The original, iconic Mini was designed by the innovative Sir Alec Issigonis in the late 1950s in response to consumer demand for smaller, more fuel efficient automobiles. Despite slow sales initially, the diminutive two door continued to sell for forty years, with deliveries totaling well over five million units.
Contrary to most cars available in those days, the Mini was one of the smallest one could buy, but its styling, driving characteristics, and affordability made it popular around the globe. Celebrities drove them and they still have starring roles in film to this day.
As racers are wont to do, Formula 1 championship winning team owner John Cooper thought the Mini could be tweaked for more speed and driving enjoyment, and in the matter of a couple of years, Mini Coopers were winning in competition, making its reputation by winning the legendary Monte Carlo rally on multiple occasions.
Nearing the end of the original Mini’s production, BMW purchased MINI’s then parent company Rover in 1994 and while BMW sold its other Rover assets just six years later, the German company retained Mini. Today, MINI offers a full line of fun-to-drive cars and it’s no accident that you can still buy a MINI Cooper today.
That’s simply because the Cooper name is so intertwined with MINI history that the two brands are inseparable, as if they share the same DNA. When the Frank Stephenson-designed MINI launched in 2001, they ensured the Cooper name was there.
At the same time, Cooper’s son Michael formed John Cooper Works in the UK as an independent firm specializing in performance tuning for these new MINIs.
By 2008, JCW was acquired by BMW and John Cooper’s grandson, Charlie, remains involved with the brand as a spokesperson and has taken up the family’s tradition of automobiles. We spoke with young Cooper at the BMW Performance Center West in Thermal, California, BMW’s dedicated performance driving facility a few minutes east of Palm Springs. (The company also has an east coast facility in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and offers driving experiences in over thirty countries.)
As Cooper told Wheels.ca, “I had aspirations of being a professional rugby player, before injury took over and I still loved cars. There was always a burning desire in the back of me to do something with cars. I was just out of college and I was working for my father on the John Cooper Works brand. My slight claim to fame, which is quite nice seeing it out, is that I designed the logo of the John Cooper Works brand. Today, when you see how successful it is, even here in North America, it does make be proud to see it on cars on the road.”
Like any scion of a motorsports family should, Cooper has also begun to compete in MINIs. “Last year I took a step towards a motorsport career,” Cooper said, “albeit in my thirties, which is obviously very late for people to start, but I now race in the MINI Challenge in the UK. It’s been a great opportunity with MINI and I’ve raced at the Goodwood Revival and racing in a Mini Cooper there is an incredible experience and hopefully I get the chance again.”
Long before MINI was a twinkle in BMW’s eye, the Munich-based company was a pioneer in driver training since the seventies, helping customers explore the Ultimate Driving Machines and their programs naturally include MINIs today.
At Thermal, BMW has dedicated facilities that include classroom and event space, a massive asphalt skidpad that stretches to the horizon, autocross courses, and has access to the billiard table smooth members-only circuits at Thermal Club.
For driving enthusiasts, perhaps the greatest of joys is exploring the limits of your abilities – and those of the car you’re driving – when you’re being taught by the best instructors in the best equipment. Having been imbued with that authentic fun-to-drive spirit, MINIs are a thrill to drive at and beyond the limit.
Under the MINI brand, your driving experiences include an autocross and track driving training course, but if you’ve ever wanted to master the feats of driving skill depicted in The Italian Job, you can also enroll in a stunt driving school.
The coolest thing about the MINI programs at the BMW Performance Centers is that students drive the high-performance John Cooper Works models exclusively. (BMW-brand courses range from teen driving to their top-of-the-range performance M School.)
To get a taste for the kind of experiences MINI offers at the Performance Center at Thermal, this writer enjoyed a sampling of exercises over the course of a sunny and windswept afternoon in the Valley.
There is safety in the acres of open space like the Performance Center’s asphalt lake, since there aren’t any immovable objects to connect with, ensuring one can practice complex, high-G load maneuvers while still maintaining one’s health.
The experienced instructors of the Performance Center are able to distill the rapid-fire movements of a quick reverse J-turn into a simple set of actions that any driver can master. The precision of the MINI JCWs made easy work of the exercise.
The real fun began with a simple lead-follow exercise on one of Thermal’s racing circuits and, naturally, the MINI’s responsiveness and great seating position made easy work of mastering a new circuit.
Wrapping up the day’s driving was a timed autocross and while this writer lives to race, timed autocrosses are a little less interesting. But competition is competition and bragging rights were up for grabs. In the end, your humble writer was a couple of ticks slower than Charlie Cooper, which wasn’t too bad considering he’s a MINI specialist.
If you’re a MINI driver or an aficionado of the brand, these MINI driving experiences are something special that you can’t get anywhere else. Driving a new MINI JCW at a one of the finest driver training facilities in the world is a brilliant way to add some driving skills to your repertoire – and enjoy an endless amount of motoring fun at the same time.
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