Testing The Mighty Mini Cooper S In The Alps, And The Humble Morris Mini-Minor In The Streets Of Munich
Photography by Alex Sobran
When the first production Minis arrived on the eve of the 1960s, notes were duly taken. Sir Alec Issigonis had somehow augured the future of efficient personal transportation, and his creation ballooned the notion of what a function-first, city-fitting automobile should aspire to be. The market for small cars hit an inflection point in 1959, even if the Mini wasn’t an instant phenom.
But five years later and thanks to John Cooper, a bright Formula 1 man who’d recognized the competitive potential in his friend’s pragmatic machine early on, the Mini earned some circuit racing cred that was corroborated in another discipline when Paddy Hopkirk danced a modified Cooper S through the snow and slush to a Rallye Monte-Carlo victory in 1964. Five years after that, director Peter Collinson made the popular road car into a movie star when he loaded up three of them with fake bullion and genuine pyrotechnics for heavy-duty stunt duty in the The Italian Job.
Sans lawmen and mobsters giving chase across rooftops and through sewer systems, a Mini is still willing to be maneuvered like you’re in the second half of a heist. It remains one of those rare cars that continues to inspire testosteronic driving even after you’ve heard someone describe it as “just too precious.” This chameleon’s appeal to both the James Hunts and auto-illiterates of the world soon translated into demand across the board for Minis; and from 1959 through the remainder of the 20th century, the thrifty compact design was built under many a badge, in factories from Birmingham to Pamplona to Shah Alam. In the process, it became Britain’s best-selling car of all time with a total production run of more than five million units before the German reboot in 2000.
We’re now six full decades downstream from the original, and yet most of us drive to work in something that can be traced back to the Mini. Its role in our vehicular history is fascinating and worth knowing, but slogging through the worn-out timeline of races and dates and trademarks is a weak way to celebrate an anniversary. Thankfully—and really playing the stepdad role to a T here—BMW had plans for a better party: A big old Mini bender that included pouncing around Munich for a few days in a ’59 Mini-Minor, before swapping keys for a souped ’66 Cooper S and a climb in the Austrian Alps.
Morris Mini-Minor Meets Modern Munich
If you cover up the model designation with your thumb, the Mini doesn’t look great on a spec sheet. Reading “front-wheel drive,” “848cc inline-four,” and “34hp” in a row is enough to pull the imagination closer to a piece of agricultural equipment than something capable of earning a speeding ticket, and as if to drive the point home, the Cherry Red first-year example pictured here was marketed under the Morris name, which is a name that sounds less like fun and more like someone with an AARP membership and a perennial head cold.
But there’s nothing mundane about the Morris Mini-Minor experience in person. Just getting situated inside of it is a trip; the surprising amount of general interior space that you notice right after entering is quickly counteracted by wiggling the delicate chopstick of a gear lever for the first time, or probing for the accelerator only to find it dimensionally similar to a penny—it’s an airy cabin with a bus-size steering wheel, but there isn’t much breathing room in the pedal box.
Once familiarized with the fun-sized controls and ready to navigate Munich by toe and fingertip, I wait for the traffic to loosen up and carefully merge onto the six-lane Moosacher Straße outside of the BMW Group Classic compound. Not five minutes later, inhibitions have been shrunken down to appropriate proportion and then some, and the pocks and dimples in the road have turned into excuses to slalom the car with more gusto than common sense. I came to an increasingly clear understanding of my cat’s relationship with laser pointers each time the bumps in the road constellated into one of these makeshift obstacle courses.
The punk-flavor joy that comes from scribbling around Munich like this with nowhere to go—the steering wheel in constant motion, a gear changed every other second—it’s enough to feel a little like Claude Lelouch in C’était un Rendezvous until you pass a policeman who smiles and waves at you. A Mini does the slow-car-fast routine like no other.
Because even when you aren’t chucking it around the cobblestone apexes near the Hauptbahnhof and the historic city center, a sense of urgency remains in this urban setting. Divots and ridges in the the pavement are felt long before your ten-inch wheels make first contact, it’s rare that the gear ratios allow for both hands to be on the wheel at the same time, and although you’re provided an excellent, near-360° view out of the windows, they are typically made up of the wheels and tires of the much larger members of traffic.
Old English White in the Austrian Alps
While the Morris Mini-Minor faces a slightly higher risk of being squished in a modern metropolis that’s stuffed with SUVs and cellphones, it still fills the role of city car exceptionally well, as you would expect. Parking it in the slimmest of downtown spaces reminded me a toddler trying on his dad’s shoes, and I found one spot where it would fit between the lines sideways. Reaching top speed may have required time and space on a cosmic scale, but urban life rarely takes place above 35mph anyway, and the four-speed gearbox (which shares the engine’s oil sump in a clever act of mechanical consolidation) is happy to use the handful of horsepower it receives to keep pace from stoplight to stoplight.
This modified, high-strung Cooper S on the other hand, despite the homey appearance of its Old English White shell, was not content to slow down and putt through the little hamlets on the way from Munich to the Glockner Group of peaks we were aimed at. It was very happy to run through the gears upon exiting these municipalities though, more often than not leaving the speed limit radars blinking an angry red at our escape velocity. Put it this way: If the playful Mini-Minor encouraged some mischievous weaving to avoid “potholes,” the devilish Cooper S wanted to wind up pursued by the Polizei.
Everything about the car is so taut and coiled that it just might convince you that that’s a good idea. You already know that it handles like a big toy, the 1275cc inline-four was rated at 75hp, it weighs less than half a new car, and this example had been treated to some choice modifications, not least of which are the twin polished intake trumpets that produce the kind of adenoidal snort that’s worth going a bit deaf to listen to up close. The stance of its bubbly but cuboid body, hunched forward over those go-kart-esque wheels, is a perfect visual reflection of the Cooper S attitude.
Despite the incessant temptation to drive it on the sidewalk, we kept our snouts out of trouble long enough to end up in the moon-with-snow landscape surrounding Austria’s tallest peak, the Grossglockner. A quick hot lunch and a long chilly photoshoot ensued before it was time to head back toward sea level. This was no slow descent. Licking the stamp and sending the thing down the pass was like being five years old again and going on a furniture-toppling dogback ride on the family retriever. The major difference is that this time you’re in control, thanks to having a steering wheel to hold onto instead of a collar. And brakes.
Madly poking all three pedals at once, driving the tiny wheels off this thing, it’s enough to make you feel that the rest of your life took place in third person. Heading down the steep grade at high speed, passing tour buses four times our size and double-downshifting on hairpin approaches left me with full body adrenaline shivers and a shirt that was more sweat than not. Half an hour later we were wrapped in fog and rain on a scenic, wonderfully inefficient route back to home base that played out like a tarmac rally stage. But then again, in a car like this, so does any old parking lot.