1988 Mini City: The Worst Car in the World Today

For fear of sounding like a 16-year-old girl trying to be prolific in a High School yearbook, and out of respect for the owner, I will recount my experience as honestly as possible. The Mini City is the worst car in the world today.

As best as I can tell, ownership of a vintage English Mini is like living in a constant pillow fight. The idea of a pillow fight is brilliant, nobody gets hurt and ultimately there is a winner in the end. The only price is the energy exerted. So, a choke cable breaks, you replace it. Head gasket blows, easy, you replace it. Another choke cable, no problem. Carburetor needs rebuilding, sure, it’s easy to get to. Again, a choke cable snaps…okay, fourth time’s the charm. Turn signal relay fails, well at least that’s a new problem and not the… and choke cable breaks again. It’s a never-ending fight and it’s relatively painless, but exhausting. Suddenly a pillow fight is starting to wear on you.

This particular Mini City has been extensively modified by the owner to help express his individuality like the proper millennial that he is, with tasteful white racing stripes up the bonnet, a roof, and epic Italian Job/Monte Carlo tri-racing fog lamps mounted on the grill. Most noticeable are the stunning 10” SSR wheels that adorn the car. While the car originally came equipped with 12” wheels and tires, he believes the smaller wheels allow the Mini to be more agile, with less corner weight and rolling resistance than the larger wheels. To his credit, the Mini had the sprightliness of a squirrel crossing a busy intersection, the un-assisted steering quickly darting the snubbed nose to and fro with precision and certainty. The substantial lack of tire sidewall and lowered suspension made me fear hitting even a small pebble. Every bump will fling you around like a brick in a washing machine.  Even on the smoothest of surfaces, the ride is like being paddled by a cross Nun who has been called something naughty.

Equipped with a 0.998 liter, 50 horsepower four-cylinder, this short stack of dynamite is rip-roaring ready to go. The 0-60 time of 17.9 seconds won’t impress anyone short of a bicyclist, or maybe a mom running with a stroller. However, the ability to keep the momentum rolling is second to none, despite aerodynamics of a cinder block. Weighing in at just 1,378 pounds, a strong tailwind would help propel us to speeds up to 80 mph.

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The owner and his dog, posing with the 1988 Mini City at a car show

Behind the wheel, you suddenly understand how it could dominate on the racing circuit and in rallies. It’s so plucky, keeping the revs up and dive-bombing every back-road corner to find the apex. The exhaust growling, the sounds more akin to a viscous dog, the single SU carburetor gasping for air every time you punch the throttle. Each gear change falls easily to hand, and right-hand drive doesn’t affect rowing of the factory four-speed gearbox. Driving this car was exciting, like playing “keep away” with other motorists as if your life depended on it… which it did.

The Mini City interior is something special, from a time when safety was a near-30-year-old afterthought (the Mini was first sold in 1959). The fantastic Dixie Cup aesthetic of the upholstery may be the greatest interior design aspect of the interior, with inspiration coming from a 1980s dentist office lobby. There is no radio, nor a glovebox; there is a large car-width cubby that holds a few gauges and a Beats Bluetooth speaker. The owner has opted to replace the original steering wheel with a tasteful, smaller wooden wheel, matching the window cranks and door handles.

Basic switches under-dash toggle the window defroster and cabin heater, though the cabin heater was about as effective as a damp match in a windstorm. You can try and get a puff of heat to come out, but with the fit and finish and panel gaps being what they are, it’s just easier to bundle up. Despite the car being tiny by modern day standards, its space utilization is brilliant. With 80% of the floor pan designed for storage and passenger space, this death cube is quite practically roomy.

The design of the Mini City went largely unchanged from 1959 to 2000. It was sold millions of times over, manufactured in over 10 different countries, and catered to every potential need for every motorist in that time. The Mini was offered as basic cheap transportation, a limousine, a firetruck, a luxury family saloon, a pickup truck, convertible beach cruiser, or race car. How can this be the worst car in the world when it has been every kind of car imaginable?

It’s because we, as consumers, have asked for more than what the humble Mini City can deliver. Now we have Apple CarPlay, heated steering wheels, automatic emergency braking, massaging seats, 700+ factory-warrantied horsepower, and working cigarette lighters. As an enthusiast for the automobile and preservation of the art of motoring, it pains me to see cars like this drift into the abyss like Jack did when the Titanic sunk, the owner and I both yelling at consumers, “There was room for him on the damned door. You could have saved him!”

Yet here we are today, desperate to keep up with soccer moms in their CVT-equipped crossovers, pretending to race them with our 50 crank horsepower. The Mini City gave us the most basic freedom – movement. It was a blank canvas, a racing hero, a David to the Goliath, a pop icon, a cultural revolution, a workhorse, a commuter, a friend. The Mini City, once touted as the savior of the English car industry is now the worst car in the world today. And it’s nobody’s fault but our own.

1988 Mini City downtown

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