Which tiny tot delivers the most driving fun?
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’