How the MINI Cooper Works

The concept drawing of the first Mini Cooper. 
Photo copyright © 2002-2007 Keith Adams

In the automotive world, manufacturers tend to develop a car model and then tweak it, re-inventing it every few years to reflect the changing needs and desires of the consumer market. Occasionally, a car model design comes along that somehow remains relatively untouched for decades. These cars can gather a loyal band of supporters and enthusiasts whose passion for the model might seem, to an outsider, to go well beyond the merits of the car itself. The fans shrug it off; they know they're backing the right horse.

In England, the Mini is just such a car. Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the Mini's design barely changed at all in the 40 years it was in production. Then, in 2000, the Mini transformed into the MINI Cooper, a car that promises to follow in the footsteps of the original Mini. In this article, we'll examine the history of this remarkable little machine. We'll look at how the MINI has evolved in a series of small changes and a couple of big transformations and we'll examine the culture that has sprung up around the car.


BMW's MINI Cooper can trace its history back to 1957, when Leonard Lord, president of the British Motor Corporation (BMC), decided to develop a reliable, efficient small car for consumers. At the time, Britain was in the middle of an oil crisis and fuel efficient cars became a necessity. Most of these cars had engines under 700cc (cubic centimeters) and were called microcars (also known as bubble cars). Most were produced in Germany, and were often difficult and unsafe to drive. Lord gave car designer Alec Issigonis the task of creating a British car that would fit in a box 10 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall. In addition, the passenger space in the car had to comprise 60 percent of the length of the vehicle.

1959 Mini Cooper.  See more Mini Cooper images.
Photo copyright © 2002-2007 Keith Adams


Issigonis and his team moved from concept to production in two years, an amazingly short development cycle for an entirely new concept car. The secret to the Mini's size was a revolutionary engine layout. Issigonis decided to create a transverse mounted engine, which means he designed the car so that the engine was mounted sideways. In addition, he mounted the engine in the front of the car, near the front two wheels. The front wheels drove the car and the additional weight in the front of the Mini gave the car more stability when taking tight turns. The space-saving engine layout allowed Issigonis to create a passenger compartment with more room than you'd expect for such a small car. You might even think it was larger on the inside than the outside.

The small car also featured a center-mounted speedometer, small wheels (positioned at the corners of the vehicle, giving it a "bulldog stance") and very few bells and whistles. Leonard Lord looked at the second generation of prototypes and decided to move the Mini into mass production. In August 1959, the first Minis rolled off the production lines and into the possession of British motorists.

In 1961, a race car builder named John Cooper approached BMC with the intention of altering a Mini into a viable race car. Issigonis objected; he felt that the Mini should be thought of as the everyman car. Cooper decided to go over Issigonis' head and received the blessings of BMC. The result of the partnership was the first Mini Cooper, a car that won multiple races, including three victories at the Monte Carlo Rally. In 1963, Cooper made further alterations to the engine and body design. He called his new turbocharged design the Mini Cooper S.

1961 Mini Cooper
Photo copyright © 2002-2007 Keith Adams

Beginning in 1960, the BMC sold Minis to the U.S. market. Between 1960 and 1967, approximately 10,000 Minis were sold in the United States. Though BMC was encouraged by consumer response, rising standards in emissions forced BMC to end shipments. BMC determined that the cost of altering the Mini's engine was too great, and the United States would not see new Minis available for purchase until 2002.


The Evolution of MINI

Photo © 2002 BMW AG, München, Deutschland. All rights reserved

As years passed, BMC's corporate structure changed many times. Even the British government operated the company for several years -- at a considerable loss. Despite the changes in corporate structure, the Mini didn't change much at all. Small mechanical adjustments were made from one year to the next, but in general, a Mini from 1959 would look practically identical to one made in 1999. This was partly due to a great basic design, and partly due to the simple fact that BMC (and the succession of other companies it became) had other things to worry about than the design of a little car.

In 1994, BMW purchased The Rover Group, the company that was then producing the Mini. BMW recognized the impact of the original Mini and planned to completely re-invent it. In 2000 production on the original Mini model came to an end. By that time, more than 5,000,000 Minis had been produced and sold. A panel of 100 automotive industry experts voted the Mini as the most significant car of the century. Although the Mini was a rare sight in the United States, in Europe it helped define designs for both cars and city streets. The car that symbolized British motoring for 40 years had come to the end of the road.


BMW unveiled the new MINI Cooper concept at the Paris Auto Show. The new vehicle measured two feet longer and one foot wider than the original Mini model. New MINI Coopers came with lots of features and options. Some diehard Mini enthusiasts felt the new MINI Coopers were an entirely different breed, one that has abandoned many of Issigonis' design philosophies. Others felt the new MINI Cooper was the logical descendent of the original concept.

The new MINI Cooper still had the bulldog stance, with the four wheels at the corners of the vehicle. It still used front wheel drive, and drivers quickly reported on the superb handling of the little car. The center-mounted speedometer remained part of the classic interior layout. BMW had bet that the new style would appeal to classic Mini enthusiasts as well as drivers who had never sat behind the wheel of the MINI Cooper's predecessor. The bet would pay off; sales of the MINI Cooper would quickly exceed BMW's optimistic projections.

The MINI Cooper has made a huge impact on the United States market in a short time frame, appealing to jet-set celebrities and middle class suburbanites alike. An entire culture of MINI Cooper customization thrives in the automotive community, encouraged by BMW through numerous personalized options and car kits. The car's retro appearance, surprising power, tight handling and an innovative approach to personalization have convinced American drivers that it is the small car of the future.

In the next few sections, we'll examine the two design generations of the MINI Cooper from 2002 to 2007. We'll also check out the major design and engineering features for each generation, significant changes to the MINI Cooper for each model year, the car's reliability and any safety recalls.


The First MINI Generation: 2002 - 2006

A MINI Cooper with Union Jack roof graphic
Photo © Rob Britton

BMW introduced two MINI Cooper car models to the American market in 2002: the MINI Cooper and the MINI Cooper S. Both two-door hatchbacks were inspired by the classic Mini cars made in England from 1959 to 1999. Both were 18 inches shorter and 400 pounds lighter than the new Volkswagen Beetles (though they were 4 inches wider). BMW offered several choices in body colors, with an optional alternative roof color (the same color as the rest of the body, white or black -- a white roof was the standard for the old Mini line). Both models also featured the center-mounted speedometer, carried over from the original Mini model.

The first-generation MINI Cooper featured a 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine with 115-horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission was standard; an optional six speed continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) was available. The MINI Cooper S had a more powerful engine with 168 horsepower. The standard transmission for the MINI Cooper S was a six-speed manual transmission.


The MINI Cooper was 142.8 inches long, 75.8 inches wide and 55 inches tall, with a wheelbase of 97.1 inches. The car could seat four people and the rear seats could fold down independently for more storage space. It had antilock four-wheel disc brakes, six air bags, a tire pressure monitor and keyless entry. The Cooper also featured a sports suspension, which pressed the wheels to the ground to increase the tires' grip on the road.

The Cooper S had similar features, though its suspension was more aggressive with thicker anti-sway bars. The Cooper S also featured a functional hood scoop and 16-inch run-flat tires (the MINI Cooper model featured 15-inch tires). Both models had standard air conditioning, power windows and a CD player. Options for both models included anti skid control, navigation and rear-obstacle warning systems, a sunroof, heated seats and Xenon headlamps.

The MINI Cooper followed its predecessor's philosophy of remaining relatively unchanged from one year to the next. In 2003, BMW offered new optional packages with both the MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S models. A Sports Package included options like the antiskid system and increased the wheel size of the model (up to 17 inches for the Cooper S or 16 inches for the Cooper). Dealers could offer different roof graphics to customize cars -- graphics included the Union Jack, the American flag or a checkered pattern. BMW upgraded the CD player to include a port for an MP3 player.

In late 2003, John Cooper Works offered a tuning kit for the MINI Cooper S. This kit could boost the engine to an impressive 200 horsepower. The kit included:

  • a supercharger that generated better engine performance
  • new spark plugs and injectors designed to work with increased gas flow
  • a new cylinder head with precision inlets and exhaust ports
  • an air filter with a second air intake flap that opened during acceleration at 4500 rpm (improving performance and making the MINI roar)
  • chrome enamel badges letting the world know your MINI was ready to tear up the highway

The MINI Cooper of 2004 featured few changes from earlier models. Some drivers reported that the signature center-mounted speedometer was difficult to read without taking their attention off the road, so BMW added a digital speed readout under the tachometer. A rear power socket located in the trunk of the car returned in 2004 (the 2002 model had one as well, but the 2003 model discontinued the feature) as part of the standard MINI equipment. An optional Sport seat with larger side bolsters designed to hold drivers in place while taking tight turns at high speed became available in beige leather.

In 2005, BMW offered a convertible body style for the MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S. The convertible models featured a power top with a heated glass rear window. They came with rear obstacle detection and front side airbags. They were slightly longer, thinner and taller than the hatchback models. All MINI Cooper models received a few minor changes in appearance to their headlights, grille and taillights. Again, changes in the MINI Cooper model continued to be minor.

2006 MINI Cooper with Checkmate Package
Public domain photo/photographer Poca-traca

The 2006 MINI Cooper was virtually identical to earlier models. One new option was a Checkmate Package, which included the antiskid system, larger wheels, Sport seats and a black-and-white graphics overlay.

We'll look at the next generation of MINI Coopers next.


MINI Cooper: The Next Generation

2007 MINI Cooper
Photo © BMW AG, München, Deutschland. All rights reserved.

The 2007 MINI Coopers are the first models in the second generation of MINI vehicles. The 2007 models are slightly larger and more powerful than the previous generation, except for the MINI Cooper Convertible, which still uses the 2002-2006 generation design. Drivers can expect new convertibles using the 2007 coupe technology in 2008.

The MINI Cooper's engine now has 118 horsepower; the engine of the MINI Cooper S is turbocharged at 172 horsepower. The MINI Cooper Convertible and Cooper S Convertible have 115 hp and 168 hp, respectively. Apart from the basic Cooper Convertible, all models have a standard six-speed manual transmission; a 6-speed automatic transmission is optional, replacing the CVT system. The basic convertible still has a standard 5-speed manual transmission or the optional CVT system.


Several new packages are offered for the 2007 models. They include:

  • Premium Package - includes automatic climate control, cruise control, steering-wheel radio controls and other options.
  • Sports Package - includes an antiskid system, larger tires, front fog lights and other options.
  • Hyper Sport Package - includes an advanced sports suspension with thicker anti-sway bars and streamlines the look of the MINI.
  • Convenience Package - includes a universal garage door opener, automatic day/night rearview mirror, rain-sensing wipers and other options.
  • Cold Weather Package - includes heated front seats, heated washer jets and heated mirrors.
  • Audio Package - includes an upgraded sound system, HD radio and satellite radio subscription.
  • JCW Tuning Kit - exclusive to the MINI Cooper S Convertible, this package supercharges the engine to 207 horsepower and includes a limited-slip differential and other options.
  • Sidewalk Package - exclusive to the MINI Cooper S Convertible, this package includes the options in the Premium Package as well as exclusive alloy wheels and a unique interior and exterior trim.
2007 MINI Cooper Convertible with Sidewalk Package
Photo © 2002 BMW AG, München, Deutschland. All rights reserved.

Customization reaches a new level with the 2007 models. Owners can select from a library of graphics for roof designs, racing stripes, door handles, side view mirrors and the list goes on. Other options include bike and luggage racks, heated seats, automatic rain sensors and a host of other gadgets and accessories. The MINI USA Web site offers a "Design & Build Your Own MINI" feature with over 10,000,000 configurations.


MINI Cooper Cost, Reliability and Safety

Limited Edition Rally MINI Cooper
Photo courtesy BMW World

The manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) of the 2007 MINI Cooper models are:

  • MINI Cooper: $19,150
  • MINI Cooper S: $22,300
  • MINI Cooper Convertible: $22,600
  • MINI Cooper S Convertible: $26,500

The amazing variety of options and packages available for the MINI Cooper can significantly impact the price of a car. For example, a MINI Cooper S Convertible with the optional Sidewalk Package, limited slip differential, universal hands-free kit and 18-inch double spoke wheels has an MSRP of $35,500. The MINI USA Web site has a "Design & Build Your Own MINI" feature with over 10,000,000 possible variations.


On the other end of the price scale, the MSRP for a 2002 MINI Cooper is $16,300. You can research MINI Cooper prices and search for a car of your own on the Consumer Guide Auto.

Owners and mechanics have reported a few common, minor issues with MINI Coopers. However, at least one issue is very serious: some drivers reported a failure of the 5-speed manual transmission for the standard 2003 MINI Cooper. This required a mechanic to repair the transmission. Owners did not report a similar problem with the continously variable transmission system or the 6-speed manual transmission.

MINI Cooper Safety Recalls

Here's a breakdown of MINI Cooper safety recalls.

  • 2002: Certain cars lacked tire information labels, which must be present to indicate the relationship between the tire size and maximum tire pressure. BMW provided owners tire information placards and installation instructions. Owners could opt for a dealer to install the placard for them. The shift cable for some 2002 vehicles would detach from the transmission shift linkage while the driver attempted to change gears. At that point, gear changes became impossible and the transmission stuck in the last gear selected. Dealers would place a retaining clip over the end of the shift cable, preventing it from detaching.
  • 2003: Some vehicles experienced a failure of the lower screw connection of the rear struts to the chassis. Dealers would replace the lower screw connection.
  • 2004: On some vehicles, the flat-tire monitoring system was not correctly programmed. The audible signal indicating a flat tire would not sound. Dealers would reprogram the alarm software.

The MINI Cooper had assured its place in the United States market. BMW followed the pattern of the original Mini line and few changes were made from one year to the next. Owners became enchanted with the stylish little cars, and car customization became more common. The 2007 model would bring owners new options and make personalization of vehicles even easier.

Learn about the MINI Cooper community in the next section.


It's a MINI World After All

Stretch MINI
Public domain/photographer Superlocal

The MINI Cooper has inspired a diverse population of enthusiasts, from Hollywood wheelers and dealers to middle-class college students. Across the world you'll find numerous clubs and organizations for MINI Cooper owners. Just about every region of the United States has its own MINI club. A good resource to locate one near you is North American Motoring, an online community that hosts MINI news, discussions and articles.

Every year there are several events and meets where owners can socialize, show off their beloved vehicles, look at outlandishly modified MINI Coopers, exchange tips for tuning cars and even race their supercharged MINI Coopers. A few of the larger events include:


  • MINIs on the Dragon, the largest MINI event in the United States. MINI drivers gather in North Carolina on US highway 129, known as "The Tail of the Dragon." The highway has 318 curves in 11 miles.
  • A MINI Vacation in Vegas (AMVIV) features a banquet, a drive through Death Valley, a cruise down the Las Vegas Strip, a drive through the Valley of Fire State Park and the first round of the North American MINI Cooper Challenge race.
  • MINI Meet West and MINI Meet East are two events that change locations each year. In 2007, MINI Meet West will be in Hood River, Oregon from July 10 to 12. MINI Meet East will be in Alcoa, Tennessee from June 28 to July 1.

The MINI Cooper appears in several films. You may have watched a MINI Cooper speed through a subway system in "The Italian Job," or watched as Austin Powers' dad tooled around in a MINI with a unique Union Jack paint job. The unique look of the MINI seems to appeal to filmmakers.

The "Austin Powers" MINI Cooper
Public domain image/photographer Kuminiac

When the MINI Cooper isn't tearing around corners on the silver screen, it's joining celebrities' fleets of cars. Ever since the days of the original Mini line, celebrities have embraced this quirky car. Some famous MINI (and Mini) drivers include:

  • The Beatles (each member owned his own Mini)
  • Steve McQueen
  • Clint Eastwood
  • Paul Newman
  • Charlotte Church
  • Jennifer Love Hewitt
  • Sharon Osbourne

In the next section, we'll look at MINI Cooper advertising and awards it has received.


MINI Advertising and Awards

The "Hammer & Coop" Web-based series follows the exploits of Hammer, played by Bryan Callen, and Coop, an intelligent, talking 2007 MINI Cooper.
Photo © 2002 BMW AG, München, Deutschland. All rights reserved

MINI innovation doesn't stop with extensive car customization. The marketing campaign behind the MINI Cooper spans television spots, a Web-based series and even personalized LED billboards.

The 2007 television spots in both American and the United Kingdom appeared in letterboxed, cinematic format. Several American ads showcased the MINI Cooper's speed and handling, ending with the slogan, "Let's Motor." A series of humorous ads in the United Kingdom were called "MINI Adventures" and featured MINI Coopers in short films, including a Martian invasion, a zombie attack and a jewel thief's escape.


In February 2007, a Web-based series called "Hammer & Coop" debuted. The series was directed by Todd Phillips and consists of six episodes following the exploits of Hammer, played by Bryan Callen, and Coop, an intelligent, talking 2007 MINI Cooper. Mixing elements of "Starsky and Hutch" and "Knight Rider," this clever series gently spoofs movies and television series from the 1970s while showing off the 2007 MINI Cooper's capabilities.

Another new marketing initiative is aimed at current MINI Cooper owners. In four cities, BMW placed MINI Motorboards. These LED display billboards can display personalized messages to MINI drivers as they approach. MINI Cooper owners who want to participate answer questions about themselves and their driving habits on an online survey. Once registered, owners will receive an electronic key fob that they can attach to their keychain. The fob communicates electronically with Motorboards using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. The Motorboard then displays a message customized for that particular owner. Messages may refer to the owner's occupation, driving habits or MINI ownership in general. The program launched on January 29, 2007 in Chicago, Miami, New York City and San Francisco.

For a little car, the MINI packs a real punch when it comes to critical acclaim. Some of the awards the MINI has earned so far include:

  • 2001 Car of the Year - Auto Express Magazine
  • 2002 to 2006 Most Appealing Compact Car - J.D. Powers & Associates APEAL
  • 2003 North American Car of the Year
  • 2004 Editor's All-Star Award for Best Small Car - Auto Magazine
  • 2006 Best Brand - Kelley Bluebook "2006 Best Resale Value Awards"
  • 2007 Most Wanted Coupe Under $30,000 - Editors

The MINI line seems to foster creativity at all levels, from the manufacturer to the owner behind the wheel. Future models of the MINI may include an all-wheel-drive coupe model and a wagon model called the MINI Clubman.

A concept drawing of the MINI Cooper Clubman
Photo © 2002 BMW AG, München, Deutschland. All rights reserved.

Check out the links on the next page for more information about the MINI and related topics.


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