America - Andrew Stephen investigates a Mini miracle
After 35 years, the Mini has been reintroduced to the US and is suddenly the coolest car in Washingt
I do not normally notice car models, and am hard put to recognise one car from another. But the other day, I went out of my house and could not help noticing a brand new car - a shining new Mini Cooper - in my neighbour's driveway. On a walk around the block, I was astonished to spot five more Minis either parked or buzzing along the streets. Together with the huge, armour-plated Hummer - a ludicrous sight in Georgetown's narrow streets - the Mini is this summer's cult car.
I was so curious about this Mini phenomenon that I tracked down Keith Weatherspoon, who was the only dealer I could find in the area. He is based in Sterling, Virginia, 25 miles south of DC, but told me he is now selling one or two Minis per day to Washingtonians. "Once a person drives it, they don't want to get out of it," he told me. And, virtually unprecedented for an American car salesman, he always gets the asking price of between $17,000 and $20,000 (the latter for the supercharged Cooper S model). He then told me that, amazingly, only half his customers want automatic transmission, something almost universal here: the remainder go for the five-speed transmission and the sporty image.
"It's been un-American to drive a small car," Weatherspoon went on, "but this car has broken the mould. Here's a vehicle that looks good and has the drivability to overtake large cars."
Could it be due to the pro-British mood that has swept the US since the invasion of Iraq? "I think that has something to do with it. There is nostalgia for the last Mini, and Britain's involvement in wars with us means that where one country goes, the other follows."
So is the Carnaby Street of the Sixties, of miniskirts as well as Minis, far behind? The sad news is that, although the new Minis are made near Oxford, 60 per cent of their components - compared with 5 per cent in Sir Alec Issigonis's original model, launched in 1959 - are made outside Britain. The engines come from Brazil. And in case anyone didn't know, the Mini business is now owned not by Rover, but by BMW of Munich, which reintroduced them to America last year after a 35-year absence, favouring a slow-burn approach.
The new-model Mini that has become such a cult in Washington is 18 inches longer than its predecessor, and its engine, even in the basic model, has much more oomph. BMW knew that Americans favoured larger cars which guzzle more gas, and that launching the Mini was a risky proposition - the Volkswagen Beetle was an exception, having also become something of a small-car favourite here in the past 30 years - and so it adopted a launch policy that deliberately played on its cult status, while simultaneously accommodating basic market-place demands for more power, speed and manoeuvrability.
Indeed, of BMW's 350 dealerships in the US, it insisted on launching the Mini only in around 70; the company also demanded that any dealership taking the car would maintain two separate showrooms, one exclusively for the Mini and the other for BMW's usual upmarket cars. Hence the few dealers, exuding a hint of exclusivity, that currently sell Minis - and hence Weatherspoon's dealership so distant from Washington.
Perhaps the biggest fillip to the Mini's new status here came in May with its starring role in The Italian Job, a remake of the 1969 film that starred Michael Caine. "Product placement" in movies is neither sophisticated nor subliminal these days, and companies will pay as much as $30m to see their products in prominent and favourable roles in Hollywood movies. Another major film role for a car this year comes in Terminator 3, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger drives a Toyota Tundra, a new pick-up van.
But the Mini is indefatigable in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, with the producers revisiting its role in the original film. Only two Minis are shown, but 32 were used in filming: the heroic little car is seen hurtling through tunnels, tussling with helicopters, racing trains, and driving up and down steps - all highly successfully, it goes without saying, in this dream role for the car's manufacturers. "The fastest speeds ever in the LA subway slalom," proclaim the reviewers. With this kind of publicity as well as word of mouth, BMW is targeting both yuppie baby boomers (such as my neighbour) and the 20-34 age group.
All of which means that a British icon of the Sixties, remodelled by its 21st-century Bavarian owners but still available with a Union Jack on the roof, is the retro hit of the summer in Washington. Whether the fad will take off throughout the US is another matter; but 30,000 Minis have been sold since the relaunch this side of the Atlantic. That's good going for a car thought to interest only a tiny portion of the American market two years ago. In fact, it's downright cool, baby.
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