Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sixties Mini Cooper vs Col de Turini



The shaggy longhorn lowers its head and blinks ruminatively. Its giant, slobbery nose hovers millimetres from my windscreen, the rest of the cow's hefty frame blocking the road. I rev the engine a few times, but this cow is going nowhere. An extended parp on the feeble horn. Nothing.
Paddy Hopkirk never had to deal with this...

This feature was originally published in the February issue of Top Gear magazine


A couple of minutes pass. I half-open the door to step out of the car and shoo the beast along. The cow gives a gentle shake of its razor-tipped horns. I shut the door again. A handful of sheep wander over to watch the battle unfold. Still the cow refuses to move, eyeing me impassively through the glass. I start to edge the Mini forward into the flank of the beast, hoping to gently shove it off the road. Placidly but firmly, the beast leans back against the Mini. Stalemate. It is at this moment I realise that a Sixties Mini Cooper (kerbweight: 600kg or so) is not the ideal car with which to barge a fat Alpine cow (kerbweight: 700kg or so).

Our bovine friend seems unaware that it is standing in the way, quite literally, of a double celebration. 2011 marks not only the 50th birthday of the Mini Cooper, but also 100 years of the Monte Carlo Rally (an anniversary that won't, sadly, see a WRC event: organisers moved the opening round away from Monaco in 2009). That's why we're halfway up the Col de Turini, Monte Carlo's scariest stage and the road that made the Cooper famous in 1964, when Hopkirk heroically danced the tiny Mini to victory. Sure, the Northern Irishman was plagued by fanatic spectators chucking snow on the road, but he never - to our knowledge - got blocked by a recalcitrant heifer.


In fact, this is a triple celebration. With pleasing synchronicity, 2011 also marks Mini's return to the World Rally Championship after four decades of absence, so we've brought along the car that forms the basis of Mini's latest rally effort for a quick compare 'n' contrast session. The Countryman Cooper S, the biggest, heaviest car ever to bear the Cooper name, looms over its predecessor like, er, a big cow.
Finally bored of the slow-motion sumo bout, the ungulate gives up and wanders off to terrorise something else on the mountain. We skitter up the Col, switchback to switchback, old Cooper burbling in front, Countryman skimming behind. It is wet and cold, and beyond the hairpins lurks miles of dark, perilous nothing.
We tip over the top of the pass onto the Col's highest ridge, a mile above sea level, and grind to a halt. It is snowing.


Scrap that. ‘It is snowing' doesn't do justice to the meteorological insanity occurring. It would be more accurate to say ‘there is a very small percentage of the sky not filled with snow'. Fresh powder sits thick on the tarmac, getting deeper by the second as flakes the size of Jaffa Cakes fall with a ferocity that makes a mockery of the fact we're only half an hour from temperate, palm-strewn Monte Carlo.
In the old Cooper, I'm busy constructing a very good reason why I need to switch cars when the Countryman - the warm, safe, four-wheel-drive Countryman - zips past me and off along the Col, carving a bow-wave of snow as it goes. Right. Good. Here goes, then: the Col de Turini, in apocalyptic snow, in a mint original Mini Cooper kindly lent to us by a Frenchman called André on the proviso that we don't do anything stupid with it. This feels a bit stupid.

Turns out it isn't. Barrelling along the pass, snow-laden pines just visible through the blizzard, the Cooper is bloody magnificent. Really. Grip levels could be accurately defined as ‘scant to non-existent', but it doesn't matter, so light and nimble is the Mini. ‘Steering on the throttle' is a phrase that should be confined to the pages of Treadshuffle Monthly, but it's actually apt here.


Turn into a corner, and the nose immediately swings wide as the front tyres scrabble on the fresh snow. But a tap of the brakes and a healthy stab of the throttle sends the Cooper's tail arcing round in a delicious drift. Balancing steering, brakes and accelerator, it proves hilariously easy to exit corners at heroic angles, chased by a wall of snow. Skating from side to side, I'm not sure it's possible to have more fun in a car. In the dead of night, lights bouncing off the snow, co-driver screaming in your ear, 1,000-foot drops leering from the darkness, things might be less cheery, I suppose.
There’s not much in here to distract you from the simple act of driving flat-out: no radio, no switches, not even a lane-departure warning system (save photographer Joe shouting when I skate too close to the cliff-edge). Wing mirrors? Angling a soup spoon out the window would be more effective than the Cooper’s tiny reflectors.

The driving position is defiantly old-school - knees pointing up towards your shoulders, wheel canted away, the top of the rim almost out of reach. For the first few miles, I drive hunched forward so I can reach the whole of the wheel, but soon revert to a slouched position, gripping the lower half of the wheel like a lazy bus driver. What a wheel, too - a huge, skinny ring of polished wood that transmits every slip and slide from the front tyres straight to your fingertips. The throttle response is similarly immediate. Brush the accelerator and the Cooper lurches forward, its central peashooter exhaust firing a rat-a-tat rhythm off the surrounding trees.
The driving position is defiantly old-school - knees pointing up towards your shoulders, wheel canted away, the top of the rim almost out of reach. For the first few miles, I drive hunched forward so I can reach the whole of the wheel, but soon revert to a slouched position, gripping the lower half of the wheel like a lazy bus driver. What a wheel, too - a huge, skinny ring of polished wood that transmits every slip and slide from the front tyres straight to your fingertips. The throttle response is similarly immediate. Brush the accelerator and the Cooper lurches forward, its central peashooter exhaust firing a rat-a-tat rhythm off the surrounding trees.

Why, you might ask, are we celebrating the anniversary of the Cooper rather than that of the Mini itself, born a year earlier? Well, the grown-up, enlightened answer is because it was the Cooper, not the original, utilitarian Mini, that marked the birth of the Swinging Sixties in Britain, hitting the streets at the same time as the Jaguar E-Type and the Beatles' first gig at the Cavern Club to usher in a golden era where cool Britannia really did rule the cultural waves. That's the grown-up answer.

Unfortunately, the TopGear editorial staff is, on average, a couple of decades younger than the original Mini Cooper, making us monumentally underqualified to wax lyrical on the cultural nuances of the early Sixties. But we can talk about rallying. When Hopkirk danced the Cooper to victory over the big, heavy, rear-drive Ford Falcons and Mercedes 300 SEs, a rallying legend was born. Hopkirk's win in 1964 was followed by victories for a pair of Finns, Timo Mäkinen and Rauno Aaltonen, in 1965 and 1967. Coopers took the top three spots in 1966, too, only to be disqualified on a technicality - even so, the little Mini's status as a racing legend was confirmed. The Cooper went on to record thousands of victories across the world, cementing Britain's place at the top table of racing.
The ballsy, plucky Britishness of the Cooper becomes yet more poignant as I switch into the decidedly Germanic Countryman. With permanent 4WD that can push all the power to the axle that needs it, this should be the most snow-proof Mini ever. In the course of one stuttering, flailing corner, it becomes very apparent that it isn't. The tyres are the problem. The Countryman is fitted with summer tyres - entirely our fault for borrowing the car from Mini at too short notice to fit winter rubber - with narrow grooves that jam full of snow, leaving the Countryman effectively on slicks, without traction, stability systems stuttering like King George VI. The centre clutch desperately shoves power back and forth in search of grip, but there's none to be had. Taking your Mini Countryman out in the snow? Fit winter tyres.
In truth, it's not really fair to compare the two cars head-to-head. Our Countryman is an out-and-out road car, the old Cooper is an authentic Sixties rally car: an all-terrain racer preserved in its prime, headlights and studded tyres and all. But it's astonishing how far the brand has evolved, even distended, in the last half-century. The Countryman is a full 106cm longer than the Cooper and - here's the killer stat - nearly three times the weight. The race-grade engine in the old car makes around 95bhp which, with the Cooper tipping the scales just under 600kg, means a power-to-weight ratio of 160bhp-per-tonne. The Countryman, weighing in at just under a tonne-and-a-half, its 1.6-litre petrol engine producing 184bhp, manages a more modest 124bhp-per-tonne. Progress, eh?
Of course, the Countryman's extra 950-odd kilos does some good, important stuff. Stopping the occurrence of death, for one. In the event of an accident in the old Cooper - whanging off the end of a hairpin on the Col de Turini and onto the rocks below, say - the lack of any safety kit means it'll be your face acting as a crumple zone. In the Countryman, you might survive a couple of bounces at least.
Of course, the Countryman's extra 950-odd kilos does some good, important stuff. Stopping the occurrence of death, for one. In the event of an accident in the old Cooper - whanging off the end of a hairpin on the Col de Turini and onto the rocks below, say - the lack of any safety kit means it'll be your face acting as a crumple zone. In the Countryman, you might survive a couple of bounces at least.
So we're not suggesting that, if you've been considering a Countryman, you should dash out and purchase a Sixties Mini Cooper instead. Mini's not-so-mini SUV-hatch is a fine, grown-up family car and, unlike the original Cooper, boasts a gearbox that doesn't require the touch of a master safebreaker to slot into reverse (in fact, trying to locate any gear at all with the Cooper's huge stalk of a lever is akin to stirring a pot of nails with a tent-pole). Where the old car is noisy and oily and basic, the newcomer is quiet and refined. But up here, alone in the trees, the Countryman seems a bit lacking in that trademark Mini effervescence still prevalent in the three-door versions of the modern car - a fizz present in spades in the old Cooper.

For the 1,000-mile haul back to the UK, the Cooper would be intolerable. In fact, it wouldn't have made it. The Countryman handles it without breaking sweat. But for a 40-mile hoon along one of the world's most fearsome rally stages, the 50-year-old veteran remains king.
TG would like to thank Rent A Car Classic for sourcing the old Mini. To hire excellent old sports cars on the French Riviera, check out: http://www.rentacarclassic.com/

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