Mini Memories

25 09 2009

Issigonis' Sketch of the MiniI’ve been lucky enough to experience a few different Minis in my life so far.  During my early formative years my cousin owned a veritable fleet of them, including a couple of stripped and ‘caged race-prepped cars.  The first time he ever took me out was in a white 1275GT, whose mechanicals bore little resemblance to those of the donor car.  I was too young to fully understand what had been done to the engine, suffice to say it blew my mind when he pinned it out of the first corner.

The first time I drove a Mini was my colleague’s BRG 1.3i Cooper, a mid-nineties example with a ‘stage 2’ tuning kit, and the most striking thing I remember was the steering wheel.  Canted back at quite an angle, my six-foot-plus frame meant my knees were getting in the way of my knuckles, and it seemed perfectly natural to almost pull the wheel towards me as I slung it with carefree abandon around familiar country lanes. The instant confidence the tiny four-square car gives you is inimitable, and with increased weight and complexity being intravenously hard-wired into virtually every new car on sale, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another car with such basic immediacy and spirit.

BMW’s modern incarnate is a wonderfully accomplished bit of kit, but it’s a very measured approach to a very different set of parameters.  Maybe we need Gordon Murray’s T25 to remind us of how clever engineering doesn’t have to mean complex engineering.


The Old Pair of Trainers…

10 11 2008

Upon rummaging through some old boxes this week, I stumbled across an old friend. Nestling deep under some creased receipts and a box of unprocessed 35mm film was my very first Walkman. Isn’t it strange how your brain recalls a memory? Vividly depicting the very image your eyes saw so many years ago, often accompanied by smells and sounds, long before you’re able to place it in any context?

I could see the desk, the Walkman, the coil of headphone wire and the pale grey pouch. Almost as if I’d owned no other such gadget in the past fifteen years, I could instantly remember the satisfying click of the buttons, the feel of cold aluminium in my hands, and the truly mesmerising sensation of that inaugural walk accompanied by a soundtrack. My soundtrack. Outside. Fresh air and everything. Every song felt new again, every word suddenly possessed more gravitas (somewhat ambitious given my questionable taste) and every drumbeat fell effortlessly into the rhythm of my revitalised footsteps.

That’s what the Vitara was like. Don’t get me wrong, this was no childhood possession rekindling its love affair with my senses. I’ve only owned the thing for a little over a year, but it just felt like a memory. Some might say a pretty crap one, and I’m inclined to agree. A bit like remembering the first time you got dumped. But still, a memory’s a memory, and anything that sparks neural pathways in your brain usually elicits at least a little fondness.

'The Jeep' now enjoys a playful retirement on a farm...

I should point out at this stage that I didn’t part with any cash for the ‘Jeep’. To admit such a thing would widely discredit any claims of being a petrolhead. It was given to me by a dear friend, although when it descended on my driveway I think I called him something rather less savoury. It was a midnight-blue 1996 Suzuki Vitara, a three-door rag-top with an engine so small the engine bay looked like it had been broken down for parts already. I honestly could have provided a genuine alternative for illegal immigrants tired of forcing themselves into the confines of a 40-footer. A warmer one, too. The alarm didn’t work, except on sunny days when it would wait until I was nowhere to be seen and drain the battery. The roof was more awkward than Jeremy Paxman, the rear screen let more rain in than light, and the steering was so heavy I had to add another link into my watchstrap after two days of lugging it around car parks. The gearbox, although mechanically faultless, was accessed by a lever so vague that engaging first, third or fifth meant slamming your knuckles into the centre console. And the handbrake was for show.

But it worked. Every morning for a year I walked up to it, mobile phone in one hand, RAC card in the other, but it started first time. I dreaded the rain, mainly because the wipers were beyond useless, but The Jeep never left me out in it. The keep-fit window winders reminded me of the Cortina my father had, if only for their apparent lack of connection to any glass, but they never completely jammed. I can’t really explain why this one-ton piece of Japanese campness felt like a memory: maybe it was the back-to-basics nature of everything on it; maybe the flashbacks of doughnutting an SJ410 round a mate’s field as a child; maybe just that it was old and beaten, dented with war-wounds and scratches. I don’t really care. I don’t have the slightest urge to put some fresh batteries into my Walkman, but it’s nice to know it still has enough power to ignite some history.