AUSTIN MINI COOPER REVIEW

The Austin Mini Cooper is, without doubt, the car that defined the 1960s'. We don't have to tell you why you want one, but if you need to persuade your partner CCFS are here to help...

They say you should never meet your heroes, and certainly the Austin Mini Cooper – or any Mini, for that matter – tends to make a less-than perfect first impression to anyone unfamiliar with the hugely popular marque.

Design and engineering genius, Alec Issigonis, may have succeeded in coming up with a car that could seat four adults despite measuring just over 10ft, stem to stern, but the result is a driving position that, to put it politely, is rather bus-like.

That said, there’s an undoubted charm to the Cooper’s trademark spartan cabin. The glasshouse is pleasingly deep and the curved dashboard, complete with its trio of clear dials, adds to the feeling of spaciousness up front. The seats are genuinely comfortable, too, and the simple, rubber-gaited gear lever falls naturally to your hand.
Twist the key in the dinky little ignition slot beneath the enormous speedometer, and the 55bhp 998cc engine coughs briskly into life.

An all-synchromesh gearbox was only introduced in September 1968, so a rudimentary grasp of the art of double-declutching is required to avoid crunched changes into first on earlier cars, but such is the revvy nature of the 55bhp engine that this is hardly a chore.

The transmission whine in first gear is unmistakable, and the shifter snicks smoothly from gear to gear.

You can’t help but grin at the purposeful snuffles from the twin SU carbs and the jaunty manner in which the Hydrolastic suspension (which replaced the earlier cars’ all-independent rubber cones in late 1964) bounces over uneven road surfaces. It feels mighty perky, too indeed, it can hit 60mph from rest in less than 17 seconds and maxes out at a (presumably rather noisy) 90mph.

Outright performance isn’t what the Cooper is all about though people adore these cars for their other-wordly handling. Coopers have been compared, rather unimaginatively, to go-karts ad nauseum, but there really is no better epithet. Throw it into a corner, and there’s precious little body roll, allied to a touch of early-warning understeer, but it always feels very much like it was born to drift.
It changes direction like a fly, the steering and suspension not so much communicating with you, as bellowing through a bullhorn. You might not be terribly comfy behind the wheel, but by God, you’re having fun.
For once, here is a car whose oft-repeated reputation certainly doesn’t flatter to deceive.

History
The Mini was never all that powerful (exactly how Issigonis wanted to keep it), so it fell to sheer serendipity for the giant-killing Montewinner to emerge from the shadows.
John Cooper was already a master of Grand Prix and Formula Junior racing, and following a long drive of a standard car, he approached BMC’s Managing Director, George Harriman, with a do-or-die deal sanction the build run of 1000 Cooper-modified cars (to homologate them for entry into Group 2 racing), and he’d do the hard work of modifying the cars in return for a small royalty and the privilege of having his name on each completed car.

The rest, as they say, is history. A 997cc engine was employed for the ‘new’ car, complete with twin semi-downdraught 1.25in SU carburetors, a re-profiled camshaft and a higher compression ratio.
The results were startling power was up from the standard car’s 34bhp to a whopping 55bhp, and with stopping power to match, all wrapped up in a car whose handling was already legendary, a true world icon was born, almost overnight.
Modifications were soon announced, however the 997cc engine was replaced by a slightly torquier 998cc mill in 1964, and shortly thereafter the original rubber cone suspension was binned in favour of the now-legendary Hydrolastic system. Around this time, too, radial tyres were made standard in place of the old crossplies.
The story didn’t end there, however. A more potent Cooper ‘S’ was introduced in the same year as the ‘standard’ Cooper, sporting a 1071cc engine that upped power to a dizzying 70bhp and brought with it bigger-still servoassisted disc brakes and a top speed of 95mph; zero to 60mph was achieved in 13 seconds.
The prize for the greatest number of Cooper S models built, however, goes to the car that would take Cooper production all the way through to 1971. Capacity was boosted to 1275cc, power spiked at 76bhp. The results spoke for themselves indeed, had it not been for an outrageously blatant show of partisanship on the part of the French judges during the 1966 event, the Cooper would have blitzed the Monte Carlo rally throughout the 1960s. Pat Moss secured the ladies award in the 1962 event, paving the way for outright wins for Paddy Hopkirk (1964), Timo Mäkinen (1965) and Rauno Aaltonen (1967).

Mini-Cooper Trivia

  • The 1963-1969 Austin Mini-Cooper was the greatest seller, shifting over 76,000 examples. The original model sold around 25,000 cars in three years, with the short-lived 1963-1964 Cooper S finding just over 4000 owners. The 1964-1965 970cc Cooper S is the rarest, with fewer than 1000 units sold. The later Cooper S shifted over 40,400 units.
  • The Cooper S engine is most readily identified by an extra stud and bolt at each end of the cylinder head.
  • If your Cooper sports a curious-looking box beneath the centre of the dashboard, then it has a super-rare early recirculating type heater.
  • The trademark little tail-light units (left) were finally replaced by much larger duo-tone lights with the introduction of the MkII Cooper, although the bumper overriders were retained.
  • The Cooper was a big seller overseas, too international models included the Italian Innocenti and Spanish Authi, although complete knock-down kits were exported as far afield as Chile, Rhodesia, South Africa and Australia.
     

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