Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Mini Cooper creates a road cult

Small, cute and fast, British cars easy to adore

By Gina Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati firefighter Charles Allen thinks his Mini Cooper S is the tops.
(Gary Landers photo)
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Just as the 99th Mini Cooper is counted, number 100 comes zipping through the theater parking lot - ignoring all direction arrows and parking space lines. The 100th Mini deftly pulls through the sea of other Minis and darts into a parking spot with only minutes to spare.

On the agenda tonight: a special screening of The Italian Job, starring Mini Cooper - the delicious little waif from Great Britain. Small enough to park anywhere it pleases. Big enough to hold its own against Hollywood stars.

When Charlize Theron, who plays Stella in the film, slides her original Mini into a barely-there parking spot between two hulking SUVs, the 200-person Mini-owning crowd assembled in the theater giggles with glee. Mini is the perfect getaway car, as it deftly maneuvers in and out of tight spots.

As it bounces into the L.A. subway system during the heist, West Chester resident and Mini owner Teresa Holland, a native of Italy who has a charming accent, bobs and weaves in her seat along with the movie. She swerves at on-screen danger and dodges traffic in her chair.

"It's absolutely adorable," gushes Holland. "My uncle used to have one of the original Minis in Italy. It's so fun. I just loooove it."

A lot of people love it. It's so little and cute. You just want to reach around and give it a big hug. The Mini's latest incarnation has been on American soil only since 2001, when BMW reintroduced it after acquiring the Mini brand in 1994. The earlier version of the Mini lost its green card in 1968 because of changes in U.S. emissions standards, but its unusual design and high fuel-efficiency has quickly made it the newest and coolest car on the block.

Personal touches

Most of the people in attendance at the special preview at Showcase Cinemas on Reading Road ordered their Mini from Cincinnati Mini next to the BMW Store at 6131 Stewart Road in Silverton. But there were Minis from as far away as Lexington and Louisville. They strutted their Mini stuff, boasted personalized license plates and raced each other out of the lot after the movie.

One hundred Minis gather in the parking lot of the Showcase Cinemas in Bond Hill before a special premiere of The Italian Job.
(Tony Jones photo)
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Charles Allen, a Cincinnati firefighter, broke several of his own rules when he purchased his gray Mini. One of those rules was "personalized license plates are a no-no." But with the Mini, it just seemed like the thing to do, so he got MINIMIZ, which he complains no one ever pronounces correctly.

He's known around the fire station on Ludlow in Clifton as Mr. Minimize or "the guy with the Mini." He says that the Mini has changed his whole commute, calling it the "funnest commute you can have from point A to point B."

"You just get a smile on your face. It's zippy and it's got a nice little whiny sound that quickens your pulse a little bit."

Part of the fun during the Cincinnati Mini store's screening at Showcase Cinema was figuring out what the personalized license plates meant. Bobbi and Tim Ross's PDQ MINI was popular, even if the BMV didn't get it.

"Pretty darn quick - that's what we told the Bureau of Motor Vehicles," Bobbi Ross says. "I don't know what they were thinking it meant, but that's what they were told."

Length: 12 feet
Weight: 2,500 pounds
Miles per gallon: City driving 28; highway 37 (24/33 for the Mini Cooper S)
Cost: $16,975 ($19,975 for S)
Performance: 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds (6.9 seconds for the S)
Top speed: 124 mph (135 mph for the S)
Order early: 30,000 produced for U.S. export each year
On the back glass of Matt Pelton's Mini it says: "Let's not use the size of our vehicle to compensate for other shortcomings." When pressed for more information, Pelton says, "enough said."

The Italian Job is only the second movie Pelton and his girlfriend, Denise Kushman, have seen in the last two years. Obviously, this is about the Mini, not the movie. Pelton, a former Sports Car Club of America race-car driver, has gotten "Lil Bitz" (that's the name of his car) up to 125 miles per hour. He will take it out only on sunny days when there are no blips on the weather radar.

"He's got a cover on it even when it's in the garage," says Kushman of Pelton's "baby." "It must be washed and waxed when he gets it out and puts it away. He's grumpy today because it's dirty."

Distinctive appearance

Mini might be the shortest car in America, but it's definitely getting lots of attention. So what if its cup holders fit only cans?

"I hate to say anything that might be construed as un-American, but American-style cars do not appeal to me," says Allen. "It's very British. It has beautiful lines. It's curvy. It will not be mistaken for anything else on the road."

Kara Bauman, 21, was likely the youngest Mini owner at The Italian Job showing. A student at Ohio University, she drove six hours round-trip to see the movie.

Bauman says she was never so excited as when she ordered it. She went online everyday to check its status. She knew when it rolled off the assembly line outside Oxford, England, and when it docked on American soil.

Bauman's Mini is one of about 600 sold from Cincinnati Mini, the only Mini dealer in the Cincinnati area. With only 30,000 produced each year in the U.S., the Mini is a rare sighting. Bauman's was the only silk green one at the movie.

Choosing the color of his Mini was the Allens' most difficult decision.

"I agonized over it," he says. "Being on a waiting list for 11 months makes you second guess a lot. Then you have to decide if you want racing stripes. Then if you get racing stripes, you have to get rally lights. The two are interdependent - it's like dotting an 'i.' "

E-mail gdaugherty@enquirer.com

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