The very first car I owned was a Mini. That was back in 1988, just after I finished high school. It was worth about $1,500; was British Racing green in colour; and stuck in third gear when it was cold. It didn't have air conditioning; there wasn't much room in it; and it was nowhere near as good as the cars my mates were driving.
I loved that car. It cornered like no car I've driven since - including two sports cars. The car body is wide, and low to the ground. You could throw it into a corner at 70 or 80km/h and it would just hug the road and turn like it was on rails. When they were first released in the '60s, they came with a guarantee that you couldn't roll one.
[Historical note: Turns out that last part wasn't entirely true, as my older brother demonstrated by falling asleep at the wheel and rolling it down an embankment. Ironically, he wasn't wearing a seatbelt, which saved his life: he fell flat across the front seats as the car rolled and hit a telegraph pole - across the roof. A seat belt would have held him upright in his seat, and his head would have been crushed by the telegraph pole. Instead, he walked away with a split forehead.]
The Mini Cooper S was also a very powerful little car. When combined with it's cornering and general handling, it made an awesome little race car. It's hard to believe when you see the parade of V8 cars going around the race-track today that the Mini won the Bathurst 1000 in 1966. Actually, Mini's came in the first nine places. If you want to know why your Holdens and Fords have good handling today, you can mark it down to the embarassment they experienced getting trounced in '66 by a little Mini :)
The Mini was, quite simply, an enormously fun car to drive. More than anything else, that sense of fun was what made the car unique - as much as its iconic shape.
So in 2002 when new owners BMW re-launched the Mini marque, there was a great deal of consternation felt around the world by Mini owners and drivers all terribly worried that the new version would have lost those characteristics that made the car unique.
A few years back a friend of mine was looking to replace his car - an Audi TT. He had a mind to get something a little more sensible, which in his case meant an Audi A4 Cabriolet. While he was in the process of looking he also figured he might as well test drive a few other cars that he had no intention of buying, but would like to drive at least once.
One of the cars he wanted a turn in was the new Mini Cooper. So he rolled up to the Mini dealership in his TT, wandered in and asked for a test drive. A few minutes later he was rolling out of the dealership in a Mini, ready to put it through it's paces.
Now, I'm not sure this is the same all over, but in Australia the car salesman (literally true) comes along with you. My friend was behind the wheel; salesman in the passenger seat. Away they go.
My buddy drove that car around for a few minutes getting used to the handling (much better than his TT), the performance, brakes etc. But he wasn't really all that thrilled. He even said so to the salesman. To which the salesman replied: "You're driving it like an Audi. This is a Mini. Drive it like you just stole it."
Ten minutes after that he was filling in paperwork to buy it. After 40 years Mini had changed a lot in their car: but they retained the essence of what made the original such a joy to drive. And in doing so, they're winning over a new generation of enthusiastic car owners.
The lesson here is that, having gone to so much trouble to design and build a product that creates a unique, highly-valued experience, it's possible to reinvent the product without losing touch with the core elements of the experience that made it successful.
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