Five Clas­sic Tri­als

Rover Mini Thirty

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - This Week -

They don’t make cars like this any more. Hell, they can’t make cars like this any more. The orig­i­nal Mini’s slen­der A- and B-pil­lars would sim­ply be im­pos­si­ble to­day. So too, the al­most hor­i­zon­tal bon­net and near-ver­ti­cal wind­screen, which cre­ate that iconic sil­hou­ette but would never pass to­day’s strin­gent pedes­trian safety tests.

But this car is far from ir­rel­e­vant. If any­thing, the Mini is too in­flu­en­tial, too good. Its de­signer, Alec Is­sigo­nis, could rightly claim to be the man most re­spon­si­ble for the cur­rent dom­i­na­tion of our roads by front-wheel drive, trans­verse-en­gined, wa­ter-cooled cars. Many of us now lament the lack of di­ver­sity in mod­ern cars and it’s the Mini’s crush­ing bril­liance that ended – and won – the de­bate.

The Thirty we have here to­day, how­ever, is dou­bly rel­e­vant. Most an­niver­sary mod­els are noth­ing but a col­lec­tor’s fancy, but the Thirty was a sig­nif­i­cant and piv­otal car in the Mini’s his­tory. Austin-Rover was con­sid­er­ing ax­ing the Mini just three years be­fore to the car’s re­lease, but the Thirty showed how it could be taken up­mar­ket and helped pave the way for the re­turn of the Cooper.

Right from first glance, the dou­ble lac­quer Cherry Red paint lets you know that this car may be small, but it’s not aus­tere. The chrome grille, 12-inch Minilite al­loy wheels and colour­coded wheel arches were all fea­tures new to, or long lost from the Mini range in 1989. Plas­tic fan­tas­tic had taken its toll on the old girl, but the 1990s’ love of all things retro was just around the corner.

Step in­side the Thirty and you’re greeted by one of the most ap­peal­ing in­te­ri­ors you’ll find on any Mini. The ‘ light­ning cloth’ is a pat­tern that would stay with the Mini for seven years, al­beit used ex­clu­sively in Cooper mod­els af­ter this out­ing. In­deed, the in­te­rior was lifted from the Thirty al­most com­pletely for the re­launched ‘Rover Spe­cial Prod­ucts’ Cooper, with only a change in la­belling. Sports seats were added to the reg­u­lar pro­duc­tion model that fol­lowed, but the up­hol­stery re­mained the same.

Fire it up, and the con­sid­er­able vi­bra­tion through the car re­minds you of its 1950s roots, though it smooths out once the car is mov­ing, which is eas­ily done thanks to the light clutch. The gearchange is smooth too, but lacks the pre­ci­sion of ear­lier re­mote change Mi­nis, pre­sum­ably thanks to the much longer shifter.

It’s an il­lu­sion of the car’s close prox­im­ity to the road that it al­ways feels much faster than it ac­tu­ally is, which makes the car feel al­most pug­na­cious – quite the feat with just 998cc un­der the bon­net. While ob­vi­ously not the case in re­al­ity, it feels as fast as any­thing up to around 45mph. Be­yond this, the car read­ily makes its way up to about 70mph, though you do soon wish that it had an­other gear.

In truth though, the Mini isn’t uniquely spe­cial in a straight line, as there are other cars of its vin­tage that have sim­i­lar ‘goes slow, feels fast’ char­ac­ter­is­tics – the Fiat 500 springs to mind. Ap­proach a corner, how­ever, and the Mini is truly world class. The steer­ing alone is rea­son enough for own­ing one of th­ese cars, be­cause it’s as di­rect and re­spon­sive as any sports car. It puts most clas­sics – and just about all mod­ern cars – to shame.

The grip is im­pres­sive, too, but it’s the feel and com­mu­nica­tive­ness of its han­dling,that makes the Mini so spe­cial. Even a tal­ent­less driver can push the Mini close to its limit, be­cause it makes it ob­vi­ous when it’s near the edge and suc­cumbs to harm­less un­der­steer when the driver pushes it too far. Some might ar­gue that a front-wheel drive car can never han­dle as well as a rear-driver, but that sim­ply isn’t true with the Mini, which never has the power to over­whelm its dy­nam­ics.

It can feel harsh on bumps and poor sur­faces how­ever, a sac­ri­fice of the rel­a­tively stiff rub­ber cone setup and 12-inch wheels; the Mini was never re­ally de­signed for wheels this large and it does miss the ex­tra com­pli­ance pro­vided by big­ger tyres. This re­quires more care­ful scan­ning of the road ahead for pot­holes and speed bumps than many driv­ers will be used to, though it soon be­comes sec­ond na­ture.

All of this adds up to a car whose only real day-to-day draw­back is a fairly harsh ride. Oth­er­wise, it’s a bril­liant way of get­ting from A to B, with ex­cep­tion­ally easy con­trols and brakes that, while only ad­e­quate in per­for­mance, are light and easy to use

Fi­nally wrig­gle free of traffic lights and con­ges­tion, how­ever, and you have a sen­sa­tion­ally fun car. In­deed, like a truly sporty car, it fo­cuses on the ex­pe­ri­ence of driv­ing quickly, rather than be­ing the quick­est.

It’s easy to see why th­ese cars were snapped up so quickly in 1989, thereby pulling the Mini out of a decade of what we now nick­name ‘poverty spec’ cars.

What’s more, there’s a lot to be thank­ful for where the Thirty’s suc­cess is con­cerned – the 1990s Cooper was ar­guably the best Mini since the death of the Cooper S in 1970 and it her­alded the suc­cess­ful di­rec­tion BMW took with the new MINI. Here’s to the next 30 years!

The Mini’s fa­mous cen­tre dial hadn’t fea­tured in the Mini for close to a decade by 1989. This three-dial set-up is more prac­ti­cal, if not as visually ap­peal­ing.

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