In 2000 the very last ‘classic Mini’ rolled off the production line, thus ending 41 years of production under various British names. Remarkably, the car hadn’t actually changed all that much since its inception, something that allowed the British public to truly adopt it as something of a mascot. This utterly classless machine was loved by everyone from rockstars to roadsweepers, and so when news broke that BMW had bought Mini, people were naturally worried.
BMW knew that it couldn’t simply go on building the old car, dwindling sales due to buyers expecting more from the machine on their driveway, not to mention tightening regulations, ruled that out. The German’s set about trying to capture what a modern-day Mini would be like, something they got a bit of a head start on due to Rover – Mini’s previous owners – already started work on such a project.
We’re pinched the keys to on early R50 generation BMW Mini to look back on a model that is now over 20 years-old.
Styling the new Mini was always going to be one of the trickiest elements of its rebirth. To live up to such an icon that had become part of British pop culture would be like walking on hot coals. A chap named Frank Stephenson was tasked with designing the new car, but he had a novel means of ensuring there was a family resemblance between old and new. While the Mini didn’t change in four decades, he set about designing a ‘new’ Mini for 1970, 1980 and 1990 with each being a clear evolution of the last. When he penned the 2000 Mini there was a clear lineage to work with.
Retrospectively, the design was a huge success with people all over the world identifying with those big round headlights, boxy proportions and short overhangs. It might have been bigger than the original, something that was unavoidable, but the Mini remained the smallest car in its class. More importantly it was identifiable as a Mini at first glance.
The new car took plenty of inspiration from the classic, but there are some other interesting design details that are all its own. A floating roof provided a very modern element, the sculpted clamshell bonnet was modelled after a pelvis, the shape of its door mirrors hark to a lady’s breast. Every wondered about modern Mini’s chunky exhaust tip? That was born of an accident when a clay model due to be shown to executives was missing an exhaust. A designer improvised by turning a coke can inside out and pushing it into the clay. The styling stuck, and it can still be seen on the newest of Minis today.
This specific R50 Mini is in the most basic ‘One’ specification, not that it shows it. The first owner of this car, for reasons unknown, went a bit mad with the specification and added plenty of trinkets to what should be a simple trim. Handsome blue pain, alloy wheels, sports foglights and a large glass panoramic roof made for a curious spec. Looks pretty good for an 19 year-old example, though!
Just as the exterior had been reimagined for the 21st century, so was the interior. Glossy contrasting plastics, cool aircraft inspired toggle switches and a few dashes of chrome really elevated the cabin’s design. The upright windscreen is very reminiscent of the original Mini, as are the simplistic controls. It seats four with surprising levels of space considering its size, although the boot is rather small.
A nice throwback to the classic car is the large speedometer that serves as a centrepiece. In the old model this actually covered up a hole in the dashboard that was used to mount the bodywork on a pole during manufacturing, but in the new car it is a welcome design trait.
Mechanically speaking, this car is the BMW Mini in its purest form. Its surprisingly large 1.6-litre engine only produces 89bhp, and clipping along as fast as it can muster will result in a 0-62mph time of 10.9 seconds. Sure, there’s pleasing levels of torque that never make it feel out of puff, but fast it is not. Your need for Mini speed is better served in the more powerful Cooper, Cooper S or JCW pack cars.
Engineers got the basics of this car spot-on and executed the modern Mini in a way that genuinely reflects the original. The wheels are pushed all the way to the edge of the chassis to give this little car as big a footprint as possible. That’s great for stability and combines well with a short wheelbase, boosting agility.
On a twisting country road, this car is all about its quick change of direction. Direct and precise steering gives the Mini a rewardingly fast response to inputs, something that allows the driver to make it positively dance. It springs from bend to bend with its naturally aspirated engine enthusiastically revving. Heavier than expected controls allows you to be deliberate with your actions, although the baggy and rather tired gearbox action on this specific car leaves much to be desired.
There’s a fair amount of body roll in this Mini, something that is much tighter on Cooper S models, but the natural flow of the car actually helps inform the driver of weight transferring. That’s one of the big things about driving this car retrospectively… It feels so much more analogue and physical than modern hatchbacks. Naturally, today’s Mini retains much of this fizzy energy when driving quickly, but this older car has a purity to it and much better driver communication.
This Mini is perfectly happy to bumble around town, its notoriously crashy ride nowhere near as bad as sportier Cooper S models, Excellent visibility makes it easy to park, however, those weighty pedals do take some getting used to. As a means of going about your business it’s a perfectly likably little car with much more character than any of its competitors at the time.
Right now you can buy a high mileage R50 Mini such as this one for as little as £900. Unlike the next generation of cars, reliability is pretty strong with these older examples, although the tax is remarkably high for something so small.
The R50 Mini represents a recent bygone era of motoring when you think about it. A time when infotainment systems didn’t dominated the cabin and less really was more. BMW took a huge gamble reinventing the Mini, but this first generation went down a storm 20 years ago and paved the way for the success it enjoys today.