Movie remakes. Sometimes directors get them spot on. Like when Todd Phillips worked his magic with Starsky and Hutch in 2004. Sporting the talents of Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Snoop Dogg (well, that’s what he was calling himself back then), this revisitation took all the freewheeling swagger of a classic ’70s TV show and adapted it to suit the comedic tastes of the new millennium.
It could have been a disaster but it worked brilliantly — unlike the reinvention of The Italian Job that F Gary Gray released some 12 months earlier. Despite an all-star cast, it felt like a bottle of champagne that had lost its fizz. Filmed in Los Angeles instead of Turin, this version tried too hard to be different and came across as contrived. It also had no Michael Caine, which was disappointing.
Fortunately there was one hat-tip to the cult-status ’69 version — a cameo appearance by an original Mini Cooper with Charlize Theron.
Ah, except it wasn’t. Her striking red hatchback might have looked like it was built in the swinging heydays of Mary Quant and Twiggy and The Avengers, but in reality it left the Longbridge factory somewhere in the late 1990s.
Confused? You might not know this, but the iconic Mini designed by Sir Alec Issigonis was produced right up until October 2000. Which is pretty astounding for a car launched in August 1959 when The Beatles were just a slovenly band of pasty greasers struggling to find a gig. Even our long-lived Citi Golf is impressed.
As to be expected, however, there was plenty of evolution along the way. An early car and a later example may look identical at a casual glance but there are many subtle design nuances. Things like front wings, roof skins, doors and rear windows were tinkered with as the decades clicked past.
The process, as many Mini buffs will tell you, culminated in perhaps the finest of the breed — the so-called Mk VII that Theron’s sassy character, Stella Bridger, flung around Venice Beach.
Basically the last hoorah before BMW took over the Mini Cooper reins in 2001, these models have always surfed a great big wave of hype, often appearing on one those drive-before-you-die lists that haunt the interweb.
But because they were never officially imported into South Africa, most Saffers will go to their graves without having had the chance to actually experience one. Luckily I know a man who knows a man whose father owns a 2000 Cooper Sport. And he wasn’t afraid to toss me the keys.
So here I am in Pretoria admiring what has to be one of the coolest little cars I have ever encountered. Purists may wax lyrical about the cleaner lines of the very first Cooper that ruled in the 1960s but this later model is, in my eyes, the dog’s bollocks. Standout features like those bulging wheel arches, 13-inch Minilite wheels and Monte Carlo Rally-spec spotlights give it a kind of cartoon-character aggression. As if it will, at any second, come to life and boing off to go and fight some Goliath-sized super-villain. And win.
Dwarfed by the Ford Fiesta parked next to it, this Mini Cooper seems ridiculously teeny by contemporary standards. Yet once I step inside I am astounded at just how roomy it is. The strange, bus-like steering wheel takes some getting used to but the clever use of space blows my mind. It makes its two predecessors seem unnecessarily claustrophobic.
Although there’s no hiding those Spartan genes, this British racing green redux comes with amenities its forebears could never have imagined. Like leather seats and a proper wraparound dashboard with lots of dials to relay such things as oil temperature and voltage.
There’s even a driver’s side airbag to keep your melon intact. Everything is distilled down to an honest-to-goodness essence. Especially the driving experience.
With your backside kissing the asphalt and your hands gripping the unassisted steering wheel, the Cooper Sport feels like an indoor go-kart with a body bolted to it. There’s a granular intimacy flowing through its controls that you simply don’t get in most modern machinery anymore.
Whereas the current Mini has sold out to the bloated ills of luxury and refinement, this one still crackles with the raucous authenticity that made the marque so great in the first place. It’s all about cheap thrills and pantomime. And it serves up both by the mother-truckload.
With 46kW and a four-speed gearbox the 696kg Cooper Sport is nippy rather than fast. It also proves that you don’t need to be travelling at a billion km/h to have fun. Scything through Brooklyn side streets, cocking a rear wheel around traffic circles at the upper end of the speed limit, is enough to get you grinning like a loon.
It’s probably a bit leery on the highway (I don’t fancy the thought of being sandwiched between two big rigs), but in the twisting confines of the concrete jungle this machine is like a sugar-charged funhouse on wheels.
And to think that it was built using an essentially unchanged, 55-year-old recipe first conceived on the back of a napkin. It just goes to show, like The Italian Job did, that the gritty original sometimes still has the power to outshine the glossy re-creation. – Thomas Falkiner (Pics: Waldo Swiegers)