Years ago I lived down the street from a genuinely pleasant middle-aged couple who counted their Dalmatian canines as children, lived modestly, and would spend their weekends at either their sprawling ranch-like farm or a secluded chalet in the wilderness. Both commanded decent salaries, which allowed them to read the financial papers without worry, take exciting vacations, and maintain their multiple properties. As for the car of choice for these well-to-do suburban-dwellers — it wasn’t a Mercedes or BMW, nor Audi or Lexus. The car sitting outside in the driveway was none other than a bright red MINI Cooper, complete with Dalmatian print–lined seats.
Welcome to the fascinating world of the MINI owner.
Last weekend I was invited to attend the MINI UNITED festival in France. The festival, now in its fourth iteration, is the world’s largest gathering of owners and fans that come together for a weekend of racing, live concerts, and partying. I knew there were fans of the car; I just didn’t expect the craziness in store for me.
The premise was laid out: meet in Munich, capital of Bavarian Motor Works (BMW) and home of the corporate offices of MINI, with the international press teams and drive to the festival in Le Castellet, France. Along the way we would pass through Austria, Switzerland and Italy. I was confident enough; MINI had assured me that an automatic vehicle would be available for U.S. journalists, who can’t drive the “proper way.”
As we lined up to receive our vehicles, I was told that it wasn’t possible to have an automatic. Inconvenient? Not horribly. This was an excellent chance to build on the solid foundation of manual driving practice I had under my belt: 30 minutes or so, the weekend before. My first challenge: a taupe, red-topped MINI Clubman John Cooper Works.
Upon taking the wheel, I began to get a feel for the clutch under my foot and the shifter permanently glued to the inside of my hand. It wasn’t until the Swiss border when I had my first real challenge, learning how to stop without stalling. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Despite the toll road traffic that saw my car stall close to two dozen times in the span of a mile (I blame the stop-and-go traffic; I believe my guide blames it on my light pedal foot), we arrived at our first pit stop in Milan.
“MINI attracts a psychographic, not a demographic.”
– Jim McDowell, CEO MINI USA
The next morning we switched cars and I took the wheel of a Classic MINI for the first time. Despite the leaps and bounds in technology, size and assumed modernity between it and its successor, I was still comfortable taking control of the four-speeder and pushing it past the 100 mph mark, though the shaking can only be described as the feeling on your hands while riding a rollercoaster. Continuing past Torino and into the foothills of France, our convoy of mismatched MINIs darted along the roads in an adventurous game of hide-and-seek.