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Small Car, Big City: Driving a Vintage Mini Through the Streets of London

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It’s a scary moment as we signal to enter an alleyway that’s barely wider than the car we’re in. I’m really on edge.

More than a few things can go wrong: I’m fearing we’ll scrape the car trying to squeeze in between the two walls, pancake a cellphone-focused pedestrian, or maybe get rear-ended by another car because of the suddenly halted flow of traffic.

For whatever reason, the pedestrians stop crowding the entrance of the alley, waving at us as we drive by. Not a single horn was honked, no middle fingers raised, just smiles. “What gives?” I ask the driver. He responds, “Easy, we’re in a Mini!” This is proof that a vintage Mini and London streets may just be the perfect combination, even in 2017.

When we arrived in the U.K. to drive the new MINI Countryman for the first time, we had about half a day to get comfortable with the time difference. It sounded like a good idea, as driving a new car on the other side of the road from the other side of the vehicle with limited sleep would have been a disaster.

So we got some help from the tour guide group and generally cool guys at Small Car Big City. They take tourists around town in style with a fleet of vintage Minis, giving a unique perspective on the city. Everyone who visits London gets photos of Big Ben, the London Eye, and Buckingham Palace, but not everyone gets to do it from the back seat of a tiny original Mini. There’s nothing more British than that.

Our guide greeted us at our hotel and led us to a nearby alleyway where he stashed two Minis named Poppy and Lulu.

poppy-front-profile

With its bright red paint and retractable hardtop, I gravitated to Poppy. It was a 1998 Rover Mini Cooper Sports Pack with a stick shift (of course). Lulu was a teal Mini with gorgeous stripes. Somehow, the Minis each managed to fit three people (in addition to the driver). I hopped into the back seat where I found no leg room and barely any head room. I propped my legs up on the rear bench and had to lean and tilt my head to fit in the back. 

We hit the roads and I mean that literally. The little car was stiff, and while I feel like I typically have a higher tolerance for rough riding vehicles, this was just about unbearable. Weighing about 1,500 pounds, which is nearly half the weight of the average new car, this oldie didn’t exactly feel light on the road as it crashed over every bump and crack in the pavement. The combination of this suspension and the cramped accommodations were making for an unhappy writer. Plus, I was running on no sleep.

poppy-interior

My whining stopped as we started on our tour of the city, heading off to London Bridge and taking a stop by the Golden Hinde. This boat circumnavigated the globe in its heyday, something that may have been exciting, but likely not very comfortable. There’s an interesting parallel between the ship and the Mini we’re in, although instead of traveling the world, we’re just traveling through the busy streets of London, an immense task considering the age of the vehicle and Mini’s less than stellar reliability reputation.

As we return to our car, it seems that tourists have swapped their interest from the docked ship to our Mini, as all the photographers and cellphone cameras come out to snap pictures of our itty-bitty tour bus.

When the crowds thin out, we jump into the car and take another spin around town. It’s getting a bit easier to crawl in and out of the car, but it’s no more hospitable in the tiny Cooper.

The sun is going down and it’s getting cold, but we just put our hats and gloves on; there’s no way we’ll consider closing the roof on our Cooper, not when I can get perfect photos of the big buildings and cool architecture without needing to stop the car or stretch out of the window. It helps that I can take photos right out of the roof, too, because the car is so small and low that if I was taking photos out of the windows, half of the photo would be a curb or another car.

lulu-front-driving

We stop at a street market full of food and snacks and grab a cup of coffee to warm up. These little spots are wonderful and as quirky as our Mini. One whole store sells only cheese, while another is devoted solely to the art of tea. One even has custom-brewed beers. Things from all over the world are found in this charming market and it’s a way of feeling like you’re at home or even another country, not just in the heart of London.

When the crowd finally dissipates around our car (this seems to happen whenever we stop, as people love getting photos of these vintage Minis), we fire it up again and I notice that the car is quite loud. Perhaps my ears were still plugged from the air travel earlier in the day, but there’s no way that this Cooper had a stock exhaust setup. I ask my guide and, indeed, he says the cars have a few modifications that keep the vehicles modern and fun.

As if the small Cooper wasn’t fun enough to look at, it has this loud personality to go along with it. Our accompanying Cooper, the teal-colored Lulu was showcasing its personality through some gorgeous white stripes. Customization and personalization are traditions that the modern MINIs still carry on to this day. Every MINI you purchase today can come with an extra sporty exhaust, rally stripes, different mirror caps, different color combinations, and even graphics for the roof. It’s awesome to see that this isn’t a marketing ploy, but a special MINI trait that’s been around for some time.

lulu-night

It’s that expression of personality that MINI owners new and old live for and this sentiment comes to mind at our next stop on the tour: Leake Street, which is also known as the graffiti tunnel or Banksy tunnel. The street is constantly being worked on by artists and car traffic is prohibited, although no one seemed to mind us parking our Mini there.

It’s a special privilege that the old Mini has earned being able to slip around the city, crawl through alleyways, and gain fans at every stop. Homegrown in the U.K., even these older Rover-built Minis were manufactured in Birmingham, while modern ones are built in Oxford.

We had a few more stops before the sun went down, including the tight alley near Trafalgar Square that I mentioned earlier. It’s a maneuver that would be nearly impossible to try at home without a few offensive words uttered by fellow motorists or pedestrians on the street.

poppy-side-profile-grafitti

While I spent the following days driving a 2017 MINI Countryman through the countryside, there was an unmistakable charm of that classic Mini that I still felt while driving the new one. Although the modern MINI is much larger, more comfortable and refined, it still displays the same personality we saw in the vintage Minis. 

Seeing the old compact doing its thing through the big British town is an experience that’s just perfect, much like driving a Jeep through Moab or a Mustang down Route 66. It’s just right. It’s an automotive bucket-list item provided by the kind folks at Little Car Big City and something that any U.K.-bound automotive enthusiast should go out of their way to experience.