It was at dinner with BMW on the last night of Monterey Car Week when I was asked what the highlight of my first ever trip there was. My answer seemed to surprise a lot of the folks at BMW and some of the journalists around me. My highlight wasn’t The Quail or having a beer at the top of Laguna Seca’s corkscrew or even the famous Pebble Beach Concours itself. Instead, the highlight for me was driving a 1965 Morris Mini Cooper S.
That answer surprised the company I was with, as it seemed everyone thought I was going to talk about seeing some multi-million dollar, uber-rare cars. Instead, my highlight was driving a hatchback from five decades ago which had less than 1,100 ccs under its hood. There were a lot of variables as to why that drive was the highlight of my trip; it was my first time in Monterey, my first time driving through Big Sur, my first time seeing the stunning Bixby Creek Bridge and the breathtaking scenery along the way didn’t hurt either. However, the actual Mini Cooper S was the standout.
Prior to actually driving the Mini, I rode shotgun with Roundel Magazine editor-in-chief Satch Carlson, whom I’m sure many of you know of well. I had told Satch that I’d never driven a car that old and was a bit apprehensive about it, for fear I’d stall like an idiot or do something stupid and damage something. So I wanted to watch him drive it first, so I could get an idea of what it was like prior to actually driving it myself. Also, he’s a veteran and has driven almost any sort of car you can think of, and driven it hard, so he was good to watch and get feedback from.
It also turned out to be a good idea, because there were a couple of interesting moments that showed Satch and I the limitations of the 54 year old classic and taught us about how it performed. So I was glad I wasn’t the guinea pig. Sorry, Satch.
After a bit of lunch, it was finally time to drive my little Mini. Except it was parked on a hill, sloping forward. So I had to reverse uphill and do so blind, as a parked car was impeding my view of oncoming traffic. Also, the curb was about one inch from the front bumper of a carefully preserved classic owned by BMW. So I was a bit nervous I was going to roll forward into the curb before I could get my right foot on the awkwardly placed gas pedal in time. Satch offered to hold the hand brake for me but it didn’t work, as we learned earlier when he left the car and it rolled backwards with me in the passenger seat. So that wouldn’t have helped.
Turns out, though, I was nervous for nothing. The 1965 Mini Cooper S, with its 1,071 cc engine and four-speed manual gearbox, has a clutch that’s easy to modulate and find the friction point, along with razor-sharp throttle response. So it was incredibly easy to reverse right out of the spot, making me feel a bit silly for worrying.
Then it came time to make a less-than-legal u-turn to swing around to the other side of the road so we could follow another journalist in another Mini. The classic Mini Cooper S lacks power steering but its incredible low curb weight and massive diameter steering wheel, whose rim is literally pencil-thin, makes it easy to spin around.
In fact, the steering is incredibly light with wonderful communication. So whipping around the road was easy as pie and, once I was on the move, the little Mini Cooper S became the most lively, entertaining and happy little car I’ve ever driven in my life. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I need one. I need one and I will buy one.
Carving up and down the serpentine roads along the coast of Carmel and Monterey was made even greater than it already is thanks to the lovely, charismatic Mini. It sports an incredibly small footprint, thanks to Alec Issigonis’ brilliant packaging design. Not only is it small but its footprint is almost square; its wheelbase is as long as possible for its size and its wheels are almost pushed out to each corner. So despite being tiny and extremely light, it has surprising mechanical grip, which inspires a ton of confidence.
Adding to that confidence is its outward visibility. Because the original Mini is of an era without extreme safety regulations, its pillars are skinny and its glass is tall. So the view out is vast, which not only made the little Mini Cooper S easier to drive hard through the twisties but also allowed us to more easily take in the view. After driving the classic, the modern MINI Cooper S I was driving as personal transportation in Monterey felt like a Brinks truck.
So just from the start, the ’65 Mini Cooper S provided me with so much confidence that any worry I previously had melted away. Not only that but I could begin to feel a massive grin growing on my face. I was driving such a cool car, a car that I’d always wanted to drive, and not only was it not intimidating but it was inspiring so much confidence. It was a special moment and one I won’t soon forget.
But it wasn’t just the ease of use that made the little Mini my highlight of Monterey. Its astonishing levels of communication blew my mind. Most modern cars I drive have little to no actual feel or communication through any of the controls. Even the best ones. That’s not such a problem anymore because modern performance cars are so razor accurate and easy to drive that communication, while welcome, isn’t exactly necessary. Modern cars hide feedback from the road through layers of refinement and luxury. The Mini has none of that.
Its pencil-thin, pizza-sized steering wheel transmits absolutely every ounce of information from the road to your hands, so much so I could have probably told you which brand of paint was used to mark the road through my finger tips. Being an old car, it has a relatively slow steering ratio, requiring quite a bit of steering lock to actually make it turn. But its purity and accuracy made it an absolute joy to hustle.
The best way to describe just how buzzy and communicative it was to drive is that it was like driving in high resolution. Every bit of information from the road was transmitted to my brain and it genuinely spoiled me for anything else. Modern MINIs are great fun to drive compared to other modern cars but compared to the 4K Ultra High-Definition that is the classic Mini, a modern MINI feels like a CRT TV with bunny ear antennae.
It wasn’t perfect, though. While its suspension is incredibly communicative, it’s also bone rattling. It’s so stiff that large bumps and potholes feel similar to a car crash in the classic Mini. I’m all for firm suspension but the rubber-cone springs used in the original car are just absurdly stiff.
Also, being an old car that’s only been run a handful of times in the last decade, with our drive being far and away its longest run, it had a few mechanical issues. The aforementioned hand brake being one of them. The brakes weren’t great either. Stopping the Mini wasn’t really an issue, in the sense that it would eventually stop. However, hard braking would cause the car to pull hard to the left, which we learned the hard way while I was driving across a narrow bridge and the car in front of us hit the brakes. We almost veered into opposite traffic when I tried put my foot down hard on the stop-pedal.
Still, none of that could harsh my vibe. I was loving driving that little Mini Cooper S and I still can’t shake the genuine joy it brought. It was just a happy feeling car, the little Mini Cooper S. Everything about the way it drove was filled with so much joy, so much excitement. Like an excitable puppy, it just wanted to play.
Not only did the Mini feel alive but it made me feel alive. The classic Mini forces you to interact with it, to think two moves ahead and really drive it. It does nothing for you and that sense of responsibility; being the one that makes the entire car go; made me feel more awake and alive. Maybe it was just the excitement of the experience or the unbelievable scenery that made me feel that way. Both of those likely didn’t hurt. However, I really do believe a lot of it was the car.
I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind ever since and I’ve been scouring the internet for classic Minis that I can afford. If you like driving — real deal, actual driving — it’s hard to find a better overall experience than flogging a classic Mini Cooper S. It was so happy, so excitable and so alive that it made me feel the exact same way.