Currently reading: Used car buying guide: Mini Cooper (1959-2000)
Escape the overdone modern market with a proper fun car

Pour yourself a cup of tea and grab a crumpet, because this cult hero is one of Britain’s most iconic products: the Mini Cooper.

From its go-kart-like handling to its role in The Italian Job, it arguably has the best charm-to-size ratio in existence, yet it won’t cost you as much to buy as you might think.

But first let’s recap the Mini’s inception. Born of the fuel crisis of the late 1950s at the British Motor Corporation (BMC), it was envisioned as a compact, practical and economical car. As such, its four-cylinder engine was mounted transversely (rather revolutionary at the time), freeing up interior space.

Then in 1961, motorsport legend John Cooper turned Austin’s 34bhp 0.9-litre engine into a 55bhp 1.0-litre unit and added beefier brakes and sharper steering, making it faster both on straights and in corners.

An even faster Cooper S, featuring a 70bhp 1.1-litre engine, arrived in 1963, then a 75bhp 1.3-litre in 1964. The Cooper S would go on to rack up no fewer than three Monte Carlo Rally wins, in 1964, 1965 and 1967.

Having appeared on the Mk1 and Mk2 Austin and Morris Minis, the Cooper was discontinued in 1965, but the Cooper S carried on. It made it to the Mk3 Mini, although only for a single year, retiring in 1971.

Then began a hiatus that lasted until 1990, when Rover brought the name back for its version of the Mini. Initially attached to the RSP (Rover Special Products) limited edition, the Rover Mini Cooper stuck around until the Mini’s final day. And we mean that literally, because the last Mini to roll off the production line on 4 October 2000 was a red Cooper Sport.

Driving any classic Mini is an event, especially one of the Cooper variety. Whether an early Austin/ Morris or a later Rover example, the kerb weight never exceeded 700kg. All Coopers therefore feel light, agile and nippy, despite their modest power outputs.

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The steering can be somewhat heavy at low speeds, mind you, due to a lack of power assistance. What’s more, keep in mind that its tiny dimensions don’t make for the best driving position, or the most space for taller individuals. The upside is that it feels very much at home in towns and cities, as well as on narrow countryside B-roads.

So if you’re convinced that a classic Mini Cooper is the car for you, what sort of budget do you need? The good news is that prices start at less than £10,000 – surprisingly little for such a beloved automotive icon.

We would certainly recommend snapping one up while you can, though, because they’re only becoming more desirable by the day. Wait too long and you might have to undertake an epic gold heist of your own in order to afford one.

What we said then

12 April 1963: “To transmit the extra torque [of the Cooper S], the [Cooper’s] clutch has been modified, but it has lost nothing of its feel or smoothness for ordinary driving. For a quick getaway, it bites positively without spin and, wet as well as dry, the SP tyres grip in a remarkable manner to help the little car away. Zero to 30mph in first gear in 4.3sec is a rapid departure for one so small and unobtrusive.”

How to get one in your garage

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An owner’s view, Sam Phillips: “I own a 1990 Rover Mini Cooper RSP. Having a motoring icon tucked away in the garage is a real privilege, not only because it’s a great little car to hoon around in but because of the history that goes with it. Naturally, an older car brings a host of maintenance tasks, and rust is something you need to be wary of, particularly on the sills and bulkhead. But from behind the wheel, you can’t help smiling, thanks to its agile handling and wonderfully charismatic exhaust, which produces a nostalgic throaty warble reminiscent of the cars in The Italian Job.”

Buyer beware

Engine: A knocking noise coming from the engine, particularly when you’re accelerating or decelerating, is a sign of engine-mount failure. Check the condition of the oil and coolant levels and for a recent oil-change sticker. Let the engine idle and pray the cooling fan cuts in. Blip the throttle and watch for the engine rocking abnormally. If it won’t start when cold, it could be because of a faulty fuel pump, dirt in the supply system or the carburettor sticking. Cleaning these parts should solve this issue. If it won’t start when hot, that could be a sign of badly worn bores and pistons. If this happens, test the compressions.

Transmission: If you can hear a knocking noise coming from the front of the car when the steering is on full lock, this could mean that the CV joint bearings are worn. They will need replacing if indeed they are.

Steering, brakes and suspension: The handbrake cable of early cars is known for seizing up. You will need to replace the cable to solve this issue.

Body: Check the sills, wheel arches and bulkhead for rust, because the Mini is regrettably prone to corroding and getting rid of it can be expensive. A 1960s car will potentially have had panels replaced a number of times, not always properly.

Also worth knowing

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It may look like a classic, but to the DVSA, a 1990s Mini is a modern car requiring an MOT certificate. Only a car built or first registered 40 or more years ago doesn’t need one. Even then, if buying a Mini of this vintage, insist that it’s freshly tested.

How much to spend

£6000-£8999: Rovers that have seen better days with in excess of 80,000 miles.

£9000-£11,999: Late Rovers in respectable condition with fewer than 80,000 miles.

£12,000-£15,999: Rovers is confidence-inspiring nick and south of 50,000 miles.

£16,000-£29,999: The very best Rovers, plus some well-maintained Austins can be found at the top of this price bracket.

£30,000 and above: Showroom-standard Austins, as well as the odd Morris.

One we found

Rover Mini Cooper Sport, 2000, 28,000 miles, £17,995: This is perhaps more than you need to spend on a Rover Cooper, but you’re getting a low-mileage car that has been lovingly maintained and comes with a detailed history. It’s a Sport model, too, meaning it has an 85bhp 1.3-litre engine under its bonnet and rather fetching flared wheel arches.

Oliver Young

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Landie 18 April 2022

"A knocking noise coming from the engine, particularly when you’re accelerating or decelerating, is a sign of engine-mount failure."

From my experience of having owned several Mini's throughout the 60's I'd have suspected big end failure to be the culprit if I was hearing that rather than an engine mounting failure...