I learned to drive our Mini by practicing three-point turns on our driveway long before I had a license. It took a long time to get up to highway speed, but its tough and endearingly noisy little engine did its best. It came into its own in Ottawa winters, where deep potholes never damaged its wheels or suspension, and where its front-wheel drive pulled it effortlessly around snowbound corners. It was sure-footed on ice, too, and won races on frozen Dow’s Lake when they were held there. In the rare event that a Mini found itself stuck in deep snow, a couple of pedestrians could easily push it free, as it weighed a mere 1400 pounds. A Detroit behemoth, burdened with twice its weight, often floundered helplessly as a Mini passed it cheekily by.
Initially designed for the austerity of fuel shortages, the Mini possessed a simple and spartan interior dominated by a centrally-located outsize speedometer to serve both right-hand and left-hand drive variants, a feature that is present on the modern Mini as well. The windows slid open; they did not at first roll down. The starter button was located on the floor. On cold winter mornings, a block heater and full choke were needed to rouse the car from its slumber.
No car I have driven in the last half-century has ever been as much undiluted fun to drive as the Mini, especially on narrow, winding roads in hilly country. The rack-and-pinion steering was both light and responsive, needing no power assistance. Its large windows gave excellent all-round visibility. Its firm handling kept it glued it to the road at all times, and its boxy shape and uncluttered bodywork balanced at one end by large owlish headlamps, and at the other by graceful ‘hips’ behind its rear wheels, gave it both impish charm and undeniable style. It was comfortable, and never tiring to drive. A friend and I once drove Mum’s Mini some five hundred miles (800 kilometers) on a weekend camping trip to New York State, at one point along the Taconic State Parkway towards the Big Apple, and later impudently and unofficially joined the tail-end of a small-town Fourth of July parade, waving to onlookers perplexed by its presence there, as Minis were never exported to the USA, only to Canada. The total cost of the gas used was a mere $9.70, but this was before the quadrupling of the oil price by OPEC in 1973.
Alas, the first-generation Mini is no longer with us. All steel is rust, as the Good Book says. My brother bought a new second-generation BMW Mini, and enjoyed it, but sold it soon thereafter. He found that despite its impeccable genealogy, its Teutonic reliability, ample power, and careful design, he could not love it, and had to let it go. It simply lacked the character of the original. But that was then, and this is now. They just don’t make them like they used to…
A 1959 Morris Mini-Minor. This car, with registration number 621 AOK, was the first Mini off the production line to be badged Morris. It was never sold, and is now kept at the British Motor Museum, Gaydon, UK. Photographed at the Gaydon Mini Festival 2007.
Image by DeFacto - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3609044