Sunday it was supposed to rain. At least, that’s what the weather report said on Thursday. By the time it got to Sunday morning the MET office had revised its decision and said that it wasn’t going to rain. But it was going to be grey and misty and cloudy and miserable. And it was. In the morning. By the afternoon we were enjoying glorious sunshine.
And it was on this day that I went with Colchester Mini Club to the Manningtree High School Classic Vehicle Show. Not restricted to just Minis, there were cars of all sorts in attendance, all (or at least most) shined up and tidied to be on show. Photos of the event are in my new Picasa album.
There were the traditional classics – Wolseleys, a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, a lovely Bentley. Old cars with narrow wheels and wooden brakes, with about as much horse power as… well, a couple of horses really. These cars show us something of the origins of the motor car, how form followed function and unnecessary styling was mostly left out. The technical simplicity (relative to today’s modern engines) is punctuated by the sublime beauty of the hand-crafted design, a remnant of the sort of creative engineering that characterised the Victorian era and the industrial revolution. A glimpse of an old Rolls Royce engine shows it to be full of shining metal, carefully and artistically arranged to produce the desired result – a six cylinder engine made up of two cylinder blocks, each cylinder having two spark plugs. It was amazing. Awe-inspiring. And I’m glad technology has moved on.
That brings me to the next era of classic cars – the Jaguar E-type, Ford Cortina mk1, Morris Minor, MG Midget, Ford Consul, and of course the Mini. These cars are not all brilliant, in fact some are downright aweful, yet they reflect the state of society at that time. Cars were no longer for the rich and famous, but were for everyone. Your average family could have a car. And they did. Function had to work its way around form, engineers having to work double-time to work out how to make the car work despite the crazy ideas the designers were passing them, all striving for cars that looked stylish and modern.
Finally, there is another class of classic cars, and one that in many ways is controvercial by its mere existence – the modern classics. The Ford Capri of the 80s only just makes it into this category, being somewhat old now, alongside such cars from the 90s and 00s as the Honda Civic, Ford Sierra Cosworth, Cheverolet Corvette, Ford Mustangs. There is no doubt that some of these cars are fantastic cars, groundbreaking, historic, gorgeous, technologically astounding. But are they really classics? A ‘normal’ Sierra would be more likely classed as ‘old’ rather than ‘classic’, surely? Then again, maybe it’s the Cosworth name that gives it a reputation that is more deserving of recognition. The same could be said for various sports cars, each with a heritage and history to back up their place in history. These are modern classics. The Honda Civic, as good as it is, arguably isn’t a classic. Yet.
Also in attendance at the show were a good selection of American cars, including several Mustangs, a couple of Corvettes, some Cobras, a Hudson pickup in need of some TLC, and a totally tricked-out Dodge pickup that had hydraulic suspension so extreme that it could sit its bodywork flat on the ground. There is no doubting the sheer power and presence of some of these cars, exuding an American atmosphere, but in some ways they do seem somewhat out of place here on our winding country roads and miniscule car parks. I really felt sorry for the owner of one particular car, which was so unbelieveably long that it should really have needed a ‘long vehicle’ sticker on the back – imagine trying to drive that round town, let alone trying to find a parking space for it. They are classic cars, no doubt, but they belong in their home country where there is actually room for them.
Best of show
The winner of the ‘Best of Show’ competition turned out to be a heavily modified Ford Mustang – not an old 70s ‘Bullitt’ model, but a car that couldn’t have been more than a decade old, and looked like it had been painted last week. It was pimped to the max, with a massive ICE install, NOS, and doors that opened upwards instead of outwards. Very nice, and I’m sure a lot of money and effort had gone into its preparation and modification. On the other hand, I suspect there were many hard-core classic car owners who resented the fact that a modern car won overall instead of a car that actually had a few miles on the clock.
What makes a Mini?
This brings me neatly to a conversation I was having recently about what makes the Mini so special. It is, after all, a car that wasn’t designed to be anything more than a little runabout, practical and efficient, and in that sense much the same as any other car in production. The New Mini, developed by BMW, is a modern take on the classic, but hasn’t seen anywhere near the same level of enthusiasm as the original. The failing of the New Mini is that its designers only took one aspect of the original’s brilliance and replicated that – there is no doubt that BMW know what they’re doing when it comes to performance and engineering precision. They are German, after all. But there are several critical components of the classic Mini that are absent, and those will always mark the Mini apart from the crowd.
When the Mini first hit the roads it was revolutionary. It was the first car to have a transversely mounted engine, saving space and giving more room inside. In fact the Mini was quite spacious relative to the other cars of the time, and still has more room in the back seats than a New Mini. But I think what makes the Mini an enduring marvel is that it was never finished. By that I mean the standard production car never crammed in everything you could possibly want, even at the end of its run in the late 90s. Sure, there were many technical improvements over the years to both the engine and the interior, eventually adding such luxuries as a multi-point injection engine that didn’t suffer from the rain, a CD player built into a proper dashboard, air bags, nice interior trim. But there were never any cup holders. No Minis were ever fitted with air conditioning. Or a clock. And most didn’t even have a rev counter. Any way you look at it, by the time you got hold of your Mini there were already a whole load of extras you really need to add to the car to make it more complete. And that is the genius of the car’s continual success – owners can add what they like to make it more complete in their own eyes.
Compare that with the New Mini. The New Mini has pretty much everything you need. You’re not expected to need anything else. It’s good as it is. If it’s not good enough, but something else. With a classic Mini, if it’s not quite what you want, you can modify it to suit your needs. Add a CD player if you like. Add a bodykit if you’re that way inclined. Put another engine in if you really need more power. Bolt chromed accessories on if you want to.
The mindset is also quite different to that of other car owners who modify their cars. Most of the time if there is any modification going on it’s to add a massive stereo system or a monstrous bodykit. It seems the only way to modify a modern car is to pimp it up, make it into a chavmobile and race people at the traffic lights. Minis, on the other hand, can take a considerable amount of modifying without going anywhere near the boy-racer style. And that, ultimately, is what attracts such a diverse group of people to the Mini – we can all appreciate it and make it our own, regardless of what we actually aspire to.