If it hadn't been for the success of the Mini-Cooper S as driven by Paddy Hopkirk in the Monte Carlo Rally and similar challenging long-distance races in the mid-'60s, the Mini probably never would have achieved the worldwide recognition it has enjoyed. And there certainly never would have been a BMW Mini in showrooms in 2002. With the release of the new model, the originals are enjoying a renaissance of interest in the classic car marketplace.
The Austin/Morris Mini, introduced in 1959, was never intended by designer Sir Alec Issigonis and suspension engineer Alex Moulton to be anything more than a fuel- and space-efficient family car. It was World Champion racing car constructor John Cooper and his experience building Formula Junior cars with the Austin A-series engine-which powered the Mini-who saw the car's racing potential. Going over Issigonis's head to Sir George Harriman, managing director of BMC, he persuaded BMC to agree to produce 1,000 units of a racing version to meet homologation rules.
The first version, the Mini-Cooper, was built in 1961 with a 997-cc engine, sporting twin SU carburetors, for under-1000-cc competition. An instrument binnacle with a 100-mile-per-hour speedometer, 7-inch disc brakes, a remote gear change and a distinctive gold-brocade two-tone interior trim further distinguished the Cooper model.
In 1963 the Mini-Cooper S was introduced, with a new, short-stroke 1071-cc version of the A-series engine. With 15 more horsepower on tap, the car could make 95 miles per hour. In addition, the S was fitted with larger disc brakes, a 120-mile-per-hour speedometer and, in most units, a second fuel tank with filler in the right rear fender. A smooth-revving, short-stroke 998-cc was also available in the non-S Morris Cooper. With the racing and marketing success of the Mini-Cooper S, in late 1964 a 1275-cc version was introduced, the version still being sold when BMW finally halted production in 1999 to make way for the new Mini. Unfortunately, a financially strapped BMC couldn't meet US EPA and DOT regulations introduced in 1967, and sales here were discontinued at that time.
A good original or properly restored Mini-Cooper S today can easily fetch up to $20,000. With the small number imported, nearly every original car has been restored, and most have been upgraded to the 1275-cc engine. This is one of the few cases where properly executed upgrades will not harm the value of the car. In fact, even an early Mini fitted with the S modifications (all the parts are readily available except for the right-hand gas tank) can be worth nearly as much as a fully documented original S.
Minis are best suited to club tours on twisty back roads-they don't take kindly to hour after hour of buzzing down the interstate. While the BMW Mini will most likely create a small bubble in vintage Mini prices, the effect is likely to be short-lived, as the buyer for the new, larger, feature-laden Mini will be a very different creature than someone who aspires to the more Spartan early car.
Personally, I think a pair of Minis, one old and one new, would fill a garage nicely. Like having an edgy, aggressive Cabernet racked next to a smooth, rich Chardonnay, both have their advantages, and each offers an exclusive and interesting approach to motoring.
Caution: Due to the recent revival in Mini interest in the US, a flood of Minis built in the '80s and '90s have started to arrive on these shores presented as "re-shelled" or "re-manufactured" pre-1974 (hence now DOT and federal EPA exempt) cars. While many of these cars may be exactly as presented, US Customs is becoming familiar with distinguishing features of later Minis, so the buyer should beware lest he find himself with an impounded car and possibly even be charged with Customs fraud.