Blowing the bloody doors off: Retracing The Italian Job in a modern Mini
Jon is a British motoring journalist and former Editor-in-Chief of Auto Trader and Motor1 UK.
I’m six storeys high above the haze of Turin and the city is laid out beneath me. There is the animated hum of tiny cars jostling for space, rustic apartment roofs bleached by the afternoon sun and trees clinging to the colours of summer. It all looks like a very blurry Turner painting on the wonk, but that’s more likely because I’m driving a MINI Hatch through a banked corner so steep, it feels like I’m on the Wall of Death. My seatbelt is the only thing stopping me from face planting the passenger side window.
The Italian Job was released on 5 June, 1969 and the exploits of its stars have helped immortalise the Mini
Welcome, folks, to the Lingotto Factory in Via Nizza. Originally opened in 1923, this former car factory was the crowning achievement of the FIAT Group at its most powerful. Uniquely, the car’s assembly line began on the ground floor as a collection of raw materials before emerging on this rooftop test track as shiny, finished models. If you own a pre 70s Fiat 500, Topolino or 124 Sport then the chances are it will have been assembled and tested here.
But that’s enough of a history lesson; the main reason why I find myself inches from the rear wheel of another speeding MINI is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of comedy caper The Italian Job. You see, motoring influencer The Gentleman Racer, YouTuber Petrol Ped and, er... me, have decided to drive a trio of modern era MINIs from England to revisit a few of the locations that helped create some of the most iconic chase scenes in film history.
The boys are on the run. All we need now is a polizei-spec Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio as chase car
For a quick re-cap, The Italian Job stars Michael Caine who plays the role of convicted criminal Charlie Croker. Croker is a loveable thief who attempts to pull off a $4m gold heist and escape a gridlocked Turin with the help of three original Mini Coopers. This is when $4m could buy a bit more than a Bugatti Chiron.
The Mini was already a giant killer on track, on rally stage and on the Kings Road, but in 1969, The Italian Job was to immortalise the Mini in film. But it wasn’t without its challenges. Despite the marketing and publicity potential, the dinosaurs that worked for the British Motor Corporation (BMC built the original Mini) were reluctant to get involved and only sent the production team six cars. Meanwhile Gianni Agnelli, Fiat maestro and unofficial overlord of Turin, was standing by to offer producer Michael Deeley $50,000 cash, a Ferrari and as many Fiat 500s as they could crash.
Retracing this infamous gold heist 50 years later, I’m grateful that Deeley persisted with the plucky Brit. Traveling 800-miles from London to Turin in a modern day Fiat 500 wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of fun, yet the latest MINI Hatch – even in range-topping John Cooper Works spec – has been a surprisingly comfortable and refined motorway friend thanks to cruise control, heated leather seats and a sleepiness to the initial steering response. Don't worry, it's still darty enough when the road sprouts a few corners.
Also in Turin is Matthew Field, film buff, Mini connoisseur and author of ‘The Self Preservation Society – 50 Years of the Italian Job’. “The underlying vibe of The Italian Job was a reaction to Britain joining the Common Market,” he explains. “The reason the Mini was so critical to the story was because this was about England taking on the might of Europe. Although, if you’ve seen the film, England doesn’t fare too well in the end…” Funny how things have a history of repeating.
The Italian Job was written by ex-BBC writer Troy Kennedy Martin, who’d made his name with the police drama Z-Cars (ask your mum or dad). Knowing he had to take this film’s chase scenes to the next level, he enlisted the help of French stunt driver Rémy Julienne, who was like a 60s version of Ken Block sans snapback.
Over six weeks, Rémy recced the streets of Turin and meticulously choreographed every escapade including crossing the River Po (with the help of studded tyres), driving into the back of a moving Harrington Legionnaire van and landing an audacious 30ft rooftop jump. And all of this without a CGI shot in sight.
Our cars may not be stunt prepped with stripped interiors or magnesium alloy sump guards, but we do have sat nav, wheels bigger than 10-inches and a gearbox with more than four speeds. I think that counts as 50-years worth of progress of sorts.
The modern MINI is still compact enough to drive through porticos (and quick enough to escape the police)
Our location scouting convoy has taken in the sail-shaped concrete roof of the Torino Palavena and the Ciasa Gran Madre di Dio, where the original cars drove down the church’s stone staircase – today, there is regrettably a large fence installed to prevent any reenactments. We also parked up for a picture at the Palazzo di Citta, site of the gold ambush, before making our swift getaway.
Fencing at Ciasa Gran Madre di Dio prevents reenactment of driving down stairs. MINI will be pleased
In JCW guise, the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine develops 227bhp and feels built for more mid-range fun than any top-end fireworks. The 0-62mph sprint is dispatched in a lively 6.3 seconds – 0.5 seconds quicker than a Cooper S – with the steering wheel continually tugged by torque steer. While you can spec a JCW with a quick automatic ‘box, the notchy six-speed manual provides another layer of welcome interaction and offers rev-matching in Sport mode.
It’s true that in this heavily distorted world of Nordschleife-obsessed 300bhp hyper-hatches, the JCW’s performance is more warm than hot hatch. If you want more power then you’ll have to wait for the MINI GP in 2020. Still, this is an entertaining giggle of a drive thanks to a crisp throttle response, sharp steering and minimal body roll, though be warned there is also plenty of tyre noise and the ride is particularly fidgety on poor road surfaces.
Circling the top floor of Lingotto, I’m reminded how that sense of fun The Italian Job embraced, and the playfulness that Minis exude still endures today. Yes, the rear seats in the MINI Hatch are a bit rubbish and I struggle to get on with those Union Flag rear lights, but by modern standards, this is a joyful and egalitarian little thing.
It’s a happy car and on this trip, it’s been small enough to drive through Italian porticos, posh enough to overnight at a French chateau and fun enough to have kept me giggling all the way from Farnborough.
In hindsight, I probably didn’t need 800-miles to be convinced of its charms and I doubt you will either.
Video by Darius Williams
POWER: 227BHP AT 5200RPM
TORQUE: 236LB FT AT 1450RPM
0-62MPH: 6.3 SECS
TOP SPEED: 153MPH
Like this? Now read Jon's review of the Jaguar XE SV Project 8
Photography by Mike Dodd
Videography by Darius Williams
Music 'Elementi' by Saint Jude