Thursday, May 12, 2005

Rover Mini Cooper J213 HML: Part 1

With John Cooper
The author (left) with John Cooper and J213 HML in October 1993. Yours truly is sporting a very nice jacket and totally dire Reebok (box-fresh by the look of them) trainers. So California c1989, although I remember thinking at the time that this was the “Hampstead Intellectual” look…

Right, yesterday I promised you something more substantial. I thought I’d do another “nostalgia-automotive” piece. It’s quite a long story and will require two parts but anyway here goes. Recently I had some correspondence from a nice man who goes by the nickname “Skip”. Now I’ll get to Skip a bit more in just awhile but my dialog with him has prompted me to write this article.

Back in 1992, after spending 10 years in the New World I returned to a good job in London. My reasons for doing this were very typical of many ex-pats. I had an aged and infirm parent as well as a rosy view of England’s green and pleasant land. You know, warm beer, cricket and all that. Anyway no matter what the reality, back in 1992/3 I was inhabiting an outrageously expensive studio flat in Primrose Hill and feeling totally depressed by the Renault 19 I’d bought from a friend out of convenience on my arrival back on Albion’s shores. So I went searching for something a bit more satisfying and sporty but not too expensive and still practical for inner city driving.

Lo and behold the answer was sitting on the forecourt of a Rover dealership in Muswell Hill: a perky one-year-old Mini Cooper in British Racing Green with white bonnet stripes. I’d wanted a Cooper since my teenage years but the only Mini I’d owned was very rough 850cc around 1981-82 that seemed to live mostly in the workshop of local Finsbury Park mechanics, Costas and Sodos (yes, really). But the modernized Rover Cooper was another kettle of fish. The dealer convinced me that thanks to modern quality control methods the new cars didn’t rust and were totally reliable thanks to fuel injection, modern electronics blah, blah, blah (the lying bastard). I didn’t need much persuasion and the Renault was duly traded in and I drove off in the Mini grinning like an idiot.

The great charm of Minis is that they are smile-inducing. The handling is ultra responsive thanks to razor sharp steering, decent brakes and small size with a “wheel in each corner”. In other words you always know exactly where you are and feel in control. But I’d forgotten something quite critical. While living in the USA I’d got used to driving in a modern Mitsubishi turbocharged hothatch. The 1950s origin BMC “A” series motor in the Mini couldn’t hold a candle to the Japanese car in terms of performance despite its 1275cc motor and fuel injection. In addition the motor sounded like a set of spanners rattling in a biscuit tin when pushed hard. After a bit of pondering I decided to visit John Cooper Garages in Sussex. John Cooper had recently re-offered an “S” upgrade and let’s face it I’d ogled Cooper Esses since my teenage years and devotedly followed the rally exploits of Hopkirk, Aaltonen, Makkinen et al. So I quite willingly forked out for the S upgrade (hot cylinder head, hi-lift rockers, big exhaust) as well as a pair of sports seats, Koni shock absorbers and some shiny aluminium fittings that had the John Cooper insignia all over them. The car looked and sounded great, went a bit faster and certainly handled better. Definitely a cheery little beast so for awhile at least I was satisfied. But things change…

Come back to read about Part 2 of the story.

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