Which tiny tot de­liv­ers the most driv­ing fun?

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Epic Battles -

Flop onto the Fiat’s tiny driver’s seat and close the door. The re­sul­tant ‘clunk’ is quite sat­is­fy­ing, con­sid­er­ing how light the bodyshell is. Come on, who’s stolen all the switches and gauges? Half the dash­board is noth­ing more than painted metal, with the ash­tray fi­nally break­ing the ice in the cen­tre of the dash. It’s ac­com­pa­nied by three switches that op­er­ate the wind­screen wipers, ex­ter­nal lights and il­lu­mi­na­tion for the bin­na­cle hous­ing the speedome­ter, which is cal­i­brated – rather op­ti­misti­cally – to 70mph. Also, there are warn­ing lights for main beam, fuel (there is no ac­tual gauge on this ear­lier car) charge and oil.

Stalks for the in­di­ca­tors and dim-dip pro­trude from the left-hand side of the col­umn be­low the lovely steer­ing wheel. Turn the ig­ni­tion switch and fum­ble be­tween the front seats for two pull-up levers, one for the starter, the other for the choke. Now, ex­plore with your feet. The clutch and brake ped­als are easy to find but the ac­cel­er­a­tor is awk­wardly placed to the right and down. There is a hand throt­tle be­neath the dash­board, but we left that well alone!

The en­gine splut­ters into life. More fid­dling sets the choke cor­rectly and we ease the car into first, drop the hand­brake and move off to the ser­e­nade of mu­si­cal gear whine. As with all but the last 500s, this car’s gear­box is non-syn­chro­mesh, call­ing for dou­ble-de­clutch­ing on the way up (where the car is fairly sym­pa­thetic), and on the way down (where it is less so and de­mands prac­tice). Get it right and the changes feel pre­cise and chunky. The steer­ing, mean­while, is light and sur­pris­ingly pre­cise.

The car strug­gles to hit 60mph and you’ll spend at least half a minute just get­ting to 50mph, but the low gear­ing helps to pro­vide use­ful bursts of ac­cel­er­a­tion with the en­gine sound­ing like a group of Lam­bret­tas rolling into Brighton on a Bank Hol­i­day Mon­day circa. 1964.

It’s adept at squeez­ing through nar­row gaps, thanks to its tiny size and low cen­tre of grav­ity, and han­dles well con­sid­er­ing the sus­pen­sion set-up of a sin­gle trans­verse leaf spring at the front and coils with swing axles at the rear. There is some un­der­steer, but it’s per­fectly pre­dictable, though there is a sense that over­steer could en­ter the equa­tion if you were to thrash the car to its very lim­its. The all drum brakes have very lit­tle weight to ex­ert pres­sure on, so they work well.

The Mini is a dif­fer­ent beast, with the limousine­like (rel­a­tive to the Fiat, at any rate) di­men­sions of 10ft 1.25in long and 4ft 7½in wide. Un­like the Fiat, it’s front-wheel drive too. Over fa­mil­iar­ity can mask just how pretty this car is, too, with its nearper­fectly pro­por­tioned lines and sweet, stubby lit­tle bon­net.

Once in­side, the Mini feels pos­i­tively cathe­dral­like com­pared to the Fiat, with more than enough space to ac­com­mo­date four adults. The an­gled steer­ing wheel is set just right for the up­right driv­ing po­si­tion while a large cen­tre con­sole houses the speedome­ter, mileome­ter, fuel gauge and warn­ing lights, with switches for the lights, wipers and heater on a panel be­low.

Flick the ig­ni­tion on, press the starter be­tween the seats and there’s an in­stant re­sponse from the 848cc trans­versely-mounted A-se­ries en­gine. Grab the long, spindly gear lever and in a process not un­like stok­ing a fire, crash into non-syn­chro­mesh first and we’re off.

Ad­mit­tedly the leg­endary rub­ber cone sus­pen­sion care­fully con­veys deeper bumps in the road to your spine but oth­er­wise this Mini is a gen­uine joy to drive with ab­so­lutely the best gear ra­tios and of course the light­weight body makes the most of the power on of­fer.

The han­dling is lit­tle short of as­ton­ish­ing; noth­ing – nei­ther the sharpest nor the most de­cep­tively pro­gres­sive of bends – throws it off line, though there is a small amount of in­stantly cor­rectable un­der­steer.

The car’s ex­cel­lent feed­back and low driv­ing po­si­tion add to the im­pres­sion that you’re driv­ing a go-kart that can be slot­ted into vir­tu­ally any gap. This, al­lied to ex­cel­lent visibility and an ex­em­plary turn­ing cir­cle, all add up to a sub­lime ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind the wheel. The car is so great to drive that it’s easy to for­get the ex­cel­lent in­te­rior dy­nam­ics, from the com­fort­able seats to the handy stor­age bins and slid­ing win­dows.

What a pack­age!

’The Fiat’s en­gine sounds like a group of Lam­bret­tas rolling into Brighton on a Bank Hol­i­day Mon­day circa. 1964, while the Mini’s han­dling is lit­tle short of as­ton­ish­ing – noth­ing throws it off line’

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