A Mini Cooper S helped this Londoner rediscover the joy of driving
Escaping the city and hitting the road for fun
I’ve always liked cars. I remember when I was a small boy, my Dad used to test me on makes and models we passed on long journeys. I remember him being surprised at how good I was at identifying them, I think largely because I had picked up this knowledge quietly and entirely on my own. It just sort of seeped into my brain.
Later, when I was old enough to physically be able to drive but not old enough to do it on the roads, I used to badger my Mum or Dad to take the dog for a long walk at the beach. I didn’t care about the walk at all – it was merely a pretext to allow me to drive on an old track that ran behind the beach.
I just wanted to drive.
The instant I turned 17 I started proper lessons and I was the first one of my friends to pass my test. Freedom.
I loved driving – it didn’t matter where or to what end, just being behind the wheel was what excited me. It didn’t even really matter what I was driving. I mostly learned to drive in my Dad’s old Land Rover: an early, pre-Defender era 110, with dodgy brakes, no power steering, a recalcitrant second gear, and a passenger door that didn’t open anymore.
I later owned my own Land Rover. A 90 of a similar vintage to my Dad’s. I drove it everywhere, until the gearbox fell out of the bottom of it.
My old 90 is the blue one on the right
That is one of only three cars I’ve ever actually owned. The others are a sky blue Vauxhall Astra Merit I had when I was at university (it once got stolen twice in the same weekend, and I never saw it again), and a 1.2 Renault Clio I bought when I started my first proper job, as a patch reporter for a local paper in Buckinghamshire.
But when I changed jobs and started working in Canary Wharf, I had to move closer to work. That meant a flat in Zone 2, and that meant I had to sell my car. That was eight years ago. I have not owned a car since. Fact is, I don’t *really* need one. The public transport is so good – and driving to work in central London would make no sense.
Even if I wanted one, there are problems. I live in a flat that is part of a ‘car-free development’. That means I don’t have a parking space, and I can’t get a residents’ parking permit from the council (at the time I needed somewhere to live, and this was one of very few places that I could afford).
The Cooper S parked outside my flat, at one of the few times of the day I am allowed to park there
But it hasn’t stopped me always wanting another car. Save for the occasional rental, I simply never drive anymore.
But last weekend I was loaned a car for a few days. And what a car: a brand-new Mini Cooper S with just 2,000 miles on the clock.
Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, and my first thought was to take the Mini out of town. Driving in London is no fun. Stop. Start. Traffic lights. Road works. Wrong lane. One way system. Congestion charge. Busses. Eugh.
So I pointed the car south east, and headed for Goodwood. Where better to give this punchy little car a run than down to the annual Festival of Speed show in the Duke of Richmond’s front garden?
Now I’m no road tester, but this journey did give me the chance to experience the Mini in three different modes: city driving, motorway cruising, and B-road blasting.
The Cooper S was completely comfortable in all three, but it was when I got off the motorway, onto the B-roads and flipped it into sport mode that I really started having fun. With the throttle more responsive and a throaty growl coming from the exhaust, it was a joy to fling around the tree-covered tracks and hedge-lined country lanes. This was proper driving on a beautiful summer’s day – Toad of Toad Hall would certainly have approved.
The little differences: Just look at those Union Jack-style rear lights...
I would have been enjoying myself whatever car I was in, but the Mini was really great fun. Over the last few years the only cars I’ve really driven are the standard Zipcar Golfs and Polos dotted around London for quick hires. They are fine and all, but apart from the greater power, speed and responsiveness of the Mini, it is also just a nicer place to be when you’re in it.
Yes, a standard Polo and the Cooper S have basically all the same stuff, but as John Travolta’s Vincent Vega told Sam Jackson’s Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, it’s all about the “little differences”.
Example: you don’t start the Cooper S by turning the key in the ignition like any old chump. Instead, you press down on a red toggle switch in the centre console. It makes you feel like a fighter pilot, and as the car growls to life it puts on a little light show for you, and a heads-up display flips up in front of the steering wheel. That one in particular might seem like needless extravagance, but it’s actually really useful to see your speed and sat-nav instructions directly in your line of sight.
The whole cabin just feels like a little bit of extra time, care and attention has been bestowed on its creation: the buttons and toggle switches feel solid and dependable, the seats are comfy and the steering wheel feels reassuringly chunky.
And when you put your foot down, you never seem to run out of power. Sure, it’s not a Ferrari, but really and truly, how often can you properly open up a supercar on the roads in modern Britain? I’m not used to driving powerful cars, but this had plenty for me – and even up in sixth, there was plenty in reserve that meant I didn’t even have to change down to pull past someone on the motorway. Of course, I did anyway.
It was such fun that after my drive down to Goodwood on Saturday, I took it out again on the Sunday, this time back to my old stomping ground in the Chiltern hills, where I used to drive my Clio on my local newspaper beat. The fun of flicking it into sport mode and flinging it up hill and down dale was only slightly dampened by the fact I found myself in the middle of a cycle race.
I was genuinely sad to give the car back on the Monday. I had forgotten what it was like to drive for fun, but one weekend with this car was more than enough to remind me, and to send me on an internet search to find out how much it would cost to rent a private parking spot near my flat…