When thinking about future classics it’s often the case to go down the route of big names like Ferrari, or BMW's M derivatives. But a transcending soul can find its place in a far less flamboyant suit.
A good car will have a bit of humanity in it. You can feel its identity, as if in some way reincarnation was possible into things, and our souls were shed on those we love.
Early 2017, I got a call from the local garage. I had owned an old Fiat Punto for about two years. The car had had a few issues in the past but it was still cheap to run and maintain. Being a foreigner in the UK, I did not know much about buying a car here, and when I got the Fiat I was in a rush. Two years later I was being told by the garage that the car was no longer road worthy. The chassis was so corroded that holes underneath it where only 30 cm away from the seat belt anchorages. A previous owner had covered the rust with fiberglass and painted it in the color of the car to hide it.
For about two weeks I looked at different cars, most of them very basic. During that time, a friend of mine who is quite the petrol head and has had some good specimens as part of his collection, including a 2001 BMW M5, BMW M3 E46, Nissan Skyline R33, Porsche Cayman S, etc., was selling his daily driver, a 2005 R53 Mini Cooper S in dark grey, with black roof and 17’’ Bullet Alloys. Having refused to buy it before, I finally decided to test drive it. With over 100,000 miles on the clock, the car had a blown shock absorber thanks to a massive hidden pothole. He was selling it with new front Bilstein shocks which I had fitted after buying.
We went out for a drive and I immediately fell for it. I had never owned anything that went beyond the 80 bhp mark, although I’ve had some experience driving less average cars under far more stringent conditions than a daily commute. Back in my country, cars don’t depreciate as much as they do in the UK, so I was quite happy about the chance to own a Cooper S.
I bought the car and have owned it for over a year now. I can say that even on dark days, that commute to and from the work place always puts a smile on my face.
I’m a first-degree petrol head. At work I step into the future as an engineer, helping in the development of electric motors for racing cars and high end sports cars. At home, it doesn’t get any better for me than the pleasure of shifting through my own gears and listening to the harmony from a well-tuned combustion engine. I spoil myself by practicing the art of heel and toe, whether necessary or not. I deeply enjoy driving, and love when a car speaks to me. When there’s no separation from the car but you are involved in its workings. The R53 gives you that feeling.
When you look at Mini’s history you see an icon. Mini went from a mass-produced car, being one of the most popular cars in Britain, all the way to rally winner, setting its image as capable of great prowess at racing, then becoming a fashionable icon and ultimately a classic. So, when the name was kept by BMW at the end of the last century, the German manufacturer had some very large shoes to fill and make up for almost half a century of history. And oh boy they have done it….in their own way.
BMW are an icon on its own thanks to their driver focused vehicles. Few brands capture the essence of driving so brilliantly. So, taking Mini under its wing did not disappoint, and the R53 is probably the reflection of that greatness. Even more so than the models that came after.
The Cooper S in question has a 4-cylinder supercharged 1.6 Liter engine that goes to almost 170 bhp. A 6-speed manual gearbox puts that power at the front wheels in a very lively manner (best enjoyed with the ASC turned off), and manages to accelerate those approximately 1,100 kg to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds.
But the beauty of the car lies beyond the numbers. Compared to the other more basic models, the S features a sportier look (although not as much as the John Cooper Works), with larger skirts and bumpers. The most distinctive feature is perhaps the air intake for the supercharger. The rear wing and the pronounced rake of the car also add to a more aggressive styling. But ultimately, it’s the twin exhaust going through the middle of the car at the rear end that puts the cherry on top.
Furthermore, the characteristics that make the R53 Cooper S timeless are the very ones that make it harder to live with on a daily basis. The clutch is heavier than many other cars the same size, the suspension is rock solid, and the short wheel base does not help the structure absorb much of the roughness coming from the road. The gearbox is not smooth, particularly when going into reverse. The steering, although assisted, is relatively heavy.
All of this makes the car brilliant for driving. The pedals are perfectly positioned to allow for heel and toeing. The seating position is low enough to have the steering wheel almost in front of you, keeping a low centre of gravity.
The steering wheel it's quite communicative. Stiffness of the frame and suspension add to great stability, allowing the car to stick to the corners and letting the driver evoke a bit of Timo Makinen in wet tarmac when tricking its balance to make it slide. Then there’s the engine. It’s no V12 out of a 1957 250 TR, but it definitely is a nice sounding 1.6. Just take it up to 4,500 rpm where you get the most aggressive growl and it will sing all the way to the top. The supercharger stays present throughout the whole rev range, adding its tune to the rest of the orchestra.
So why, in my very biased opinion, would the R53 be better than the later iterations at becoming a classic? First of all, it was part of the first wave of Minis coming under the BMW name, so it carries the novelty from that time. Second, following models became not only bigger, but too hampered with in terms of comfort and technology, taking away from the beautifully raw feel. Somehow, the R53 carries some of that essence from the E46 M3. You feel the BMW in it, yet the car manages to preserve the spirit of the old Mini. Where the later models are too civilized, the R53 remains the diamond in the rough. It portrays a naked beauty before adding fancy clothes and expensive jewelry.
A dear friend of mine, seasoned driver, and remarkable engineer, who not long ago sold his 2011 Cooper S (the turbocharged instead of the supercharged models that went until 2006) recently had a go at mine. He has owned anything from a TVR Cerbera to a Porsche 911 Turbo and took them to their limits. After taking the R53 for a spin, we talked about it over a Scotch accompanied by American Graffiti. Not having driven the R53 before, he was pleasantly surprised at how engaging the car is.
It has been over a year of ownership and more than 10,000 miles driven, including a trip to the Scottish Highlands and back. I have been able to acquaint myself with the car and its wild spirit. There’s still adventures to live, new speeds to reach and track days to experience.
In an age where technology moves the world and the driving experience is being redefined, some of us still rejoice in the memory of golden ages when engines roared louder and roads were rougher. BMW created the R53 Cooper S just before the beginning of the end of an era, when our love for cars was still pure.
The R53 is deemed to become a classic because of its simplicity, essence, roughness, and above all, our love for its soul.