The choice of date is appropriate, considering the religious fervor of Mini owners, but this year’s meet – the 37th – was held in the place on Earth that perhaps most resembles heaven, the Tuscan countryside.
From all over Europe they came, short of stature and grease-stained, wearing Union Jack T-shirts and Wellies, to the Mugello Circuit, a grand prix track tucked into a valley near Florence. To get there one might drive in convoy, on some deliciously narrow country roads, in a 1983 Mini painted British Racing Green (mercifully left-hand drive for this Yank).
Six-foot-two is a lot of human to put into a classic Mini. It requires a fold at the hip, simultaneously ducking head beneath door frame and sliding right knee into the narrow space between seat and steering wheel. The manoeuvre takes three tries. Once seated, I discover that the shift knob sits under my right hamstring when the car is in second gear. (I will knock it into neutral twice on the ride before I give up on second altogether.) More troubling is the positioning of the pedals, which are shifted to the right to accommodate the wheel well. A bit of centre-console ductwork makes for very little room above the gas pedal, and slows the switch to the brake pedal – a design that nearly made me a hood ornament to a Land Rover as I inched out of the hotel driveway.
The drive is a combination of heart-pounding excitement and naked fear; the term “go-kart handling” that applies to steering and suspension also applies to safety and braking. But by blind curve No 3 I’ve meditated myself into an amusement-park frame of mind, placing my life in the hands of fate. I probably haven’t led a virtuous enough life to die in Tuscany, anyway.
Caravans of Minis pass each other along roads winding through rolling hills, drivers waving to each other and creating a gleeful cacophony with their after-market horns. Some drivers are flying banners of local clubs or national associations, and all seem deliriously happy. In our 10 or so miles to the racetrack, only one car seems to have died at roadside, though perhaps its owner is just taking a moment to show off his chromed air-filter cover.
The swarm of Minis thickens as we progress, and when we reach the racetrack, the classics are bumper-to-bumper. We creep into the main entrance and begin a slow descent down a steep hill toward the racetrack, down a gravel road lined with Minis. They sit in long rows, parked bonnets forward, google-eyed and friendly. Individually, they are amusing; en masse, they make you want to laugh out loud.
At the bottom of the road is the racetrack, where a parking lot the size of a soccer pitch is slowly filling up with all of those Minis. Luckily, you can fit a lot of Minis on a soccer pitch. The new, more performance-oriented Mini models are here in some number, but the sideways glances are reserved only for an individual who chooses to arrive in a Fiat 500.
Next to the racetrack’s bleachers are two small lots filled with tents. There are the usual souvenirs – coffee cups and keychains – but the bulk of the merchandise is Mini parts. On one table, there’s a set of original wheels, hardly bigger than drink coasters, lying next to a box of shift knobs. Trashpicked fenders and bumpers lie in piles, while original steering wheels hang in places of honour out of reach of curious hands. Engine mounts, flywheels, crankshafts – some clearly the worse for wear – are picked through by aficionados who know it is good to have spares.
The main event is more informal, and takes place along the roads and in the parking lots, where owners show off their Minis like proud grandparents. There are a few all-originals, but most are creatively modified, with several covered completely in stickers. British flag paint jobs abound, but some sport flags from former Eastern Bloc countries. There is a smattering of John Coopers, named after the engineer who delivered Mini to racing glory in the 1960s – with his signature a foot high on the hoods – a dozen examples of the fiberglass-bodied Marcos racer and a few Mokes, which must have been an adventure on the Italian autostrade. A man carrying a complete exhaust assembly (which, admittedly, isn’t that big) stops in the road to talk to couple that has somehow converted their Mini into a camper van. A gentleman walking an English bulldog (there are at least a dozen in attendance) converses with a man in whose Mini is a rolling pub, with a keg refrigerator in the passenger seat. To American eyes, it looks as though the keg is driving.
Some 4,000 Mini fans attend the International Mini Meeting each year, many camping on the racetrack grounds like it is some sort of carbureted Coachella. And indeed, there’s a party every night, with a bar and a disco keeping attendees busy. As the polyglot gathering mingles, there is much lobbying for the location of future meetings. One gentleman from Malta is particularly vocal, but it is Lithuania that ends up getting the nod for 2015.
But 2014 will be held, as it is every five years, back in England, the sacred site of the Mini’s birth. Expect to see a lot more Union Jacks.
Caravans of Minis pass each other along roads winding through rolling hills, drivers waving to each other and creating a gleeful cacophony with their after-market horns.