MotoringFile Spotlight: Lawrence O'Toole

This month's MotoringFile Spotlight is a bit different than what we've done in the past and I think you'll find quite interesting. So interesting in fact that I'm at a loss in trying to introduce it…so I'll let Lawrence do that himself:

Present day. Lawrence O'Toole. Graphic designer. Twenty-eight. Philadelphia native and resident. MINI owner since 2002. About to get a second MINI Cooper S.

But more on that later. Let's back up to a younger Lawrence. A Lawrence just out of college and driving a mildly tuned, seriously underpowered and slowly dying 1996 red 2-litre automatic VW GTI. Lawrence likes the whole hot hatch formula – small, nimble, practical, fun. But Lawrence doesn't like the slushbox – at the time of purchase, no one in the O'Toole clan knew how to drive stick, and in a pinch, Dad or sis needed to be able to use it. Eventually, a pair of replaced transmissions would spell the end of the relationship with the GTI, and a time to make that difficult decision: what next?

For a genuine car nut, just getting anything was not going to suffice. And whatever it would be it certainly would not be sporting an automatic. Problem was, the new GTIs were too fat (both in weight and in price), and everything else desirable was too expensive or too far off in coming to market. Nothing sparked interest. Ugh. Until, one day, flipping through mags at Tower, Lawrence happens upon that now familiar red and white Cooper publicity photo.


Interest piqued. Now here was a hot hatch, but with a little more history, and with a quality most other cars lack – good design. As a designer, it's something I respect and admire most about this car. The proportions were balanced. The interior was bold without being cheap. It looked quick and serious yet accessible and fun. And it didn't cost a bundle.

Time for some internet research. Come across a site called MINI2. Poking around, looking at more photos, digging through the forums – and then, eureka! A thread about a dealership about to open in the Philly area… time to go see first-hand what all the hubbub was about. Took a drive down that fateful January night, and left #93 on the waiting list for a 2002 Cooper S – without the dealership even officially open for business yet!

With options spec'ed and production number in hand, I entered what I fondly remember as my completely obsessive period. I changed color schemes. I scoured forums. I ordered a car cover and lined the inside with neoprene strips to protect the car from future terrible parkjobs (it was, unfortunately, going to have to park on-street). I collected anything remotely related to MINI and plastered it all over my office walls. I called 866ASKMINI and checked the Owner's Lounge every day. I went so far as to find out the transport ship's callsign and track my MINI as it crossed the ocean. And update everyone in my address book, of course. In the middle of the Atlantic! Off the coast of Greenland! I wracked my nerves waiting as the car languished at the VPC for days… darn you MINI and your order-tracking interactivity!

After nearly eight agonizing months, and with only one or two fraying nerves left, the car arrived. My first new car! My first stick! But beyond that new-car smell, there was something else – this was the first time I had bought something truly my own, done to my specification and on my terms. Boy, what a feeling… I don't think I stopped driving that thing all weekend, not for food nor sleep.


When I finally did stop motoring, I was meeting all sorts of interesting MINI people. I found there were quite of few other like-minded individuals out there, even if there weren't too many MINIs on the road yet. And MINI peeps are usually friendly peeps. I started talking with MotoringFile's own Gabriel about graphic design opportunities. I got involved with Julie Hoffman as she started to organize PhillyMINI, the group of Philly-metro-area people afflicted with the same MINI-type sickness. I've even had to roughly translate conversations to and from German accessory manufacturers to ask questions and order parts. There's such diversity among those that own MINIs – any meet I've been to and just about every conversation online has always been quite entertaining.

The new-car smell had hardly worn off before I started doing things to make the car more unique. A sleeper was the goal, subtly cleaning up the exterior/interior while improving performance:

  • ALTA cold air intake
  • Quicksilver single-canister exhaust (picked up from MCSHP.ORG after testing)
  • Yokohama AVS ES100s
  • Inovenda Carantenna ultra-stubby aluminum antenna
  • CTD clear turnsignal over red taillights
  • InvincaShield front and custom rear bumpers, bonnet, scoop
  • Xpel headlight, foglight and turnsignal protection
  • rear fog/full toggles retrofit
  • rear fog brakelight mod
  • Ian Culls auto-up windows/track DSC module
  • Moss glovebox organizer
  • Blitzsafe iPod interface
  • silver bulbs all around (no more fried egg look!)
  • debagded boot
  • debadged visors
  • stealth rear sunroof EZpass mount
  • duct-tape mod (!)
  • MINI boot mat & cargo net
  • black PA DARE license plate (good for 5hp!)

The car was not without it's problems, however. It came complete with many of the common early-build dilemmas:

  • leaky coolant tank (fixed w/new tank)
  • creaky boot (fixed w/new style latch)
  • passenger-side headlight out (fixed w/new hardware)
  • 2 cracked windshields (both replaced)
  • underbonnet paint rubbing (fixed w/new style covers)
  • cowl vent foam tearing (new style vent retrofit)
  • steering wheel leather peeling (replaced)
  • foglamp filled with water (replaced)
  • denting runflats (replaced with non-runflats)

The car and I did a lot together. I just could not stop driving it, nor could I wipe the silly grin off my face. There were PDA track days at Pocono International Raceway, 2nd place at my first ever autocross (woo hoo!), many rallies and group events all over the place with PhillyMINI, frequent trips to various Jersey shorepoints and NYC… all in addition to my daily commute to work. O yeah, and all the imaginary errands I ran just as an excuse to cavort about, terrorizing winged Eclipses and spinner-shod Hummers. I guess that's how I got to almost 40k on the odo before the car's second birthday.

OK. Now, fast-forward back to present time. All was quiet that Saturday night, July 31st, when I parked my MINI behind my girlfriend Kendra's S2000 on the corner across from where we live. Early the next Sunday morning, around 4 am or so, I was awakened by water dripping everywhere throughout our apartment. Granted, our place is an old converted factory, so parts of it do leak, but all morning I was scrambling to put pots and dishes out to collect new drips. Unusually bad drips. At one point water was running down the walls. Concerned, I peered outside a few times to see just how bad it was raining. It was a near white-out it was coming down so hard. The cars were sitting there just fine. About 6 am, satisfied that all the leaks now had matching containers, I went back to bed. About a half hour later I was startled awake by someone banging frantically on our door. I figured one of our neighbors was probably having a leak problem too. Rubbing my eyes, I unlocked and opened up.


And I could not believe what I saw.

Water everywhere. Our stoop disappeared into murky brown crap. The entire corner was submerged. It was about two and a half feet deep when I first saw it, and was rushing down the side street and across Third like a small river. It went up Third for half a block in both directions, and was flowing angrily down the side street for a few blocks, as far as I could see. I woke Kendra, threw on some shoes, and we both waded out to our cars in disbelief.


When we got out there, every single light on the MINI was on. High and low beams, fogs and turnsignals, every light in the dash. Both windows had rolled down. Water was up to the shifter. The trunk release, radio, window motors and other electronic things underneath the rear of the car were freaking out, making terrible grinding noises. All that was visible of my girlfriend's S2000, which was parked right in front of me, was the convertible top, windows and trunk. Apparently the MINI had floated forward and hit the rear end, because both cars were touching and the MINI was sitting a little sideways.

Now, mind you, this happened on a normal city street corner – not near a river, creek or lake, not at the bottom of a hill or close to a dam… it was just about the last thing I expected to see when I opened the door that morning.


And this happened in the span of half an hour. By the time I had grabbed the camera, the water was already beginning to recede. Two more hours after the photos were taken the rain had stopped, the sun was out and the water was gone. Too much rainwater had accumulated too quickly for the sewers to handle… the car was under maybe a total of fifteen minutes.

Unfortunately, the MCS was totalled. A young 38,679 miles motored. My girlfriend's S2000 was also totalled – she had owned it only 2 months. In fact, just about everyone who had parked on that corner and along the side street had their cars totalled as well. Once water inside a car reaches a certain height (above the seat bottoms), insurance views it as a total loss, as most control electronics are located at or below that level. So despite our efforts and against our hope, the cars were gone.

Well, there is always a brighter side, right? Good news is MINIs really do retain their value! I'll be getting a check for only slightly less than what I paid for the car, and this almost two years and 40K miles later!


Since I am now car-less, but not out much cash, it wasn't too difficult of a decision as for what comes next… considering what else was out there (STi, Evo, R32, TT, and heck, Elise?!?) I concluded that I hadn't had enough of MINI yet… nothing else, for me, had the right balance of performance, quality, value and style. Plus, I had only started to get to know the capabilities of both the car and the nut behind the wheel. As I write this, a new 2005 MCS nears it's production date of August 26th.

All jet black this time. That was my original choice in 2002, but back then a black MCS wasn't an available option. I think I'll be going for the Darth Vader look – everything blacked out. I'm going for a lighter curb weight for round 2 as well – no other extras except for HK (also wasn't available first year), xenons, fogs (for the full toggles, of course!) and the sunroof. I know, the sunroof is heavy, and that the weight isn't in the best spot, but it's probably the one feature of the old car that was used the most, so it stays. Also, MOTML helped me strip off the aftermarket stuff that was salvageable (taillights, exhaust, intake, etc.) and put back the originals on the totalled car, and they're holding those saved goodies for me to put on the new one when it arrives.


In the interest of cost and, more importantly, unsprung weight savings, I opted this time around for the standard 16″ with all season runflats that I'll save for the cold stuff, and get some lightweight rims with performance tires for warmer weather, model and size TBD. Maybe I'll even get around to making the whopping six-block trip to Helix Motorsports…

The whiff of new car smell isn't even here yet, and already the mods are beginning… this time, though, I think I'll just wait for the dealership to call to tell me the car is here. I don't think I have enough nerves left to wrack.

  • Spectacular Spotlight – fascinating and horrifying at the same time. “my completely obsessive period” – I remember that 😉

  • David H Brady Jr

    I ordered a similaly equipped (except for the sunroof) Jet Black 2004 MCS in April beacuse I didn't favor the changes previewed here in MotoringFile.

    Almost three months later took delivery.

    I very much like the 16″ xlite wheels and the HK stereo sounds great. I'm sure you will like the new and improved 2005. And, you have the luxury of changing out the raygun headlights if you don't like them.

  • Deborah

    What a write-up! I read Gabe's comments and wondered what was going to be so absorbing… laughed at the obsessive period (didn't we all go through the period when our friends, family and co-worker wanted to scream if we started another sentence with “MINI…”??). I was dumbfounded to read about the water. How sad! What was his/her name?

    Your poor MINI drowned! We should have a moment of silence…

    Long live your MINI2!

  • Kurt Collins

    Sorry Lawrence about your fish bait MINI – that truly sucks – but you were truly lucky to have motored with such a good automotive buddy for 40k miles. I'll be looking forward to hearing about your mod'ing adventures with your '05.


  • …hey Lawrence,I feel your pain. But look at it this way;you finally get the MINI you want in the color that you want. By the way,how did your girlfriend make out on her totaled car? I hope everything turned out well for her,seeing that she had her car for only 2 months.

  • Vanwall

    Brilliant! Captured the MINI spirit in a nutshell. Sorry about the U-Boat Captain experience – did you catch any fish? 😉 I remember floating around with the current whilst skippering the S.S. Countryman in a bit of a dry-gulcher in AZ many years ago. Ended up sidewalk motoring with water seepin' in thru the wee cracks. Found a little mudbug crawlin' innit after the floodage was done. HeHe!

    The obsession never really wears off, tho, it just goes in deeper into your soul, where it's less obvious. Have a ball with the new 'S'!!

      Rob in Dago

  • Robert

    Great read….You had my brain captured. Good luck with new MINI.

  • I'm sorry for both you and your MINI. But it does demonstrate a few things here…the MINI floats! Looks like competition for the original Bug! And as you can see MINI thought of everything, including proper on-water lighting when boating!

    Are there more photos posted elsewhere online?

    Admit it, though…you are just as excited about your new MINI. This time you didn't just tell your family, you told all of us!

  • MiniLifeCrisis

    Hey Lawrence, at least I got some great shots of you and your MINI at Pocono Raceway. Something to remember.

    Good luck with the next one! Perhaps airbags on the undercarriage should be an option on the next generations MINIs.

    Use this link to see other pictures of MINIs at Pocono Raceway.

  • Hey all. Thanks for the kind words.

    Eric Z – special thanks for all those Pocono photos… they are really excellent!

    If anyone wants to take a peek of a couple more flood photos, they are here – I only took a few more than are shown in this article:

    (BTW I am the one taking the photos, NOT the guy without a shirt…)

    Good news on the S2000 as well – my girlifriend will actually be getting back MORE than what she paid for the car… seems we both lucked out – sorta.

    I am truly looking forward to round 2… it should get built today!!!

    Thanks again, Gabe, for the opportunity to tell my story on this great site.

  • GSKChicago


    Outstanding story and amazing job of capturing the emotions and energy one feels when ordering a MINI, waiting on the MINI and then taking delivery. Certainly the feeling of losing ones MINI is something nobody should ever have to go through. Great write-up. Thanks! :o)

  • RB


    That was one heck of a story. Good Luck with Vader.

    A few questions.

    What the heck are these items:

    A…stealth rear sunroof EZpass mount

    B…black PA DARE license plate (good for 5hp!)

    The EZ pass thing must be some sort of toll road device. Stealth rear sunroof???

    As far as the Atla intake, was it much noisier than stock?

    With all your mods how come no sway bars?

    I had a similar electrical experience in my 2002 MCS in a down pour here in SoCal, yes it does rain here, that has never, luckily, repeated itself, also, it happened while I was driving. That was kinda freaky.


  • mini2nv2004


    Great story. The photo of you at Pocono is mine. Eric and I were both shooting you that day. Good luck with the new car when it comes in. See you at future phillyMINI events.

    mini2nv2004 04 MCS EB/W

  • camelpilot

    This guy could have bought back the MINI from the insurance company for very cheap (he gets first option before anyone else), which he should have done. He probably could have got it for $1000-2000. A car that has been submerged is VERY easy and inexpensive to fix. I must admit, it was a pretty funny sight with the MINI going crazy because it was getting submerged. Poor Mini.

  • camelpilot

    btw.. awesome write up, awesome pics.

  • Deborah: Strangely enough, the GTI had a nickname (Geater with the Heater), but I never did come up with anything clever enough for the MINI…

    RB: Yes, EZPass is a toll road device, called different things in different states. Usually you have to mount it on your windshield, but it's big and ugly and white – with all our advances in technology you would think they could design something a little smaller. Until they do, a bunch of early MINI owners discovered that you could stick it in your sunroof and the system still worked just fine. Stealthy!

    I had the special organization license plate available in Pennsylvania whose purchase benefits the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. It also happens to be black, and therefore, totally rad. I never did have the car dyno'ed, so the HP gain is just an estimate(!)… See the last photo in the article for a glimpse.

    The ALTA was noiser, but what great noise is was: loud supercharger whine, the whooshing and whistling sounds of the throttle… boy do I miss it!

    Sways and springs were next on the list.

    mini2nv2004: Sorry for the mis-credit… kudos to you both for getting those shots of all of us that weekend. I had lumped the photos you guys took into one folder, so it's hard to tell which came from whom…

    camelpilot: Buying the car back was a tempting thought… even the service manager at the dealership suggested that this would be the perfect opportunity/excuse to build a race car. Man, I would have liked nothing else – unfortunately, I have no room. I have to park on-street. And I do still need a reliable (and street-legal) car for getting to work, etc. It just wasn't the time.

  • RB


    Thanx for the explanations.

    Funny thing your DARE plates look like early Cal plates.


  • alex

    sorry about the flood- I would have cried.

    but a question- how did you do a stealth EZ pass mount?

  • Frank

    Great story and very glad to hear about a happy ending!

    I cringe to see the pics of your old MCS under water as here in Miami rain floods are too common in our streets due to very poor sewage drainage.

    It is incredible to think how water is both a need and one of the most distructive things in nature after fire.

  • Hey LJT- amazing eloquence! You know I am right there with you guys through all this. So happy that you won't have too much down time being MINI-less. See ya on the streets soon with the new and improved stealth MINI!

  • LorenH

    Great quote: “And MINI peeps are usually friendly peeps.”

    So true! Great story, I even read it twice! There's a special place in my heart for MINI owners and MINI fans, and there's even more of a place with the original '02 crowd (being one myself). I am currently toying with the idea of ordering my 2nd MCS.

    Good Luck! -Loren

  • Still Waiting for my Mini


    How long do you have to wait for your new Mini?

  • New MINI was built on Thursday and is now awaiting transport…

  • Nancy

    Sorry to hear about your Mini. Jule told us about it when we went to Otto's to order our new one. What the accident didn't destroy the flooding, from the same rain storm did. Our baby was 9 months old with 13000 miles on it. Actually got more for it than we paid for it.

    Did yours come over on the vessel that arrived in NJ today?