HOW MINI MADE IT BIG IN JAPAN.
Why would a man who made some of the fastest, most sought-after cars off all-time opt to drive a small British car? Let’s take a trip to Italy, to find out why.
Imagine the scene: It's the 1960s and you are sitting on a terrace in the hills of Maranello, Italy. You contemplate the age of the house where you are a guest. It must be at least a couple of hundred years old. But that is just the way here, in the Province of Modena. The setting sun paints the sky orange, yellow and red as its rays pierce your eyes. You have to squint just a bit as you reach for your Prosecco, but you don’t mind; life couldn’t be better. And just as you raise the glass to toast your friends, suddenly you hear the rumbling of an engine, and a car dashes by the terrace, creating a crowd of dirt that envelops everyone. After the dust settles and you remove your hand from the top of your glass, you ask the owner of the establishment, just who or what that was.
“Oh, that was just Enzo Ferrari, driving his Mini.”
You do a double, possibly a triple take, as you look at the cloud of dust quickly storming towards the horizon.
Sounds completely made up, doesn’t it? Well, it almost is. You see, there is one element of this scene that is definitely true: Enzo Ferrari did own a Mini. Well, actually, he owned two, or maybe three. But let’s start at the beginning.
As the founder of one of the most legendary car brands in history, most people would think Enzo Ferrari only drove cars that were as fast and luxurious as the ones that the company bearing his name built. But that is actually far from the truth. Enzo Ferrari’s great passion was for his racing team, as he himself was a racing driver in his youth. But when it came to road cars, he wasn’t looking for the same attributes. For example, he owned multiple Peugeots, and definitely drove a Fiat 128 at one point.
However, it seems he had a special appreciation for the Mini, admiring all the ways the small British car was innovative. As a mechanical genius himself, he may have found many features of the classic Mini attractive. Maybe he was taken with the space-saving traverse engine, or the fully independent suspension might have appealed to him. It’s likely that he appreciated the fact that even as a reasonably tall man (about 1.87 metres), he could still easily fit behind the wheel. It has also been reported that he was a fan of the front-wheel drive, especially in difficult, winter conditions.
And when this admirable car debuted a sportier version, the Cooper, it was only a matter of time before he got himself one. Now, the exact number of Minis owned by Enzo Ferrari is rather uncertain. John Cooper claimed in an interview once that “Enzo Ferrari owned three different Cooper S’s at different times, which he used to go up in the hills and tear around with when he got bored.” While we are not about to doubt a legend, it seems that the legendary entrepreneur did own at least two for certain.
One of those Minis was a Cooper 1100 S model, which he would later give to his son, Piero, when he received a special Mini Cooper 1300 S. That’s the type of Mini that would achieve victories at the Monte Carlo Rally. His specific car was delivered to him personally by Sir Alec Issigonis, as the pair bonded over their admiration for innovations in engineering. This special car was modified in multiple ways, with the most obvious being the fog lights positioned under the headlights of the car. Additionally, it had a walnut dashboard, special seats among several different modifications, most of which were designed to give the car a sportier appearance. The car was apparently first painted red, but – after the recipient claimed that only a Ferrari car could be painted red – it was repainted metallic grey. Interestingly, it ended up being repainted red later in its lifetime. The car’s engine was also modified, increasing its top speed to 95 mph (roughly 153 km/h).
The Mini would later become the property of Giuseppe Navone – who had won the Mille Miglia in 1948 driving a Ferrari 166 S and was chief of Ferrari’s testing team for production cars at the time. The car is purportedly still in use today, which is a legacy as good as any Mini built decades ago could hope for.