Three men and the Mini

In last week’s blog, I wrote at length about exotic race cars and why the matter in 2017. As relevant as they may be to the automotive industry, these machines are out of the reach of most people. Granted, when I am a world-renowned author and rival J.K. Rowling for income, I may hunt down a 911, or 570 Spider. But for now, I am poor and living in Vancouver without a vehicle to call my own.

Vancouver is a car enthusiast’s dream. On any given day, you will see Ferraris, Porsches and the occasional Rolls Royce crawling through the downtown traffic. Many of these cars have a “N” badge on their trunk, which denotes learner drivers. Now, I will admit to being slightly jealous of these lucky (usually very young) people and I also feel sorry for them too.

I would argue that many car enthusiasts never forget their first car. They were our first taste of freedom and independence. They teach us how to do simple things like filling up the gas tank for the first time, or changing a flat tire. But if your first car is a brand-new Porsche, where do you go from there? I appreciate modern cars, with air conditioning, airbags and sat nav. because my first car had none of them.

Meet 729-UZO, an original British Leyland Mini City circa 1981. This car was an archaic design even before I was born (1977) and had changed very little since 1959, when the Mini Mk 1 was introduced to the market.

This car was the most basic automobile you could find in 1996 when I was unleashed onto the roads of Dublin; and the City variant was the “poverty” spec Mini of its time. You were lucky to get a fan and heated rear window.


As basic as it was, this was an amazing first car. Why? Well, it taught me everything about driving. There was no power steering and the tiny 10 inch wheels communicated everything through the steering wheel. Parking was easy due to its size. The 997cc A-series engine could hardly outperform a geriatric on a push bike, so I was never in danger of speeding. And as a bonus, I learned about car management. You couldn’t run the fan, headlights, and wipers at the same time; as the drain on the electrical system was too much. The wipers would slow to a crawl in heavy rain, so I kept a cloth on the dash for cold, rainy days. In Ireland, that translated to almost every day.

Despite all this, I loved that orange Mini. I washed it every week, using Dad’s very expensive waxes. Strangely, they did nothing to slow the bubbling rust surfacing all over the car’s body. I did find a new front grill and sporty steering wheel in a scrap yard soon after getting the car and the wheel made me feel like a rally hero pottering around Ranelagh, Rathgar and Terenure (Dublin suburbs) on a daily basis. I was the first grandchild in the extended O’Brien family (Dad has 16 siblings so there were literally hundreds of us, and that number is growing) to drive and this Mini made me feel special at a time when I very much needed to. You will have to read the book to discover why. Sorry. No spoilers.

I have no biological brothers but I do have two cousins, Dean and Leon, who are brothers like to me. We grew up together  so when I began to drive, they were usually in the car with me. After about a year of ownership, I was on my way to collect Dean and Leon for a night out at the cinema. It was a dry night and the Mini had been making a funny chattering noise. I was working as a pizza delivery boy at the time and suspected the car would need a service at some point. I collected my cousins and we drove up the M50 motorway towards the multiplex cinema in Liffey Valley. Dean and Leon are bigger guys than me. Poor Dean got stuck in the back as it balanced the car better that way and Leon and I sat in the front. The Mini felt heavy and the engine was straining.

We got to the cinema and watched the movie. On the way home at 11.30pm it began to rain. I needed the fan and wipers and headlights. Crap I thought to myself. The engine chattering grew louder as I turned on all the electrics. The wipers were crawling and I couldn’t see. I asked Leon to put down his window and I did the same. Turning off the fan, the wiper began to move more quickly. The chattering grew louder and the car began to lose power and the headlights began to flicker. “Lads, I’m getting scared” I admitted to them. “Are we going to make it?” Leon asked. I hoped we would. Getting off the M50 and onto a slip road did nothing for the poor Mini. It was still chattering away like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but on crack.

We knew the hill leading up to their house was still to be ascended and we were all scared. Dean was silent in the back and Leon was gripping his seat. As we got to the hill, I changed down into first gear and held my breath. Please just get up the hill. I turned off the wipers and headlights and then pushed the accelerator into the bulkhead. The engine was revving for all it was worth and the chattering got louder as the car pulled itself up the hill. We coasted to the house, the headlights wouldn’t come back on and the engine had lost all power. Steam began to puff out from the grill and we could smell something burning.

Even before we came to a halt, Leon had unlocked his seatbelt and opened the passenger door. I tried to turn off the ignition but the key was stuck. I too bolted from the car leaving the keys where they were. “Run Dean, Run!” I screamed as I ran towards the house. Leon was calling for his Dad, a mechanic to come and help us. I wasn’t looking back at the car for fear of being caught in the fireball that I was convinced was about to ignite. Dean was still in the back of the car. “Run!! RUN” Leon and I screamed as Dean calmly pulled up the seat and climbed out of the Mini. The steam was now bellowing out of the grill and the chattering sound had changed to a groan, like an animal in its death throws. Dean walked towards us “Cheers lads” he said. “I’m not making either of you any cups of tea for a bloody year” he said. The Mini’s groaning came to an end with a fart-like noise and then there was silence.

There was no explosion, no fire ball, just a dead water pump and dry radiator.

An hour later, I drove home with a full radiator and an appointment with the mechanic booked for the following week. I have no idea how the engine survived, but it did. No thermal damage or cylinder head warping. It just kept on ticking.

I wouldn’t have that story to share if my first car hadn’t been a clapped out old Mini. I wouldn’t have an appreciation for frequent fluid checks and regular services. I wouldn’t have learned to appreciate modern electric in cars. And most of all, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

There Mini adventures continue next week as we go to the dump.