The Mini John Cooper: I'll have the full works

All upgrades included on the fastest production Mini ever built

You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape,’ actor Michael Caine once said.

Sadly, not in the film I’m thinking of today, The Italian Job. But, Caine’s words are ringing in my ears, because I suffered real physical pain trying to squeeze into this week’s car.

Am I that out of shape? I’ve put on a few pounds over the years, but then so has the Mini, which is beefier in this latest incarnation than it ever was when I was a kid. I was hoping to slide in with ease.

No such luck – and that’s a shame, because this is the new Mini I’ve been looking forward to all these years.

James Martin with the Mini John Cooper

On the outside, the Mini John Cooper has a lot to smile about

Called the John Cooper Works after the legendary tuning company, it’s the first time a Mini has been designed from scratch with all the Works upgrades included. As a result, this is the fastest production Mini ever – faster than a Golf GTI, a Focus ST or a Clio Cup racer.

I’m a big fan of John Cooper, who died in 2000 (his son Mike now runs the Works). Having served as an RAF instrument-maker in the war, John used ex-military hardware to start building and racing cheap, single-seat cars, putting the engine in the back to improve grip and balance under acceleration.

Jack Brabham won the Formula One World Championship in 1959 and 1960 in his cars, but it wasn’t until 1961 that Cooper got his magic fingers on the Mini.

Designed to qualify for Group 2 rallying, the original Mini Cooper got a tuned and enlarged engine, better brakes and a close-ratio gearbox. Paddy Hopkirk stormed to victory in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally in one, stunning everyone – until Timo Makinen did it again the next year and Rauno Aaltonen won in the car in 1967.

With only a one-litre engine and no turbo-charging, supercharging or much of anything else for that matter, it was a genuine giant-killer, slaying far bigger cars in every race it entered.

One of those rally-winning, £695 Coopers recently went for more than £100,000 at auction. What I liked about them was their simplicity. They had a tiny heater, but air-conditioning? That was achieved by what’s known in engineering circles as ‘opening the bloody window’.

The lights never worked very well, so Paddy’s solution was to drill a hole in the head lining and whack a hand-operated spotlight on the roof, swivelling it to illuminate roadsigns and corners at night.

Minis have come a long way since then. But in the process, I can’t help feeling something’s been lost.

It’s like the difference between the original Italian Job and the recent remake: the new one’s louder, brighter, more expensive and, thanks to Charlize Theron, a damn sight sexier. But there’s no way any self-respecting Englishman would ever choose the new film over the old one.

Would it be the same story with this new Mini?

On the outside, it’s got a lot to smile about, with a new aerodynamic kit, a fat stainless-steel double-exhaust, huge red Brembo brake callipers and bigger, fatter wheels.

It looks built for racing – which it should, since it shares most of its innards with the track-only Mini Challenge that started competing this year. Inside, you’ve got the trademark dustbin-lid-sized speedo sitting right in front of you, which here goes up to 160mph (the car’s top speed is 148mph).

There’s a leather steering wheel and piano-black dash trim, but otherwise I felt it was a bit plasticky.

That’s fine in a standard-issue, £12,000 Mini One. But this thing costs an eye-watering £9,000 more, so it would be nice to find something special inside.

That aside, what do you get for the extra cash? For me, it’s all in the sound. Start it up and you get a loud, strident, popping, grumbling sound – what’s known in the industry as a ‘burble’, rising at speed to a hard-edged ‘wail’.

the central dial
Door handles

The central dial (left) combines speedo with the hi-fi settings; door handles (right) are discreetly hidden within the door

Mini John Cooper

Dashboard, racing steering wheel and racing seats

These noises take men in brown coats entire lifetimes to perfect. In the John Cooper Works, it’s amplified by those big steel exhaust pipes and, apparently, a resonator connecting the engine’s air intake to the inside of the dashboard.

It’s not all acoustics: this breathes more fire.

They’ve taken the turbocharger from the Cooper S and enlarged and strengthened it before putting it back in the John Cooper Works, giving it extra horsepower and an overboost feature that gives a temporary 260Nm of torque for overtaking. That’s fierce for a car this size and you really feel it when you put your foot down and get an instant surge of speed.

After a week on the twisty roads near my place, I’d say this is better to drive than any other Mini – which is high praise, as they’re all famously fun to chuck around.

Mini John Cooper

John Cooper Works wheels

It has a thing called Electronic Differential Lock Control, which means you can surge up to a corner, flick the wheel to turn in briskly (electronics prevent you losing it) and then stamp on the gas to power out without spinning it all off.

Changing down gears at speed, it pops and splutters like a real rally car. I absolutely love it.

But wait a minute. As with all of the cars I test-drive, the real proof is whether it would get a car buyer to dig deep and buy one.

And there, I’m afraid, the John Cooper Works gets a frown. Remember, it’s £21,000 for this thing, and I bruised my spleen trying to get into it. If you’ve got that much money to chuck around, you’re better off saving up for a Nissan 350Z or a Lotus Elise.

In fact, if you insist on having a Mini, there is nothing much wrong with the standard Mini Cooper S for £16,000. Or do what I would do and get an original Sixties Cooper S – they are currently going for as little as £13,000. Then pocket the difference and consider yourself very wise indeed.

Coopers have always been fun. They just never used to cost the Earth.



Engine 1.6-litre in-line four cylinder, turbocharged

Power 211bhp

Max torque260Nm at 1,850-5,600rpm

Top speed 148mph

0-62mph 6.5 secs

Transmission Six-speed manual

Standard features 17in alloys, aerodynamic kit, Brembo brakes, sports exhaust system, run-flat tyres, Dynamic Traction Control, ABS, EBD, Cornering Brake Control, Electronic Differential Lock Control, Dynamic Stability Control, Hill Assist, air-conditioning, radio/CD with auxilliary input, Sports mode

Optional extras Full leather upholstery throughout, bonnet stripes, panoramic glass sunroof, heated front seats, sat nav, DAB radio, six-CD changer, Bluetooth connectivity, exterior mirror covers

James Martin in the Mini John Cooper

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