May 02, 2008

Horse 879 - Is the MINI cool?

The Prawny Bard has finally seen the light and is going to replace his clunky and ill-styled Commodore. His question to me this morning was (and thanks largely to Top Gear) "Is the MINI cool?"

...but it has no right to be.

1. The MINI IS British.

Hang on, why should that disqualify it? Ahah, the answer to that is the same as every other British car and delves into the very creation of the vehicle itself.

In the 90s when retro was in fashion, Volkswagen released their Beetle which was a Golf in silly clothing and Chrysler bought out their retro I-don't-know-what-I-am PT Cruiser. Back in Britain the MG Rover group was in trouble. Their 100 & 200 series continued years of tradition by being total piles of steaming crap. The MINI (all capitals to distinguish it from THE Mini) was intended to sweep away both.

The car was already tooled in it's entirety and was even in ye olde worlde jalope shoppe premises at Oxford and Swindon where many Austins and Morrii (is that the accepted plural of Morris?) had wheeled out before. Thus the new MINI would roll out the same doors that the old one did. I ask you, can anything cool ever come out of Swindon?

The MINI was in theory a perfectly well conceived car. It was a 1.6L motor car without pretention and didn't have to hide what it was. Yes it was bigger than the original, but building a car that small with today's crash regulations is a much more difficult task and MG Rover weren't prepared to go there. MG Rover's troubles were already huge, and they eventually sold out to BMW. This brings me to reason 2:

2. The MINI is German.

Well it's owned by BMW. German cars in principle aren't cool. Cool is different, innovative but worst of all, has the potential to be commercially inefficient. With that last piece of surgical equipment, BMW hacked away MG, Land Rover and Rover until they were left with just the MINI which they spun into a new group and out on it's own.

BMW also hacked through he production workforce and streamlined the new company but even BMW had the tenacity to realise that the car was mechanically better than their own 3-Series. Virtually every British car ever produced previously came with its very own set of random faults. Not general faults common to the make but unique random faults specific to that individual car. To combat this BMW introduced Quality Control, something which had never before been seen in Britain.

3. The MINI isn't a Mini.

This was always going to be a problem. If you were going to name the "Icons of the 20th Century" then six things always appear on the list - Beck's London Underground Map, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Coca-Cola Bottle, the Golden Arches, the Swastika and the Mini.

This isn't about comparing two cars anymore, because the new MINI is competing against one of the very things by which the 20th Century was defined. In the case of the Mini, it goes along with Mods, Beatlemania, the Swinging 60s, it defined how rallys were to be won and when it was disqualified from the '66 Monte, the Monte Carlo Rally instantly lost its shine.

The original Mini could be dressed in the Union Flag, a checkerboard roof, a black bonnet or even a horrid lime green paint scheme and you still could not undermine how cool it was. As far as The Cool Wall goes, the car that came from a sketch on the back of a napkin was so cool that next to it, even the DB9 fridge feels like wearing an overcoat in the Sahara.

So then, set against all of this why the heck did I answer Yes?

1. It is actually cool.

So it's not the original. Get over it. The new car has to be taken on merit for what it is... a 1.6L in-line 4 and possibly a hot hatch. It's therefore competing with the Fiesta (not cool - except in XR4 mode), the Barina (also not cool), the Micra (not cool, expect if you are a hairdresser), the Yaris (not cool), and the Colt (not cool).

The packaging of the vehicle therefore has to define what it is. MG Rover went to a lot of trouble to make sure that everything was in "proportion" and styled the car before it got sent to the wind tunnel and not after. The MINI is a car rather than an appliance like the Yaris.

2. It actually is cool.

Slight shift from number 1, in that the car is cool enough that even if numptys, numbnuts, nonces and nongs own the MINI, it will still be cool. Fat buisinessmen don't want it because it's to small, and slimy corporates with oil slick hairdos instantly disappear when the step inside. That's what it's about really isn't it? No-one really cares who's inside when you're doing 110 down the motorway, all they see is the car. BMW = wanker. Corolla = boring git. Mini = cool car.

Like the original which the late great Alec Issigonis scribbled on the back of a napkin, the MINI also has one rather strange design quirk. During the final clays of the car, designer Frank Stephenson realised that he'd forgotten an exhaust pipe. So rather hastily, he stripped an empty can of Stella and jammed the beer can into the rear of the clay mock-up. The production car retained the distinctive exhaust tip.

3. It is actually cool.

Clarkson quite rightly pointed out that the car isn't Sub-Zero but set against the backdrop of other cars it is cool. For a car to remain cool even after James May owned one, it is in fact cool. Generally if a car appears in the Cool section on the cool wall then it's cool. The MINI is, and because it is, it is and therefore it is... no nyah.

Is the MINI cool? Yes.

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