HERE’S A BUCKET LISTER THAT WON’T BREAK THE BANK
THERE ARE some things that a motoring writer who still holds a British passport probably shouldn’t admit to and, right up there with getting blackballed by TVR, never having attended Le Mans and abhorring Land Rover Defenders is the fact that I’d never driven a Mini Cooper S. No, not the ersatz Germanic reproduction, the original. The icon, Issigonis’ crowning achievement.
We’d arrived at The Healey Factory in Melbourne to pick something a bit lower, a bit sleeker and a bit more kilowatty. We’d narrowed the shortlist down to a Ferrari 328 GTS, Sonny Bono’s old Porsche 911, a Lotus Esprit Turbo and a Bolwell Nagari.
That all went out of the window when I spotted the unassuming Mini lurking at the back of the showroom.
So we ended up wheeling all the exotica out of the way, grabbing the keys to the Cooper S and began formulating plausible excuses for Editor Guido why we’d chosen one of the cheapest cars in the building.
Let’s get the price thing out of the way early. This could be the most inexpensive genuine Cooper S in Australia.
The median price for a tidy S tends to hover around fifty grand, so $32,000 seems a steal. The key reason is that this isn’t a matching numbers car, the engine having been replaced at some point, but the replacement is a genuine Cooper S lump. The paint isn’t the best either, but with these considerations factored in, the price is still far more than fair, especially when measured in terms of the smiles this thing will paint on your face.
Driving a car that’s approaching half a century old usually means making a few concessions. You have to nurse them along a bit, feel your way into what’s most likely to let go first and just let a rose-tinted wave of nostalgia wash over you. Not with a Cooper S. It’s one of those cars that’s impossible to drive slowly. The throttle pedal is hardwired to the size of your grin and by the time you’re in the upper reaches of the rev range, you’re hooting like an idiot at the wheel. Tip it into a corner and it’s laugh out loud entertaining as the Bunnings wheelbarrow-sized tyres pivot to the point of understeer. The gearshift feels great, the pedals are fantastic for heel and toeing, albeit a tad shifted to the left and the huge, canted wheel takes a bit of getting used to. Issigonis once claimed that in order to be alert you have to be mildly uncomfortable, and you adopt a hunched position, with your shoulder wedged against the door at a slight angle, the firm spar across the top of the seat nerfing you somewhere around the T6 vertebra.
The interior is basic, but at least the Aussie cars got some neat bits like wind-down windows and twin fuel tanks. The huge
EARLY MINI Coopers ran 997 or 998 A-Series engines but this ‘S’ used the 1275cc version of the motor with 76bhp on tap.
Australian production of the Cooper S began in September 1965 and no more than 5000 were built by April 1969 using Completely Knocked Down (CKD) kits – the local variety differed from its English cousin in having twin fuel tanks for better range, a laminated windscreen, revised floorpan to cope with our rougher roads and three-point seatbelts.
box for the single heater control looks aftermarket but isn’t. The February 1966 test from Wheels magazine even criticises it as a bit old-fashioned. “Too far away if you’re wearing seat belts is a tatty grey crackle-finished box with a rudimentary gate carrying a rudimentary sliding lever,” explained the unnamed staffer who was clearly taken with the word ‘rudimentary’. “This is the heater, and a more cheapjack-looking item could hardly have been designed,” he sniffs.
The speedo needle bounces hilariously between 30 and 60km/h seemingly at random, so if you do get pulled by the plod and asked how fast you were going, you can genuinely claim to have little clue. The Cooper S never feels particularly zesty in a straight line, a few ponies possibly having escaped the corral since it was first figured at 10.8 seconds to 60mph, but it’s a car you drive by ear and by the seat of your pants, so it always feels as if you’re going hell for leather. Then you look at the speedo and realise you’re only doing 30-60km/h. The brakes are eye-wideningly feeble and require a kick that Buddy Franklin would be fairly chuffed with to bring you to a halt, but they’re probably the only part of the car I’d modernise.
The Cooper S is an absolute thing of joy, fully deserving of its icon status.
If you’re looking for a way to buy a gilt-edged classic that is both usable and entertaining, you can’t do a whole lot better at this price point. Cheapjack it might be, but it pegs the meter for endearing. The bucket list just got a bit shorter.
Vital Stats 1969 MINI COOPER S
ENGINE 1275cc inline four, 8v MAX POWER 76bhp @ 5700rpm MAX TORQUE 107Nm @ 3000rpm TRANSMISSION 4-speed manual WEIGHT 698kg 0-100KM/H 11s TOP SPEED 154km/h PRICE $32,000 ON SALE Now. Contact www. healeyfactory.com.au for details
WE SPOKE to Rauno Aaltonen to ask how he steered a Cooper S to victory at Bathurst in 1966. “The key factor was the tyres. We put the hardest tyres we could find on the car.
The roadholding was not the best and the steering was a little vague, but it meant that we could stay out so much longer than the rest,” he said.
“Along Conrod Straight it was like a train at times.
You would have one Mini slipstreaming another and the following car was reluctant to lift off the throttle so you just had bump-bump-bump as they tapped each other!
We recorded the highest engine temperatures there because the car was flat out with little cooling.”
Minis filled the first nine places at Bathurst that year, prompting a rule change the following year for mandatory fuel stops, handing the advantage to larger and more powerful cars and setting the scene for a rousing Ford vs Holden rivalry.