Final Drive: 1997 Mini Cooper Classic

Zarasai, Lithuania – The International Mini Meet is one helluva party. Especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for an iconic ten-foot box with a wheel at each corner that revolutionized small car design. Yes, we’re talking the original Mini – designed by genius BMC engineer Alec Issigonis (later Sir Alec) and produced from 1959 to 2000.

The Classic is so cute you want to hug it.

The IMM is an annual event, and Mini clubs from all over Europe bid for the honour of hosting. Last year it was in the UK and 4,000 classic Mini’s showed up. Next year’s shindig will be in Belgium.

For 2015, the Mini faithful travelled all the way to this far away corner of northeastern Europe to kibbitz, swap parts, drink, and in the case of the Flying Finns Mini Club, get butt-naked and jump in the lake.

I’m excited to be here because I am one of them. A Mini nut. (Not a naked Finn.) I caught the bug as a young teen in Nova Scotia, inspired by tales of the Mini’s giant-killing victories at the Monte Carlo Rally with legends such as Rauno Aaltonen at the wheel. When I was 15 my Dad bought me a ’68 Mini 1000. I worked on it in our garage and drove it up and down our long driveway until the blessed day I got my license.

If someone had come up to me in that garage (where I was learning to swear under the Mini’s hood) and said, “41 years from now, you will be driving a Mini very similar to this one in Lithuania, and you’ll be camping with Rauno Aaltonen”, I would have corked them up side the head with an SU carburetor and called the cops. Or in the case of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the cop – singular.

But here I am, pulling into the 2015 IMM festival grounds in a small convoy of new Minis. Rauno Aaltonen is driving one of them. We’ll be camping. I spy a pair of ’97 classic Minis that BMW has brought here for this small group of journalists to sample. I park my green-with-white-stripes 2015 Mini Cooper 5-door right next to a ’97 Cooper Classic with identical livery. The 5-door looks enormous. The Classic is so cute you want to hug it.

The hilly terrain of this small island in a small lake is lousy with classic Minis – the scene underscored by the eager snarl of BMC A Series engines. I speak with three jovial Brits from the Torbay Mini Club who are in the middle of a 5,600-km road trip that has them visiting the Nurburgring, Berlin and Auschwitz. They are driving a modified ’82 and a nutty bright orange chopped ’72 Clubman Estate sporting a twin-cam Rover engine up front. What’s on the agenda for tonight? “We’re getting pissed.”

What you won’t see at this event are babied trailer queens. The cars are loved, used and many are modified in some way. There are some truly outrageous creations like a jacked-up 4x4 from Germany, a Mini stretch limo and a rat-rod-art-car New Mini from Poland with a fully rusted patina, ill-fitting body bits, a mop for a rear wiper and a picket fence filling a big hole in the door panel. It’s pulling a matching trailer.

By IMM standards, it is a modest turnout. Still, for this Mini nut, over 500 of the little critters is pretty overwhelming. The people driving are as fascinating as the cars themselves, and this is truly an international event. More than 130 Mini clubs from all over Europe are represented.

All this is making me itch for the key to that green ’97 Cooper Classic.

Compared to the Minis I owned (four in total with the last being a ’74), this last generation Cooper is relatively space age. It’s got an actual dash panel with gauges in front of the driver (mine had the classic central pod), fuel injection, air bag and catalytic converter.

Yet, all this kit that was added to the final Minis doesn’t change their spirit one iota. Sitting in the seat brings back a flood of memories. The door closes with a click and my hands fall on the wheel with its familiar upright bus-like rake. These cars really are a miracle of packaging. There’s plenty of room for my six-foot frame and visibility in all directions is wonderful. The A Series fires up with a familiar growl and I head out for a scenic drive down memory lane.

With no power steering, wheel twirling requires a bit of elbow grease until you’re on the move. Clutch take up is short and the shift throws long. I’m soon bobbing along the dirt road, arm hanging out the window and  waving at my Mini brethren. There’s a Mini Moke. And a Wolesley Hornet. And an uber cool Mk1 Mini Clubman Wagon in Gulf livery.

Want. It. Bad.

My super mint ’97 is getting lots of appreciative looks. They’re thinking, “Man, that car looks like it’s fresh from the show room.” In truth, we’re both kind of impostors. Neither I nor the Mini drove the distance to get here like all the others. The car arrived via transporter from Munich and I arrived via business class from Toronto.

I cross the causeway and make my way into the charming town of Zarasai. It’s a fascinating blend of traditional Lithuanian architecture and stark concrete structures – an ugly reminder of the country’s fifty years of Soviet rule from 1940 to 1990. And yes, Lithuanians are nervous about Putin right now.

The Mini rattles over the cobblestone streets, but once I find a smooth winding country road it all comes together. Oh, the steering. So pure, so direct. My little cube follows every input with an immediacy no modern car can touch and it corners flatter than a frozen flounder. Sure the ride is choppy and the brakes are a little weak, but at 100 km/h on these roads it feels as though I’m flying.

In these times, fours gears is not much, but the long-stroke 1,275cc engine pulls evenly from low revs so it never feels anything less than a spirited and willing ally. It makes 63 hp at 5,700 rpm and 70 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm. And a glorious growl.

Factory claims for the ’97 Cooper Classic include a top speed of 148 km/h, zero to 100 km/h in 13 seconds and combined fuel economy of 6.6 L/100 km. It weighs about 700 kg.

Rauno Aaltonen’s 1967 Monte Carlo Rally winning Cooper S had double the horsepower and weighed less. With this roadholding and his skill (he invented the left foot braking technique for front-drive rallying), it’s not a surprise the Mini became a giant killer.

But today I’m reliving my youth, piloting the car that, for better or worse, firmly cemented my love of the automobile. And those rose-tinted glasses through which I peered at the Mini for all these intervening years actually proved to be the correct hue.

The International Mini Meet is one helluva party. Especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for an iconic ten-foot box with a... 6/4/2015 10:28:28 AM