Gallery: The classic Mini: a 1960s icon

It's 50 years since a certain little British car hit the road and went on to become a design icon in the Swinging Sixties and beyond.

Steven Russell

It's 50 years since a certain little British car hit the road and went on to become a design icon in the Swinging Sixties and beyond. Steven Russell meets a family mad about Minis

“PEOPLE have often said that our blood contains 90%-pure four-star or unleaded,” chuckles Paul Kibble. You can see why. He's raced Minis on a grass track just outside Braintree. Debbie, his good lady, became a Formula One addict (and her sister's a pretty-darn-good drag-racer) and son Alex . . . well, at the age of five he could line up 50 toy cars and identify their makes from the headlights and taillights. But it's the classic Mini - 50 years old but still as zestful and cheeky as a teenager - that unites their passion. They've all got one, though Debbie's is something of a shell-with-prospects that had been languishing in a barn for 10 years, covered in cobwebs and pigeon droppings. It's now propped up in the garage, with a plan mapped out to restore it to near-original glory. Alex is just getting over a misguided flirtation with a Volkswagen Polo. His latest Mini, which he's had for two or three months, was bought from a little old lady whose motoring days were curtailed by arthritis. It's already enjoyed a full suspension upgrade.

Paul's is the household's current pi�ce de r�sistance. A 1989 one-litre Mini City that was, it's been treated to a more potent, tuned, racing engine and new gearbox. Bill for that little lot: about �3,000.

Mind you, the car did take second place in a Mini competition the other day. “It is expensive,” he concedes, “but, then, I'm not one of those blokes who is down the pub every night.”

There's a custom-made leather interior being lovingly crafted in silver and black in the north of England, too. "Every time I think about it, I think 'That's another few more hours of overtime!'” With an insurance value of more than six grand, it's really a car to take to shows and on weekend excursions, rather than a daily runabout to use for work. “How many wives would put up with that?” Debbie teases. “Think how many shoes I could buy with that money . . .”

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Mind you, she's equally smitten. “I said if I won the lottery I would open a rescue centre for classic Minis,” she admits.

Paul was driving his dad's butchery vans at the age of 14, bending the rules somewhat. The first car he bought was a �100 Vauxhall Viva, so he could go to watch Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark at the Ipswich Gaumont.

After going through five or six different cars he decided to buy a Mini advertised in the paper. It was a 1962/3 model that someone had done up to look like a rally car . . . which didn't stop it having a wobbly gearknob that used to come off in your hand. “It snowballed from there. Every time I saw a Mini at the side of the road I had to buy it. It got to the stage where sometimes I'd have two or three at a time: restoration projects and on the road.”

He and Debbie - both living in Wakes Colne, between Colchester and Halstead - met in 1982, when she was sweet sixteen and not at all interested in cars.

The end of the decade was a big time for them, too.

In 1989 Paul, then working as a sales rep, finished sprucing up a black Mini. He'd spent a lot of money and sometimes had toiled until three or four in the morning. One Friday night Debbie told him she was pregnant. “She said 'You don't look very pleased . . .' I said 'I'll have to sell the car! How am I going to get a pushchair in the back of a Mini?!' She said 'Most people who find out they're going to have their first offspring jump for joy; you look the most miserable person walking round Sainsbury's tonight!'”

The car was sold to a couple from Manchester; but that didn't stop the love affair with the Mini. There might have been a couple of years without one, he says, and then one day they spotted a restored 1979/80 1275 GT model at the side of the road in Haverhill, belonging to a bank manager and his wife. The Kibbles offered their “Audi banger” in part exchange, added about �1,500, and the Mini essentially became Debbie's vehicle, as Paul still had a company car.

When Alex was 14, having been around cars and spanners since he could toddle, he came home from school and announced he wanted to be a mechanic. Dad unpacked his spanners and extended screwdrivers and they got Alex a Mini he could work on.

That time, five years ago, marked the point the family got deeply involved with Minis again, with Paul and Debbie buying another one.

They're heavily committed with the Bury [St Edmunds] Mini Club - Debbie's the web editor - and go to numerous gatherings. A month ago, for instance, they went to the big Mini United birthday bash at Silverstone, and the very next day were up at 5am, polishing, before forming a convoy with other enthusiasts and heading for the Norfolk Mini Owners Club shindig at Fakenham Racecourse.

So, what's the appeal of the classic model?

Alex: “They've got character. People tell me at college 'You spend so much money on your Mini; just think, you could buy a nice modernish car, with air-conditioning.' But they don't do it for me.”

The 19-year-old is a mechanic at a garage near the family home in Sudbury and is completing his apprenticeship through West Suffolk College. Most modern cars are, he reckons, dull drives.

“Traction control, ABS . . . it's boring. I learned to drive in a car whose only safety feature was the seatbelt; you had no power-steering, no traction control, no ABS (anti-lock braking system). I think it makes you a better driver: you brake earlier, you can feel the road a lot better. When something happens, you can react because you know what to do.”

His dad loves them warts and all.

“They're not a practical car. You can't do anything with them, really. You can't even do your week's shopping with one, because there's so little space.

“They're a pain to work on - everything's so enclosed and I've lost countless bits of skin off my knuckles, but there's just something about them that makes you always go back to them, and I'm not sure I can pinpoint what it is. If I could work out what it is and bottle it, I'd sell it. They are just good fun.

“I'm probably not singing their praises, but everybody who's ever owned a Mini says the same: You don't buy it for comfort and mod cons; you buy it because it's a part of British history. When you pull up in a car park, people look.” As did a “macho-looking bald-headed guy” walking with his girlfriend in Swaffham High Street, and leading a Rottweiler of a dog, when that Fakenham-bound convoy passed the other week.

"He turned and saw the first Mini at the front, and seven Minis behind, and it made him smile. He looked your Joe Average thug, but when he saw them his face lit up. That to me shows that a bit of British history and culture is still alive. Minis have always made people smile - no matter how big or butch they are.”

That shell in the garage will eventually be both a show car and a vehicle to carry Debbie to and fro between home and work in Bury. It's a limited-edition 1978 Mini 1000. They're aiming to restore it to its original condition, including a brown paint job - poo colour, grins Alex; maple brown in more polite terms.

His mum is toying with the idea of calling her car Minstrel when it's done, as in the chocolate confectionery. “I'm a purist,” she says. “I don't like all this bling! - not the sporty bits that the guys tend to go for.”

So here's the $64,000 question: what do they think of the modern Mini produced by BMW since 2000? (Or MINI, to give it its official in-capital-letters name.)

Debbie says they're beautifully-engineered cars . . . "but they're just not a Mini!“ interjects her son. “When they're the same size as a Corsa or an Astra, they're just not a Mini.

“The build quality of our Minis sitting outside is minus four, and the new Minis' build quality is high. Ours are put together with chewing gum and glued together. But that's part of the appeal.”

And it's an appeal that endures. Paul wipes a barely-visible speck off the side of his pride and joy and says: “I'd love to own a big Aston Martin and other classic cars. But at the back of my mind I think I'd always have a Mini, too.”

Mini matters

The Suez crisis of 1956 led to petrol rationing

Small German-built “bubble cars” became popular

British Motor Corporation chief Leonard Lord wanted a new car that would beat it

It needed to use an existing engine and be small, though able to carry four people

Morris Minor designer Alec Issigonis was given the job

The Mini was launched in 1959

It was made at Longbridge in the Midlands and Cowley, Oxford - and, later, in countries such as Spain, Australia, Italy and South Africa

Its 848cc engine delivered a top speed of just over 70mph

The car was nippy, agile and easy to park, too

The legendary name Mini didn't come until 1961. Before then, it was known as the Morris 850 or the Austin 850

The car became an icon forever associated with sixties Britain

Famous owners included comedian Peter Sellers, actor Steve McQueen and Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison

Its most famous screen appearance was in The Italian Job, at the end of the 1960s, involving a thrilling three-Mini chase

BMW took control of the Rover Group, then owner of the Mini brand, in 1994

Production of the classic car came to an end in 2000

BMW launched a bigger and more potent model

Two years ago, the company marked the production of its one- millionth Mini

Paul Kibble says the DVLA has about 6,000 classic Minis (1959-2001) registered

Intriguingly, he drives 40-tonne trucks for a living - and reckons he's a better driver because of his hobby

“I give bikers and cars more of a second glance, because I know what it's like driving a small car or riding a bike - and, the other way round, I don't go where there's a blindspot.”