On one sunny Sunday morning, I had a rare chance to get up close and personal with the quintessential British marque, the cars, and the men and women who drive them. Not only was it an education about the MINI but it was also like stepping into a time machine of automotive history.
The parking lot of the Mega Tent along C5 was awash with color, as one MINI after another entered the venue. After a hearty breakfast and liters of coffee, the owners trooped out, positioned their cars, and said Happy 60th birthday to the MINI by looking up to the sky for a unique groupfie.
If there’s anything that is representative of the brand’s character, it’s the MINI owner.
As MINI Philippines and Autohub Group of Companies president Willy Tee Ten explains, since it is a premium brand with a premium price, the owners are self-made. “But if you notice most of the MINI owners are very humble. They’re not very loud, but they’re talkative. They’re very friendly, and very sociable,” he says. For a top executive, he remains in touch with his customers, and is active in a Viber group he has with Filipino MINI owners.
As I was going around the lot drooling over the MINIs of different ages, colors and sizes, I got to meet some MINI enthusiasts buffing up their steeds.
Mike Peña’s Light Green Mark 1 MINI Cooper S was one of the many scene stealers of the meet up. One of only three in the Philippines, this was the car at its purest, most bare-bones and analog form. An architect by profession, Peña is a disciple of the “form follows function” school of design. “Although it’s a bit boxy, a bit small, it’s a very practical car. In the world record, it fit 17 people,” he says. “So even for a big guy like me, I’m very comfortable inside the MINI.”
This British motoring icon had humble beginnings as a sketch by Sir Alec Issigonis, then principal car designer of the British Motor Company in 1959. Back then, Great Britain’s motoring public was suffering through a series of fuel shortages because of tensions caused by the Suez crisis in Egypt. The public clamored for a practical fuel-efficient car.
Issigonis’ sketch showed radical design features. Smaller wheels put the driver much closer to the road giving them the feeling of driving a go-cart. The wheels were placed near the extremes of the chassis giving the MINI agility and the ability to turn on a dime. Issigonis rotated the engine 90 degrees and placed the steering assembly beneath giving the car a front heavy weight distribution making it stable and contributing to its already excellent handling characteristics.
The end result was a fuel-efficient ultra-compact 4-foot-wide by 4-foot-high x 10-foot-long that could comfortably seat four people with luggage. While the quirky MINIs made the motoring public bemused at first, Issigonis’ revolutionary ideas eventually made it into automotive DNA, which can still be seen in European, Japanese, and Korean microcars to this day.
John Cooper, a race car driver, was responsible for introducing the MINI into motorsport. He thought that the car’s unique handling and cornering could make it a giant-killer in the world of rally driving. Hence, the first MINI Cooper S was born, with a more powerful engine and better brakes.
As expected, rivals scoffed as they saw the little car at the starting line. However, the MINI wiped the ridicule off their faces when it placed third in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rally. The mountain zigzags, tight corners, and steep gradients that confounded the bigger, wider racecars were no problem for the MINI Cooper S, winning the 1964, 1965, and 1967 rallies and cementing its place in motorsport legend.
Henry Lopez runs a shop that restores these compact curiosities. Business must be good since he says that he has at least seven MINIs on the floor at any given time.
“It’s photogenic and iconic. Every time that you’re in the street and people see you, it brings a smile to any person,” he says. “Kids, they’re very familiar with it. When they see the car, sasabihin kaagad, ‘MISTER BEAN!”
Come to think of it, the MINI played a part in the British Invasion of pop culture. Ever since Michael Caine and his merry band of diamond thieves sped through the streets of Turin in the 1969 heist film The Italian Job, the MINI has figured prominently in art, television, and movies. Rowan Atkinson made the MINI “BEAN MACHINE” his sidekick alongside his teddy bear. Even Austin Powers had a MINI to back up his mojo. And the new MINI was the star alongside Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron in the 2003 remake of the Italian Job.
Spike Juliano, a retired commercial pilot who headed the MINI Owners Association back in the 70s, shed some light on the design change through the years, noting that his old MINI was used for the weekends only. These days, however, Juliano drives the new generation MINI.
“I got my MINI in the 70s. Those were the times you could really drive around. Even though you didn’t have aircon, you could still roam the streets because it wasn’t so polluted, unlike now. You could hardly move,” Juliano reminisces, adding that it’s nerve wracking to drive on EDSA as bus drivers might not see a small car.
At the turn of the 21st century, BMW acquired the MINI marque through buying its then owner, the Rover group. It was the MINI’s enduring appeal married to German engineering. Under BMW, the MINI went through a makeover, including a face lift and a buff up on the car’s body. The boxy shape was replaced with a curvier body with slanted headlights. The MINI had some growing up to do because of demanding global safety standards and the addition of creature comforts like climate control and in-car multimedia systems. However, its go-cart DNA was still preserved.
An owner’s love and devotion to the MINI are so great that it gets passed on to sons and daughters. One such example of a second generation MINI-ac is Carla Peña, an interior designer who just happens to be Architect Mike Peña’s daughter. She has one of the new MINIs, which she just raves about. “It has speed and torque. So, it’s super-fast and it's very easy to go around,” she says.
The Clubman and the Countryman caused a stir when they were first introduced. When these came out, purists remarked that these weren’t really MINIs because of their size.
Jefferson Bongat, a real estate developer, disagrees. At first, he did want one of the regular MINIs, but his wife ultimately made the decision to get the Countryman. “My wife chose it because she always drives the kids. She goes to groceries. She felt that the 3-door might be too small for her and the kids. The Countryman just fits right.”
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Car Restorer Henry Lopez and his old-school British Racing Green Mini.
Car Restorer Henry Lopez and his old-school British Racing Green Mini.
Jeff Bongat and his Mini Countryman.
Mini GM Jeff Lizardo and Mini PR _ Marketing Director Owee Cruz.
Spike Juliano and his mini.
Willy Tee Ten, Autohub President and Jeff Lizardo, Mini GM pose with the new Monte Carlo Edition Mini.
He is quick to add that it is still fun to drive. “It’s bigger, roomier, and can accommodate a family. But the driving experience is the same as a three-door. It’s fast, agile, and has that same go-cart feel.”
After Jeff showed me around his Countryman, I’d imagine that the Countryman and the Clubman would the perfect road machines for a vacation in Baguio, Baler or any other far-off destination. Having cargo space for luggage and seating for an entire family is one thing; having the MINI’s stable road-hugging characteristics would make the long trip an exhilarating drive.
The MINI’s 60TH birthday party
I made my way to the Eastwood Citywalk to continue the 60th birthday celebrations of the small wonder. There, MINI Philippines unveiled a limited 60th anniversary edition of the car, decked out in black and white 60th anniversary livery on a base of British Racing Green 2, a special shade of green exclusive to this car, special rims, and luxurious malt brown interiors.
If you want one, better hurry on to the nearest dealership, as only 12 cars are marked for sale in the Philippines - six for the sportier three-door, and six for the five-door edition. (Scratch that, only eleven are available as the first owner of the 60th Anniversary owner proudly took his keys at the launch.)
BMW and MINI are still pushing the evolution of the MINI abroad. The latest innovation is the E series. E stands for Electric and these are being made to make the MINI move on to the age of alternative energy making the little car that could, relevant in the decades to come.
MINI Philippines is definitely not going to be left behind. Newly appointed GM Jeff Lizardo shared plans to bring the Countryman PHEV (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle) and the 3-door EV by the last quarter of 2020.
After 60 years of being a motoring pop culture icon, will the MINI still be around for another sixty years? Tee Ten seems to think so.
“I think the MINI brand is getting stronger and stronger with the backing of a BMW. I think it’s going be here for a very, very long time,” he says. “One thing I can say is when you own a MINI, it’s very iconic, it’s very different. Most specially, when you see a MINI, it makes you smile. And that’s the most important thing.”
Here’s to 60 years more of making people smile, MINI!
For more information, visit MINI.com.ph.