I learned to drive in a classic Mini. Here's why your kids should, too
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There are many things I have to thank my parents for: a good education, help with university fees, 18-plus years of accommodation. But I am especially thankful for the indulgence of a 1998 Mini Cooper for my 17th birthday.
Finished in jet black with a checkerboard roof and two white racing stripes up the bonnet, Babette (named by my mum and I, drunk on New Year’s Eve) was my dream car – bubbling rust and mildewy odour aside.
To many parents, the idea of buying your child a beaten-up 20-year-old banger seems the equivalent of gifting them a first class ticket to A&E, but in my opinion rust-bucket cars – Minis in particular – are the ultimate first driving experience, teaching as many lessons in the art of patience and pragmatism as they do in how to change the oil without ringing your dad (NB, I still did this).
I realise that car choice in this context is generally driven by safety, reliability, affordability and practicality. Babette possessed but one of these factors, and even affordability is questionable after you add up the maintenance costs over the years. But what she lacked in safety credentials and the ability to travel from London to Cornwall without requiring several breaks to cool down, she made up for in the pure joy of driving her.
Not only that, but she taught me a series of invaluable practical lessons relating to driving – and to life in general.
Our adventure began at a second-hand car dealer in Reading. My black and white beauty had passed my dad’s rigorous inspections for rust, leaks and other obvious problems, and she’d passed my own personal test in that she was cool to look at. Since I was still learning and Dad could barely fit in the driver’s seat, the test drive was performed by Mum, who had learned to drive in her own mustard-hued Mini in the Eighties.
Her romantic tales of squishing her friends into the back seats and driving to the coast had inspired me to own an old Mini. I imagined myself whizzing down country lanes with my dog in the passenger seat, a cassette blasting and the wind whipping through our hair/fur. It was a tradition in the making: the Sloan women and their pre-millennium Minis, much like old-money families and their long line of pedigree black labradors.
I agreed with Dad that I would pay for repairs, MoTs and such; we signed the papers and soon she was sitting proudly in our garage.
I’d love to say that I enjoyed a blissful honeymoon period with Babette, but learning to drive in a car only two years younger than you takes some getting used to. The lack of power steering made slow-speed driving a real workout, the window of the driver’s door jammed if you wound it down too far then fell into the door if you tried to wind it further, and I had to cull all friends taller than 5ft 11in.
I lost count of the number of times she started gurgling and grunting before coming to an unexplained stop, and I was subject to monthly lectures by my dad about how much easier it would have been if I’d conformed and had a VW Polo like all my friends.
All in all, yes, she was arguably a foolish car for a 17-year-old first-time driver. But I had such fun, and how many kids nowadays can say that about their first car? If it hadn’t been for Babette’s quirks and minor foibles, I’d be an entirely different driver.
I decided to take my fourth driving test in Babette. As Murphy’s law dictates, my examiner was the tallest, gangliest man the DVLA could produce. But, although he spent the entire test with his knees around his ears and his head hitting the roof over every bump, I passed. Perhaps he was simply feeling generous after regaining the feeling in his neck, but I like to think it was a sign that my car and I were meant to be.
From then on it became increasingly clear that Babette’s dainty charm and character could overcome nearly every fault. Friends loved her, and that meant they didn’t mind quite so much if we broke down on the way into town, or broke down on the way back from town, or broke down five minutes after we’d last broken down.
And charm wasn’t her only virtue: in my first year as a driver, I learned the importance of regularly checking the oil, the tyre pressure, the coolant, actually knowing what coolant was – not to mention learning how to jump-start, push-start, admit defeat and call the AA, flag down men in vans to help me push her to the side of the road, and wait, endlessly, for someone to arrive.
Photo / Heathcliff O'Malley
Yet I appreciate the mechanics of a car far more than I would have – mainly because I’ve spent a lot of time with my head under the bonnet, looking at whatever part the mechanic was telling me needed replacing.
Even my dad, who had remained sceptical of the merits of Babette (with reference, perhaps, to bills for a replacement exhaust system, front suspension, clutch, radiator and tyres) secretly admired her. I know this because one day I opened the door to find a brand new hi-fi system in place of the original pop-out radio cassette, and a stack of Yes, Pink Floyd and Nick Drake CDs in the glove compartment.
I also knew when he’d been for a joyride as the seat was set as far back as it would go – though even then I’m still surprised he managed to fit in. I imagine he looked a bit like Mr Incredible.
But my first road romance had to come to an end. The engine became too noisy, the heating too erratic, the suspension too painful on my pothole-filled road. It took a hell of a lot to convince me, but deep down I knew that after four years of unpredictability, my days of living on the edge were done and it was time to trade her in for a regular person’s car. We haven’t kept in touch (too painful), but I think she’s somewhere in Birmingham.
But while I appreciate my new-model Mini (yes, it had to be a Mini, this one’s called Betty) with her heated seats, windscreen wipers with more than one setting, and two more gears, I still wouldn’t have started my driving career with any other car. I drive more carefully now because I know what it feels like to drive without technology on my side. And I have such fantastic stories to tell. To me, those memories are priceless. Dad might still disagree, though.
- Telegraph UK