroit as irrelevant curiosities, have never been out of fashion where space and cost of ownership are at a premium, as in Europe and Asia. Stephen Hawking squeezed his family into one. Detroit itself has now been largely put out of business by hordes of reliable and affordable imported Japanese and Korean econoboxes, a trend that began with the Hitler-inspired ‘people’s car’, the VW Bug, in the decade after the end of World War II. My parents bought their first Mini as a runabout useful for shopping trips and the daily school run, and it shared the garage with a Kenosha, Wisconsin-born native, our Rambler American station wagon. The Mini performed its secondary role admirably. Its remarkable fuel economy, phenomenal road-holding and excellent use of space were legendary, but it had other virtues, too.