Future classics

Future classic: MINI Cooper (R50)

by James Batchelor
5 May 2021 5 min read
Future classic: MINI Cooper (R50)
Photos: Mini

It’s hard to think of a car that’s had a greater weight of expectation on its shoulders than the MINI ­– BMW’s twentieth century reboot of an icon. Perhaps you could throw the recent modern interpretation of the Land Rover Defender into that conundrum, too, but it was expectation of a different tone.

The Mini, in all of its forms over the years, from Austin Mini Sevens and Morris Mini Minors, to Coopers, Cooper Ss, Clubmans, 1000s, Advantages, Jet Blacks, and Rover Minis, was a car enjoyed by anyone and everyone. It was a car driven, owned and loved by thousands and encapsulating all of that sentimentality into a modern car was no easy undertaking.

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Plans to replace the Mini were in full swing even by the late sixties – not even 10 years on from the original car’s launch – but cost concerns cancelled the proposal, codenamed ‘9X’. By the seventies, British Leyland had well and truly fallen out of love with Issigonis’s prodigy, but despite a number of potential prototype replacements, the Mini soldiered on unloved and continued to be marketed unimaginatively. Despite BL’s best intentions, the Metro didn’t properly replace the Mini either, and the two shared showroom floor tiles for the next 17 years.

Replacing the original Mini in the 1990s was a very different task from earlier decades, however. While there was real need to replace the aged Rover Metro with a new model to hold ground against a swathe of chic European superminis and improve vehicle safety, the Mini’s stock had risen. A revival started in the late eighties, and by the nineties the revival had turned into a full-blown love affair, as Rover finally lavished attention on the car and milked the romanticism for all it was worth. From 1994, the job of replacing the Mini had also become BMW’s problem after buying up Rover Group.

BMW knew of the Mini’s significance in motoring history and also saw its potential as a cash-cow – something the Mini had never been. Bernd Pischetsrieder wasn’t just BMW’s CEO and the man who had overseen the German brand’s acquisition of Rover, he was also Alec Issigonis’s great-nephew. Almost as soon as the ink had dried on the contract, Pischetsrieder had green lit a plan to replace the Mini, and told Rover the Mini replacement was their project.

However, even before 1994 had become 1995 things started to change. While Rover was working on radical designs envisaging how an Issigonis-like Mini would look in the new Millennium, BMW’s gut instinct told it that what people really wanted was a Mini that could have appeared to have evolved from the original over the decades, much as Porsche had nurtured its 911. So BMW set to work on proposals of its own. Its Munich and California design studios were focussed more on the sporty look of the sixties Mini Cooper and in building a new car with plenty of retro flair. The two opposing design approaches were epitomised by Rover Group’s ‘Spiritual’ concept car – which took Issigonis’s clever thinking and thrust the Mini into the next century – and BMW designer Frank Stephenson’s more retro-looking vision.

Speaking to me earlier this year in a live broadcast on Hagerty UK’s Facebook page, Stephenson explained how he had approached the task of a replacing a car whose design had stood still for nearly four decades. He sketched out designs that showed how the Mini could have changed every decade if it had been allowed to, giving Stephenson the opportunity to enhance and adapt key features of the original like the short overhangs and the distinctive weld on the front wings. Management, including Pischetsrieder, viewed all of the proposals and went with Stephenson’s vision.

The decision to go with Stephenson’s design happened in 1995 and a concept – pretty much identical to the final car – appeared at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show. Friction between Rover and BMW (on a variety of issues, not just the Mini) ultimately led to the German firm ditching Rover and MG in 2000, and despite pleas from Rover executives BMW kept the as-yet-unlaunched new Mini for itself. BMW also kept the Cowley factory in Oxford, shipped out Rover 75 production to Longbridge, installed the Mini production lines and gave the Mini of the new Millennium a triumphant launch in 2001.

There was no doubting the fact the MINI launched with plenty of emotional baggage, and while purists tuned their noses up at the ‘BINI’, as it was sometimes labelled, it was an immediate hit with the media, and, more importantly, drivers. BMW targeted the young 20-somethings whose parents probably had a Mini in the sixties, and a two-car range was available right from launch in July 2001.

There was an entry-level One for £10,300 that gave a nod to the Mini’s origins as cheap, economical transport in its heyday, but for an extra £1,300 there was the Cooper. It was a price worth paying for many buyers who wanted a sporting look and feel but perhaps couldn’t stretch to the Cooper S at £14,500 (which arrived within a year) – a predicament often shared by the customer of the sixties.

Why the Mini Cooper R50 is worth buying

Buyers didn’t feel short-changed either as the Cooper was a hoot to drive, with more than a passing resemblance to the original. While the Chrysler-sourced 1.6-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol wasn’t outstanding, its 116bhp output was good enough. Factor in a low kerb weight of 1,050Kgs and a precise and a smooth-shifting five-speed gearbox, and the MINI Cooper created a blueprint of fun handling which all later MINIs would trade on.

At launch, just like the original, the MINI Cooper was the car to be seen in. But as is fashion’s way, the MINI’s halo faded with familiarity. And with each successive iteration, the car became more rounded yet also less characterful and losing the honest-to-goodness feel that made the first generation model so joyous to drive.

Today, the original, hatchback Cooper of 2001 is finding its time to shine once again. The deft handling and simple retro styling (particularly if finished in Chilli red, a while roof and white pepper-pot alloys) that earned it so many plaudits 20 years ago are coveted once again.

Prices are still wonderfully affordable for such a brilliant little car, at £1,000 for a reasonable example, but Coopers on a Y-registration are becoming highly sought after. As most buyers waited for the new style 51-reg launched in September 2001, Y-regs are rare with only around 700 registered with the earlier plate. Cars with ‘OBL’ in their plates are rarer still – 135 were registered as such, 70 of which were pre-production cars, and these were early press and marketing cars.

With interest in the MINI Cooper R50 growing all of the time, it can mean only one thing. Grab one while you can. The Mini wouldn’t have become the success story it is if the R50 hadn’t delivered the goods and pleased both car enthusiasts and everyday drivers who valued something that made them feel special.

Have you driven or do you own an R50 generation Mini Cooper? Share your experiences, in the comments section, below.

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  • Madelaine says:

    I think i’ll start a collection! In order to collect one needs good advice and the confidence gleaned from that.

  • Angela Rochester says:

    I own a 2003 R50 it’s green with the white top and mirrors not many have the white top like this as far as I have seen I love my mini I have over 200,000 miles and still can race down the road at 110. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  • Tammy Gonzalez says:

    I have a Pepper white 06’ R50 I wanted this car since it’s come back in 2002. Bought it with 76000 miles, I love driving it.

  • Adrian Corfield says:

    I bought my cooper 2years ago. 2002 reg
    Stripped off all the suspension front to back, replaced most parts, Mouse is my retirement fund😉😉

  • Mick Bull says:

    I bought my fiancee an R50 2002 last year as a drive to work car but It’s now used more than our family car. It’s bright yellow & we’ve now added more subtle changes to it than any other car we’ve had. It’s been named Juicy & certainly get well looked at when we go to car meets, it’s definitely a 1 off, no bolt on horrible go faster bits, everything is custom to how we want it. It now wears an R50 plate as well.

  • Rickie Smith says:

    Best by to date in my oppion 2003 cooper s 82000 miles on it runs and drives perfectly handles great best of all the wifey loves it also.

  • Uuk says:

    The best (new) MINI series are the facelift ones from 07-2004, with the enhanced gearbox and teflon coated supercharger. The most desired and fun version is the Cooper S or the Works Cooper S.
    I own a manual R52 Cooper S Works, and the car provides me so much fun!

  • J.wentworth says:

    We have an 06 R50 cooper in all Black I love driving it and in over 3 years of owning it I still love driving it only thing I don’t like is how basic they are took me a good 4 or 5 weeks to find 1 with cruise control , I wanted crono pack and cruise.but never when looking found a copper with both as I’m still not a fan of the speedo and use the digital speed on the Rev counter.

    Would definitely buy another Mini but would have to be a nice Mini cooper SD a neighbour has a 17plate John cooper works it’s gorgeous.

  • Richard Taylor says:

    I have a R50 Copper bought as a cheap stop gap and I love it.
    It goes well, for what it is, handles like a go-kart and never fails to make me smile.

  • Adam B says:

    I owned a 2001 Cooper, a 2004 Cooper and a 2005 Cooper S back in the day. My wife now drives a very high spec 2004 Cooper and it’s been absolutely brilliant, she won’t part with it after nearly 5 years of ownership.

  • Jenny Quillinan says:

    I have a Mini Cooper S yellow with black roof looks like a bumble bee and drives like one too, zippy and fast. It’s also got lots of bells and whistles – satnav and traffic master so you can find where you’re going and get traffic updates too. She’s in perfect condition and has only done 29,000 miles from new in 2002. As much as I love the car it’s time to hand her over to a new owner.

  • Pako says:

    We started the Mini tradition in the family, when our daughter got her driving license. We bought her a 2002 Red and black Mini Cooper for College and work, his name is Dennis.
    My wife’s 2000 VW Beetle name Betsy, had to be put to sleep after serving the family for nearly a decade. So she was replaces with Mavis, a 2004 Cool Blue Mini Cooper Convertible.
    My old unnamed Citroen C4 was involved in an accident, so after an insurance payout, Felix joined the Mini family. A 2007 White Pepper Mini Cooper S Convertible.
    No wonder why the neighbourhood call us the Italian Job family…

  • Karen Hodgkinson says:

    I have a silver mini cooper R50 with black roof, with 188000 on clock. Had for 8 years and love it, makes me smile every day and it corners so well, I’ve driven lots of different cars but nothing is as fun as my little mini

  • Ami says:

    Got a spare n repair project in 2020
    A 02 plate (20yr old) Mini Cooper,Chilli Pack 84k miles Panoramic Tilt & Slide sunroof
    Apart from the regular maintenance the CAR IS SOLID & Quik Car still going strong…

  • CShawty says:

    I own an 02 Cooper in British Racing Green. Also chili pack with panoramic sunroof and sports suspension. Crappy 16″ alloys replaced with the 15″ Imolas in silver, which are the best looking wheels produced for it and offer much better ride quality. It’s caused me some degree of pain in the few years I’ve had it, but after lots of work it’s improving with age. 145k on the clock and I’m planning for another 100! So much fun to drive, particularly on the rural roads around me in Norths Lancs and Cumbria.

  • ChazB says:

    I have an ‘05 Chili Red w/ white top 167K bought it new. All stock with an “S” gas cap. Recently replaced radiator and valve cover gasket, plugs & cables – pulls strong and a real joy to drive. Classic looks and plan on keeping it for a future classic.

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