PICTON, Ontario – If it wasn’t for the 350+ vehicles spilling out of the parking lot and spreading across the surrounding fields like a multi-coloured array of Skittles, it could have been any typical country fall fair. Milling about the grounds of the 150 year old Parson’s Brewery are more than 600 people. Some, cheeks pink in the cool air, are tossing horseshoes, or playing Jenga, while others groove to a fairly decent Daft Punk cover band or simply relax at the picnic tables, hands wrapped around mugs of cider while enjoying the camaraderie of new found friends and the irresistible scent of wood-smoked brisket.
But many wander the parking lot, where they admire 60 years worth of the iconic vehicle they’ve gathered here to celebrate. It’s the 5th anniversary for “MINI invasion”, an annual weekend-long party held every October at various locations in Canada. This year, MINI owners from as far away as New Brunswick, Connecticut, and Philadelphia, assembled in Montreal and Oakville, then with simultaneous departure times, eventually converged in Belleville, Ontario. After taking over Zwitz Park for an afternoon Show n’ Shine, they hit the road in an enormous convoy bound for Prince Edward County.
What is it about the Mini that inspires such affection and intense loyalty among its fans? Certainly its appearance is a large part of it; the characteristically cheeky face set on a square little body makes it as irresistible as a puppy. But it’s the MINI’s legacy as the unlikeliest hero in motorsports history that’s forever endeared it to champions of the underdog the world over.
Sixty years ago, engineer Sir Alex Issigonis strapped the very first transverse engine under the tiny bonnet of the original Mini, and changed the future of small cars forever. The space saved by the sideways mill allowed maximum space to be allocated to the passenger cabin, without increasing the size of the car. The Morris Mini became a pop-culture phenomenon, a touchstone of the1960s. Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, and Petula Clark each had one.
John Cooper, who shot to fame as the pioneer of rear-engined race cars, was intrigued by the little car’s possibilities, and envisioning a performance version, convinced British Motor Cars to let him develop the Mini Cooper. It proved an instant success on the European rally circuit against much bigger, more powerful cars, and Mini Coopers went on to win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 65 and ’67. Mini bounced around under different ownerships, from Morris to British Motor Cars, from Austin to Rover. In 2001, BMW acquired the rights to build Minis and to use the Cooper name.
There are iterations of practically every generation on display here today; including a classic Austin Mini, a Riley Elf, and a Mini Moke. There’s even a pre-production model of Mini’s first electric EV.
When the last “Miniac” has been served smoked brisket and ribs by celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy, the event’s special guest took the stage. He’s Charlie Cooper, the affable 38-year-old grandson of John Cooper, and the brand ambassador for John Cooper Works in Britain. Greeting the crowd of 630, each of whom had paid $60.00 to attend–with another 260 on a waiting list,–Cooper announced the prize for “farthest driven” (Nova Scotia, 1700 km) and the lucky winners who’d ride shotgun for a few hot laps tomorrow in a 301 horsepower Cooper GP.
Early the next morning, the group reconvenes at Shannonville Motorsports just outside of Belleville. It’s the very first time on track for many of the participants but they all come off beaming. Even the historic vehicles, including the Moke, take their turn on the circuit. Charlie Cooper is a hit with the fans, who stop to shake his hand, chat about their vehicle, and pose with them for pictures.
But he managed to carve out a bit of time from his busy schedule to sit down for a chat with us during lunch.
“I’m here with a lot of MINI fans, but a lot of fans don’t know the history of Cooper,” he said.
“It’s a brand where so many people can just turn up, in Canada and Britain and the U.S.and Japan, and you get so many people who are passionate about this brand. I think the Cooper element is a big part of why it’s special.
“I was pretty passionate about cars (as a kid) and I’d go to events with my granddad, and I didn’t understand how amazing he was. I got quite emotional at Goodwood few weeks ago, at the Revival, which is the most important historic race meeting in the world, it’s like stepping back in time. It was a big celebration of Cooper, and it had all the important Cooper race cars of the last 60 years. The Cooper T51 that won the 1959 Formula One, and I (he started racing only a year ago) was in Jack Brabham’s Monaco-winning car following Jackie Stewart in a Formula 3 car that he started his career in. Just to see all these cars, that changed the face of sports cars .. an AC Cobra wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Cooper, the GT 40 probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Cooper. My father was asked to do that by Ford originally. Obviously he wasn’t involved, but a lot of the technology was based on the early (Cooper) Monacos. It was engineering genius to put the engine in back, and everyone laughed at them.
“It was a tiny team in Sussex, and you think about a Formula One team today, they have hundreds of millions. It just wouldn’t happen nowadays. Enzo Ferrari, founder of the company and Ferrari Formula One Team, he mocked the Coopers and the Cooper Car Company. He said ‘Ferrari will always have the engine in the front. I’ve never seen a horse push a carriage.'”
“And obviously, other than the grand tourers, all their sports cars, all their formula one cars since (the engines) have been in the back.
“But Cooper had the last laugh, my grandfather and the team won the World Championship in 1959 with Jack Brabham. It wasn’t a horse pushing it, it was Jack himself because he ran out of petrol. (Brabham pushed the car the final 300-400 yards to the finish line).
“My grandfather saw the potential in Mini. It was my grandfather’s friendship with Alec Issigonis – they were friends from racing together in the Brighton Speed Trials where I grew up. Alec had created a car designed with the four wheels on each corner, an amazingly efficient car, but also an amazingly good handling car. They took it down to Monza in 1959, and my grandfather and all the drivers just fell in love with this car. It took a bit of time for them to convince BMC to take it racing.
“They weren’t the first to put two stripes (on the car), but my grandfather was the first in Formula One. It was just that all the British cars were green, all the Italian cars were red, all the French cars were blue, German, silver, Japanese,white – and he just had enough of not being able to see which ones the Coopers were and created the British Racing Green with the two white stripes”
Minis became successful in rallying – a sport that in the 60s was much more high-profile than it is now, they were superstars. The Mini won every rally, and some rallies it came first, second, and third.
“But I do like to say this, when I’m with MINI fans, is the importance of my father in the story. Cooper disappeared in the 60s(under British Leyland ownership) but Mini Coopers were put on the road after they went racing, they had to be for homologation.
“My father reignited the Cooper brand out of his garage in Sussex, making kits for Classic Mini. In the 90s, it was relaunched with Rover and as a young boy that’s when I started working for the family business. And it was hugely successful. BMW bought Rover (reportedly for the Mini, because they saw the potential in front-wheel-drive technology). My grandfather died in of cancer in 2002, but he was involved with the development of the (new) Mini and what it was going to look like. And he saw the last prototype and went in it, and he got very emotional because it was launched as a Mini Cooper, not just a Mini and he could see the future in his legacy.
“After my grandfather died, my father started the John Cooper Works brand and started doing aftermarket parts, That’s when I became involved again after university – I convinced them they should do a track car because I was a young boy-racer quite often stealing his cars. And John Cooper Works managed to convince Mini to do the first GP – which was actually made by Bertone, the coach builder in Italy. John Cooper Works producing aftermarket kits – exhaust, tuning, was so successful and way exceeded expectations;–my father’s, Munich’s, Oxford’s–and this car, was one of the reasons that Mini decided that this could be a standalone offering for the product, a model that we can sell. And that’s where the John Cooper Works brand came into the Mini Group.
“I’m trying to encourage Mini to do a lot more racing, as I race in a Mini Challenge in the U.K. It’s become quite a high profile event. I’d love to see a series in North America in the new Minis.
“Not all Mini people are racers, but you see them doing lead-follow laps – getting on track makes people happy and they experience what the car can do. And it’s a lot safer than doing that on the road.
“Enzo became a huge admirer of my grandfather and they were very good friends. And from mocking the Cooper Car Company, he came full circle to have a huge respect. His favourite car it was said, was his gold Austin Mini Cooper that he regularly drove in Italy.”