In a class of its own

Feature Cool yet unpretentious, cute but macho, the modestly conceived mini has an everyman appeal.

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There is absolutely no logical explanation for the phenomenal success of the Mini. From the day it was conceived, right up until today, it remains a completely classless, ageless and timeless car that anyone can drive. With the Mini, there's no such thing as automatic presumptions of our modern, brand- obsessed society. For instance, the Queen drove a Mini, but so did the student living off tips from an evening job at the local restaurant. Add to that a long list of stars and you have a style icon that continues to endure despite itself. Now that's not to say there's anything wrong with a Mini, but you have to admit it's an unlikely hero. Built from the outset to be small, economical and cheap, it's hardly the normal bedroom-wall poster-child you'd expect. But for some odd reason, it hit the perfect note with all levels of society to become a worldwide phenomenon. It seems almost unimaginable that Sir Alec Issigonis' design of a simple four-seat car, with the wheels at the four corners, is now hitting the ripe old age of 50. To celebrate this milestone, BMW last week held a huge three-day party for the marque at Silverstone race circuit in the UK. Given the name Mini United, it was more like a rock festival than a simple party, with a huge main stage, DJs and Mini fan Paul Weller entertaining the 15,000-strong crowd last Saturday night.

Staging an event of this size could only be possible with a brand of this strength. The Mini scene across the world boasts a huge number of owners clubs, part-support companies and eclectic drivers, all willing to get involved and bring something to the party. Like a swarm of ants heading home to the nest, the highways and country lanes around the famous grand prix circuit buzzed with Minis of all combinations and colours. New and old styles formed Mini traffic jams, with the owners generally enjoying being out in their cars in the unusually excellent British weather.

"We drove over from Ukraine in a convoy of six cars," said the owner of a new Mini sporting some serious airbrush art. "We love our cars and had to be at the birthday party." Back at the circuit, Mini had laid on the usual programme of festival events, but with a few twists. You could get your Mini washed by a couple of giggling girls in hot pants, although to be fair, more of the water ended up on them than on the cars.

There were Mini police wandering around the site, arresting people for no apparent reason. The usual charge was having a dirty car, which led to a fairly long queue at the glamorous car wash girls. Owners could also get out onto the track for a slow jaunt around some of the most famous corners in motor racing. Stunt shows, Mini challenge racing, graffiti art and a stage for showing off your car added to the festival0 feel.

Some of the wackier cars on display included a four-wheel drive Mini, built on a Suzuki jeep chassis. Other oddities were a couple of stretch limo Minis, both old and new, a flip-front V6 custom car and all manner of pick-ups, vans and station wagons. One owner had even taken a back-end of an old Mini and built a trailer to complement his classic red Cooper. An attempt to set a record for the the most people crammed into a Mini Clubman went somewhat pear-shaped, with judges losing count of how many people were actually in the car. Figures varied between 20 and 23 and someone was clearly leaning on the steering wheel as the horn was blasting for most of the stunt.

An enthusiast known simply as Kopfhoerer said "there were human body parts everywhere". "The information was a bit vague. Some said there were 21 people in the Mini, others say there were 23," says Kopfhoerer. "All I know is they had huge fun." Many of the visitors camped around the circuit, while there were few vacant hotel rooms in the nearby towns. Every car park in every bar and restaurant was also crammed with a wide variety of Minis.

What made the event a little more special was that not all the cars were modified or somehow different. Some were as standard as the day they rolled off the Oxford production line. Other older models had clearly led a full life and had the battle scars to prove it. Oddly, despite the worries of the purists, both BMW and original designs seem to sit happily next to each other. Despite being two very different beasts, BMW have managed to bring the car into the 21st century and keep the history of the older cars alive and well.

"The new ones aren't for everyone, but I can see the appeal," said one classic Mini Cooper owner. "I'd like to make each one of them try an old Mini for a few days. They'll have a bit of a shock compared to their new cars." BMW used Mini United and the half-century celebrations to launch two new special editions. The Mayfair and Camden will only be produced for the birthday year and will both sport a special 50th anniversary badge built into the grille. Production of the two cars will start at exactly the same time as the original presentation of the first car back in 1959.

The cars both feature special metallic paintwork, one-off alloy wheels and a range of new materials and surfaces for the interior. At its launch, the Mayfair sported the rather unusual colours of bronze with toffee stripes. Surely only a Mini can get away with being two shades of brown and still look cool? Fashion designer Mary Quant and former Mini works rally driver and Monte Carlo rally winner Rauno Aaltonen were among the guests at the launch.

"I love the Mayfair in those brown colours," said Quant. "It looks like a lovely sweet that you can suck on." To try to figure out why this little car has such a passionate following is almost impossible. Were you able to ask Sir Alec himself, it's doubtful he would know. It was just the right car at the right time, in the right place. If you try to bring it down to just one word, the best you could find would probably be "honesty". This car doesn't claim to be anything more than it is and that's perhaps the enduring appeal of it.

"I love my Mini, but I have no idea why," said one young woman of her two-year old Cooper S. "It's macho and cute at the same time. I've had a few other cars, but they were just cars. My Mini is like my friend." With all other cars claiming to give you such-and-such a lifestyle or oodles of sex appeal, a car that just says, 'This is me, take it or leave it', was as refreshing then as it is now. Manufacturers would give everything they own to bottle the Mini phenomenon, but it seems to have eluded all of them.

Will there ever be another car like the Mini? It's doubtful in today's rapid-fire society. With so many people sharing so many memories of their Mini, it can probably never be reproduced in such a simple form. If you've never driven one or never had that Mini experience, get yourself behind the wheel as soon as possible. You'll be rewarded with an unequalled driving experience from a very simple package. That's pretty much the main appeal of this oddly iconic car.