Comedian Gilbert Gottfried asked, “Too soon?” after telling a 9/11 joke just weeks after the Twin Towers fell — and he heard boos instead of laughs.
The first reaction to the notion of the “new” Mini being an Affordable Classic might well be a chorus of jeering “Too soon!” from owners of the original Mini.
After all, the first generation of the newly reimagined, redesigned and relaunched BMW/Rover Mini, produced 42 years after the inarguably classic Mini, might be nothing more than a used car at this point. Worse than that, collecting this car might be akin to collecting beer cans — they are lying about everywhere and are the exact opposite of rare.
On the other hand, the Mini has all the attributes of desirability as a potential classic: standout styling, sports car handling, and nice fit and finish.
But don’t expect any love at a local Mini meet. There, the first-edition cars (“classic Mini” is the phrase used in the cloth-cap set) are the focus. The new iteration is often relegated to a coach-class section of the event, their poor owners disparaged as tasteless arrivistes.
From the classic to the newbie
The “classic Mini” was built from 1959 all the way through 2000, although it was hard to import to the U.S. after 1967. It went through six different models, with hundreds of variants. But the clock was ticking.
Rover, then a vassal of BMW, started designing a new Mini platform in 1995. Rover imagined a replacement for the old design that was an economy car aimed at the same working-class market as the original.
But BMW had other ideas — envisioning more of an entry-level sports coupe. Being the owner is always a great way to win an argument, and the resulting car was fast, handled well and enjoyed all of the upscale attributes of a BMW.
It wasn’t just Rover’s Mini concept that BMW dumped — it was Rover itself in the end. BMW shed the money-losing company in 2000.
Designed for fun handling
Designer Frank Stephenson is credited for the look of the new Mini, but much of the design concept owes a debt to the original Mini design by Alec Issigonis. The new car borrows the original envelope, with a wide track and long wheelbase for the size of the car. The wheels are pushed to the far corners.
The wide stance and low center of gravity give you sharp turn-in and kart-like handling, while the interior is relatively spacious. The look of the new Mini is enhanced by the “invisible” B-pillars, which give the roof a nifty, floating look.
Introduced in England in 2001 with three models (Mini One, Cooper and Cooper S), only the Cooper and Cooper S were imported to the U.S. market starting in early 2002. The John Cooper Works version followed quickly after.
The Cooper name is synonymous with the racing heritage of the original Mini. John Cooper, whose rear-engined single-seaters changed the racing world, created the Mini Cooper S during the 1960s, and it became a rally winner and highly sought-after race car.
BMW bought the rights to the Cooper name, and John Cooper himself was involved with the Rover/BMW designers.
The new Mini’s kit
All the models from 2002 to 2006 came with the 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder motor designed by Chrysler and built in Brazil under the Tritec name (a joint BMW-Chrysler venture). The Cooper promises 115 horsepower, and the supercharged Cooper S weighs in at 163 horses. Don’t tell your friends, but the same basic motor powers the Dodge Neon and PT Cruisers of the era.
Some things are best left unsaid.
The gearbox on the Cooper was a Rover-based 5-speed, but the S came with either a 6-speed Getrag or a CVT automatic (which is a real deal breaker, as it was prone to failure with enough regularity to cause a class action lawsuit).
The 2002–06 car is a 4-seater, but it’s more of a 2-crush-2 for most adults, and the back seat is a test of anyone’s potential claustrophobia.
While the wide doors make access to the back easy, the combo lever that both flips the seat back forward and slides the whole seat forward as well only episodically remembers where it started the process.
Supercharge the fun
But you probably aren’t interested in hauling around a family anyway.
You want the go-fast S version. Since the supercharger takes up space under the hood, the battery in the S moves the trunk, and the spare moves to Neverland — a can of green goo is your only option in case of a flat.
Speaking of flats, the Cooper S came with 17-inch run-flats that turn the already stiff handling up to 11. Green goo and less-stiff sidewalls will make your life in a Cooper S much more pleasant.
The handling is the big fun in owning a Mini. What isn’t so fun is trying to drive past the local mechanic’s shop. There is a long list of potential faults lurking in your used Mini — all of them expensive:
If you hear any timing chain rattle on start-up, run away. It isn’t called the death rattle without reason, and it was probably created by either running low on oil (the early Cooper S regularly uses oil, by design) or going too long between the suggested 5,000-mile oil changes.
Water pump failure is also pretty common, with 50,000 miles being a good over/under bet, and the plastic thermostat housing is suspect as well.
The electric power-steering pumps are also failure-prone, usually because of low fluid caused by leaking hoses, and BMW is quite proud of those hoses — if you get my drift.
Oh, and clutch failure is common, often the result of enthusiastic driving.
Did I mention the front strut towers sometimes fail?
All this aside, if you have your eyes wide open and aren’t blinded by desire (looking at you, Alfa owners), the Mini can be a satisfying ride.
Depreciation has ended
And on a positive note, the first gen of the new Minis has depreciated about as much as they ever will.
A 2002 Cooper S with 150,000 on the odo, in pristine shape, should go for less than $4,000, while a similarly equipped and well-loved 2006 would still only be around $6,000. Cut the mileage in half (or pick a John Cooper Works version) and plan to add back a couple of thousand.
With prices pretty much akin to pocket lint, finding the right early Mini can be the key to some fun motoring, despite the fact they are now like noses on the road, with big ones and little ones everywhere you look. Just make sure you have a smart mechanic do a thorough pre-purchase inspection, as fixes are pricey.
Bottom line is Minis are a giggle to drive, with plenty of room inside. They’re also inexpensive, and there are plenty of aftermarket options if you want to start adding speed gear.
As far as “Affordable Classic,” well, the design is certainly classic, and things don’t get much more affordable, so not “too soon” at all. ♦