THE MINI’S POINT OF DIF­FER­ENCE

New Zealand Classic Car - - Motor Man -

Donn’s been out on the road in both the UK and New Zealand with a pair of the lat­est Mini Cooper S hatches, and com­pares them to the orig­i­nal clas­sic Cooper 1275S

Some­times you sim­ply can­not beat a sound, old-fash­ioned idea. While the trend to­day is clearly to­wards smaller, fuel ef­fi­cient and low-emis­sion en­gines, a larger power-plant in a smaller car is still in­vari­ably a recipe for suc­cess.

When Austin and Mor­ris popped a care­fully fet­tled 1275cc en­gine into the orig­i­nal clas­sic Mini 51 years ago they not only cre­ated a for­mi­da­ble mo­tor-sport weapon, but also pro­duced the best road-go­ing ver­sion of the unique baby car. The im­prove­ment in power-to-weight ra­tio over the 848cc Mini sim­ply trans­formed what was meant to be a Spar­tan, low-cost car for the masses.

Iron­i­cally, Sir Alex Is­sigo­nis — the man re­spon­si­ble for both the Mor­ris Mi­nor and Mini — was ini­tially luke­warm about John Cooper’s plan to put a larger en­gine in the Mini, but he be­came more en­thused af­ter see­ing the suc­cess of first the Mini Cooper and then the even quicker S ver­sions.

I was typ­i­cal of Mini en­thu­si­asts in the ’60s in first own­ing a stan­dard, lo­cally as­sem­bled 850 model be­fore pro­gress­ing to a Cooper and then a Cooper S.

While al­ways be­liev­ing the Cooper sports mod­els should have a man­ual gear­box, I re­cently found the prospect of an au­to­matic Cooper S en­tic­ing. The last time I drove an au­to­matic Mini was in 1968, when I took a non-cooper 998cc model from Lon­don to Zand­voort for the Dutch Grand Prix.

Fast for­ward al­most 47 years to the lat­est clutch­less three-door Mini Cooper S, this time with the largest en­gine ever in­stalled in a pro­duc­tion Mini. Would it re­in­force the sound prin­ci­ples of us­ing a large en­gine with an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion in a small pack­age?

Auto His­tory

Bri­tish Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion uti­lized the Au­to­mo­tive Prod­ucts (AP) trans­mis­sion in sev­eral of its front-drive cars, and an early prob­lem with oil surge caus­ing a break in the drive while

cor­ner­ing was over­come by mov­ing the oil pump to the cen­tre of the sump. The torque con­verter in the AP trans­mis­sion re­placed the usual clutch and fly­wheel as­sem­bly, while a large­ca­pac­ity camshaft-driven oil pump served both the en­gine and trans­mis­sion lu­bri­ca­tion sys­tem. AP spent years de­vel­op­ing this au­to­matic and, while change points could some­time be lumpy, the trans­mis­sion was rea­son­ably good for the era.

Be­hind the scenes was an­other project that, sadly, never be­came a pro­duc­tion re­al­ity. One of Sir Alec’s pet projects, even in re­tire­ment, was a gear­less Mini, us­ing a torque con­verter to trans­fer power from the crankshaft to a sim­ple for­ward and re­verse gear mounted in-unit with the fi­nal drive. He de­cided to have one built for him­self, and two oth­ers — one each for Stir­ling Moss and Jaguar ex­ec­u­tive Lofty Eng­land. Many For­mula 1 driv­ers in the ’60s drove Minis as their road cars, and Fer­rari works driver Chris Amon had only sold his sec­ond Mini, a Cooper 1275S, be­cause he had been given a cour­tesy car by Ford.

“Alex Is­sigo­nis was a good mate of Fer­rari and came to Maranello, the Fer­rari head­quar­ters in Italy, on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions so I got to know him rea­son­ably well,” re­called Chris sev­eral years later. “On one visit he men­tioned that he was hav­ing three spe­cial Cooper S–types made with a four-speed man­ual change but with a torque con­verter. He asked if I would be in­ter­ested and, if so, he would do a fourth car. I ob­vi­ously agreed, and that was a great lit­tle car in the UK. But it didn’t like the au­tostradas as the high speeds tended to over­heat the trans­mis­sion.” Amon kept the Mini for sev­eral years, and of­ten won­dered if any of the four cars still ex­isted.

As with the lesser-pow­ered stan­dard Minis, the trans­mis­sion in the four Cooper S mod­els was de­vel­oped by AP. Change-speed gover­nor weights had to be light­ened to in­crease kick­down speed and al­low faster changes when the gear­box was in au­to­matic drive. Amon’s car fea­tured a stage two Down­ton-mod­i­fied en­gine that en­hanced smooth­ness, ac­cel­er­a­tion and top speed.

To­day’s F56 Mini Cooper S is a world away from that 1968 pre­de­ces­sor, with nary an inkling of the oc­ca­sional en­gine-cool­ing prob­lems that marred the old pro­to­type 1275S auto. And while it is now hardly a ‘mini’ car in terms of size or pric­ing, this lat­est in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a mo­tor­ing icon still in­her­its a unique make-up and sense of fun that typ­i­fied the orig­i­nal. Sim­ply look at or sit in a cur­rent Mini, and ap­pre­ci­ate the dif­fer­ence be­tween this and other cars.

BMW In­spired

Sir Alex died in Oc­to­ber 1988, just a few weeks af­ter the pass­ing of friend Enzo Fer­rari, so he never got to see Bmw-in­spired Minis. But just what would he have thought about the new-gen­er­a­tion car with all its tech­nol­ogy and luxury, when the orig­i­nal did not even have pro­vi­sion for a ra­dio?

Is­sigo­nis rea­soned any sort of sound sys­tem in a car only dis­tracted the driver, and was there­fore un­safe and un­nec­es­sary. He may also have won­dered about the coloured in­te­rior light­ing and scratched his head about a per­ceived weight prob­lem, since the new Cooper S weighs al­most twice as much as a 50-year-old 1275S. It may be heav­ier, but the 2.0-litre twin-cam B48 mo­tor pro­duces 141kw against 57kw for the old pushrod A-se­ries power plant. The 2.0-litre achieves 280Nm of torque or 300Nm with over-boost — pre­cisely three times that of the 1275S.

With­out any ma­jor in­crease in per­for­mance, how­ever, what the fresh BMW 2.0-litre en­gine has done is given a big-car feel to Mini with in­creased re­fine­ment. The 1964 Cooper S amazed with its flex­i­bil­ity and mid-range re­sponse, and the out­stand­ing road man­ners were well able to cope with the ex­tra power.

One-time owner and racer Roger Stan­i­forth reck­oned he could drive his stan­dard Cooper 1275S from Auck­land to Welling­ton in top gear with­out ex­ceed­ing 90kph. >

Even so the power-to-weight ra­tio has pro­gres­sively im­proved through all four gen­er­a­tions of Cooper S — and we’ve yet to see the 2015 fac­tory John Cooper Works ( JCW) range-top­ping per­for­mance model.

Each cylin­der in BMW’S new mod­u­lar en­gine has a ca­pac­ity of 500cc, so the three-cylin­der B38 in the stan­dard Cooper is 1.5 litres, while the four-cylin­der B48 in the S-type is 2.0 litres. Add two more cylin­ders and you have the BMW straight-six mo­tor. The three-cylin­der is re­mark­ably smooth and quiet, par­tic­u­larly at cruis­ing speeds, and is com­mend­ably eco­nom­i­cal. Un­der­stand­ably, it lacks the low-down punch of the 2.0-litre and, in con­trast to the re­spon­sive Cooper S, needs to be stirred off the line and at slow speeds. Both en­gines are tur­bocharged, and have di­rect fuel in­jec­tion and vari­able camshaft con­trol on the in­take and ex­haust.

Driver As­sis­tance

In Bri­tain re­cently I eval­u­ated a new Cooper S with the man­ual six-speed gear­box, and the drive in­cluded a lengthy run from Lon­don to Corn­wall in the south-west of Eng­land. The car proved a per­fect com­pan­ion, with an abil­ity to cover hun­dreds of non-stop kilo­me­tres in com­plete com­fort. The man­ual box has car­bon fric­tion lines in the syn­chro­nizer rings for re­duced weight, yet the shift can be slightly notchy.

Re­vised sports seat­ing is a marked im­prove­ment, and the new adap­tive cruise con­trol — which is ac­tive be­tween 30 and 140kph — is a boon on mo­tor­ways. This is a costly $2200 op­tion known as ‘driver as­sis­tance pack­age’, and in­cor­po­rates cam­era-based cruise con­trol reg­u­lat­ing dis­tance from the ve­hi­cle ahead while also al­low­ing for ve­hi­cles en­ter­ing a flow­ing mo­tor­way.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the op­tion con­trols high-beam head­light op­er­a­tion (depend­ing on ap­proach­ing traf­fic), de­tects road sig­nage, speed lim­its and over­tak­ing zones. It warns of po­ten­tial haz­ards, such as pedes­tri­ans, with pre­con­di­tion­ing of the brakes for faster brak­ing re­sponse and short brak­ing dis­tances. This is all de­tailed to the driver via the op­tional heads-up dis­play ($1000) with its su­perbly po­si­tioned speed read­out.

Back on lo­cal roads, and step­ping into a Cooper S equipped with the six-speed au­to­matic trans­mis­sion pro­vides yet an­other di­men­sion to the car. The auto adds $3000 to the cost, but pay an ex­tra $500 and you get gearshift pad­dles, launch con­trol and a hand­some JCW leather sports steer­ing wheel. Both man­ual and auto Cooper S mod­els are en­gag­ing to drive, and the au­to­matic builds on the luxury feel of the car. While this may seem at odds with the orig­i­nal in­ten­tions of the sport­ing ver­sion of the Mini, the man­ual over­ride ac­ti­vated by the col­umn pad­dles com­pen­sates for this. What’s more the auto does a bet­ter job than the driver, reach­ing 100kph in 6.7 sec­onds — slightly quicker than the man­ual — and it’s a shade more thrifty. The clas­sic 1275S needed 11 sec­onds to reach 100kph, and its av­er­age fuel con­sump­tion was much higher than the mod­ern-day car.

Tech­ni­cal High­lights

The en­gine in the clas­sic Cooper S was a far cry from the out­wardly sim­i­lar over­head-valve 1.3-litre A-se­ries used in the Austin/mor­ris 1300 and the Mini Club­man 1275GT, which was a poor shadow of its Cooper pre­de­ces­sor. When I seized the en­gine in my Cooper S on a club day at Pukekohe, I was thank­ful Rolls-royce ni­trided the high-ten­sile steel crankshaft for sur­face hard­ness and ex­tra strength, be­cause it sur­vived in­tact. The stan­dard Cooper S mo­tor was fit­ted with spe­cial pis­tons and con-rods, fat­ter gud­geon pins, Ni­monic valves run­ning in spe­cial cop­per-nickel guides op­er­ated by forged-steel rock­ers and a be­spoke camshaft giv­ing a wide, flat torque curve.

While buy­ers had to be con­tent with a man­ual-only pro­duc­tion clas­sic Cooper S, to­day’s Mini choice is seem­ingly end­less. With the ar­rival of the longer-wheel­base five-door hatch in Novem­ber there are now seven body con­fig­u­ra­tions, but the three-door hatch is still the purest of the form. The hatch is the first Mini based on the new UKL1 plat­form, which BMW is adopt­ing for sev­eral front-drive mod­els, in­clud­ing the 2 Se­ries Ac­tive Tourer.

The F56 is the first au­to­matic Mini to of­fer a stop/start fa­cil­ity, while all ver­sions can now be spec­i­fied with the Park As­sist pack­age, of­fer­ing au­to­matic par­al­lel park­ing and front park­ing sen­sors. A sur­pris­ing omis­sion is front park­ing dis­tance sen­sors on their own, as they can only be op­tioned with Park As­sist. How­ever, rear park dis­tance con­trol is stan­dard on all mod­els, and stan­dard kit on Cooper S also runs to 17-inch al­loys, up­graded front sports seats, stan­dard cruise con­trol, rain sen­sor wipers and auto head­light con­trol, front fog lights, an on-board com­puter and cli­mate con­trol.

While the late Is­sigo­nis may not have ap­proved of many as­pects of the now lav­ish Mini, he would surely have been de­lighted his iconic cre­ation is still very much alive — at least in name — and that it re­mains both dis­tinc­tive and fun to drive. The F56 rep­re­sents half a cen­tury of progress and the three-door Cooper S hard­top is still my pick of the range — not in­ex­pen­sive, but cer­tainly the best, and a land­mark in Mini’s event­ful 55-year life.

Sir Alex Is­sigo­nis with the very first Mini chas­sis num­ber one on his re­tire­ment in 1972 Donn An­der­son at Bri­tish Ley­land’s UK mu­seum in 1995 with 621 AOK, the first 1959 Mini 848 off the pro­duc­tion line

Two clas­sic Mini Cooper S cars at Ard­more in 1964, with the bold chrome grille of the Mor­ris ver­sion (left) con­trast­ing with the more con­ser­va­tive Austin grille

Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy – ’60s style!

The F56 2.0-litre Mini Cooper S auto as tested by Donn

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