Five Classic Trials
Rover Mini Thirty
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.