Are you a Mini person or a MINI person? It probably depends on your age, because if you’re much beyond 30 the word “Mini” will instantly bring to mind thoughts of the phenomenally successful small car that launched in 1959 and enjoyed a 41-year production run, during which more than 5.3 million were produced and sold around the world.
To Mini people, a real Mini is around 10ft long and 5ft wide, and is noisy, nippy (but not very fast) and seemingly larger inside than out. The Mini starred alongside Michael Caine in The Italian Job, was the car that defined the Swinging Sixties and was the unlikely winner of numerous international rallies. Everyone from John Lennon to Enzo Ferrari, from Steve McQueen to Peter Sellers bought a Mini and, for thousands from the baby-boomer generation, it was the car they learned to drive in and the first one they owned.
For those who are yet to reach 30, however, a MINI is more likely to be the current variant, officially written in upper-case letters, that first went on sale in 2001 – seven years after the marque was bought by BMW. The original MINI One measured 11.9ft long, cost £10,300 and came as standard with a quiet and refined ride, easy 100mph performance and an airbagged, anti-lock braked, 21st-century take on the cuteness that made its outdated predecessor such a success.
In the intervening 16 years, the MINI has spawned numerous models, many of which have come to outgrow their name, even when it is written in capitals. The MINI Countryman (from £22,625), for example, is more than 14ft long, almost 6ft wide and just over 5ft high.
When it comes to comfort, speed, safety, efficiency, reliability and refinement, there’s no arguing that the thoroughly modern MINI leaves the original for dead – but there are plenty of enthusiasts around the world who mourn the old-school version, as evinced by the rising values of classic Minis and the global network of specialist restorers, spare-parts suppliers and owners’ clubs that strive to keep them going.
Indeed, as modern cars become larger and cities more traffic-clogged, a Mini that really is mini seems to make more sense than ever – which is why a man called David Brown has decided to bring the little car back to life with a modern-day twist in a project he’s calling “Mini Remastered”.
To those with anything more than a passing interest in cars, the name David Brown will resonate as being that of the wealthy engineer who raced motorcycles and cars, was a handy sailor, polo player and pilot, bred racehorses, set up an eponymous tractor company – and bought the Aston Martin marque for £20,500 in 1947 after responding to a newspaper advertisement for a “high-class motor business”.
But the David Brown I’m talking about is a different person altogether – although there are a few similarities to the other one, in as much as he is also the scion of an engineering family, a successful racing driver and the man behind a car called the Speedback GT that bears a passing resemblance to the Aston Martin DB5 of the 1960s.
Brown hails from Knaresborough in North Yorkshire. His father established a business called DJB Engineering in Peterlee, County Durham, and employed his talented son as a designer and engineer. Brown junior developed an articulated dumper truck that the firm began to manufacture, further commercial vehicles followed and by the mid-1990s DJB employed 3,500 people – at which point it was bought by the giant American machinery manufacturer Caterpillar.
In the ensuing years, Brown established several clothes shops, owned a Harley-Davidson dealership, built houses, opened restaurants and started a chain of nightclubs – but it is engineering and “making things” that he really loves, hence the founding of a car marque and the launch of the Speedback GT in 2014. Twelve have been built and David Brown Automotive (DBA) is in the process of creating more, with total production being limited to 100. Each one costs a not-insignificant £594,000 and is painstakingly handmade using the powertrain and underpinnings of a supercharged Jaguar XK-R or XK-8 in a process that takes over 8,000 hours. The result, says 62-year-old Brown, is a contemporary version of a traditional coach-built car that combines the luxury of hand-craftsmanship with the benefits of what he calls “the digital revolution”; a true “grand tourer” that is designed for devouring continents as easily as its impressively large load area (complete with concealed fold-out picnic seat) will devour enough luggage for a very long holiday.
Brown is fanatical about measurements and effuses over the fact that modern technology has made it possible to create body panels that fit together with microscopic precision, compared with the handmade cars of old that, he notes, were rarely the same size on both sides.
“I was moved to make the Speedback GT when a Ferrari Daytona I was driving in the south of France broke down. I almost reached the point where I didn’t dare take classic cars out,” he says. “If you buy a new door for a classic car, you might find that it’s an inch longer than the hole you want it to fit into. It’s just the way things were. People rave about the sports cars of the 1960s, but they always go wrong – they simply arrived at a point where they overreached themselves.”
But while Brown appears less than impressed by 1960s engineering, he has always loved the era’s very particular automotive vibe – which is why he’s taken the knowledge gleaned from building the Speedback GT and applied it to the Mini Remastered in a bid to create a car with the look and character of a classic that’s also properly screwed together and finished to modern-day standards.
Each Mini Remastered starts life as an original car sourced by DBA’s anonymous network of buyers, whose job it is to scout out and secure suitable donor vehicles from the surviving pool of late-model cars that were fitted with fuel-injected engines. After arriving at the firm’s recently acquired 18,000sq ft workshop beside Silverstone race circuit, the cars are stripped to the bare bones and their bodyshells discarded in favour of brand new ones supplied by official manufacturer British Motor Heritage.
These are then “de-seamed” for a smooth appearance and improved with extensive soundproofing, additional bracing, reinforcement and DBA’s own grille. New and updated front and rear subframes and suspension are fitted, after which the engines and gearboxes are fully rebuilt using top-quality modern components for improved performance, reliability and longevity before being installed in the new, corrosion-proofed body, which is finished with a four-week paint process. Inside, the seats, dashboard, headlining and doors are trimmed with the same meticulous care seen on the Speedback GT. Air conditioning, Bluetooth connectivity and satellite navigation are subtly incorporated and a bespoke dashboard is installed, complete with beautifully engineered aluminium switches and controls.
“The Mini Remastered is enabling us to use the skills we’ve acquired through making the Speedback GT to build a more affordable car in higher volumes,” explains Brown, who hopes to initially produce 50 to 100 remastered Minis per year at a starting price of £96,000 apiece. “More than 5.3 million Minis were made, all of which were dreadfully engineered. The shutlines were terrible, and the cars were often delivered with rust already on them. What we’re aiming to do is offer all the appealing aspects of the Mini in a car that’s been really well engineered and has a place in today’s world, where the roads are becoming ever-more congested.
“We recently parked a Mini Remastered in a London street,” he says, “and, even between a Smart car and a modern Fiat 500, it looked absolutely tiny – it’s actually a really practical car for modern cities, the car that the word ‘nippy’ might have been invented for.” Brown says the firm was overwhelmed with enquiries when news of the project emerged, and orders have already been placed from as far afield as Australia, Japan and America.
Having owned Minis in the days when it was still possible to buy them new – though I hadn’t driven one for more than 20 years – I was anxious to discover just how much like the real thing the Mini Remastered is. As I settled into one of the 25 Monte Carlo limited editions (special “Rascasse Red” paint, white roof, period-style rally lamps, leather bonnet straps, tuned engine and £99,000 price tag), the original Mini’s familiar, slim-knobbed gear stick invoked a pleasurable degree of nostalgia, as did the hand-trimmed leather steering wheel. Firing up the 94-horsepower engine (the sporty Mini Cooper of 1961 managed just 55hp) instantly reminds one of how raw an old Mini really is, with the thrum of the engine transmitted through the entire car – but once underway, the pure and simple fact that they are incredible fun to drive instantly shines through.
The remastering certainly makes itself felt by dint of a solid feel and really excellent roadholding, while Brown’s “nippy” description is undoubtedly still applicable, even compared with modern small-car performance.
Unlike most modern cars, however, you still have to work at driving a Mini Remastered – plenty of gear-shifting is required to keep the engine singing, and even the most stoic of drivers might struggle to maintain an 80mph cruise because, while the soundproofing is good, it can only do so much to conceal the fact that you’re essentially back in that 10ft by 5ft steel box of old.
Yes, the Mini Remastered remains mini, and it feels minute and unrefined compared with the first model’s overblown successor. But it’s hard to imagine any well-heeled fan of one of the greatest cars of all time being able to resist the chance to get behind the wheel of an updated version that provides the necessary retro feel with a few modern-day creature comforts – even if it does carry an incongruously maxi price tag.