cabrio

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.

cabrio

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.

cabrio

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)

cabrio

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.

cabrio

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.

cabrio

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.

cabrio

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!

mini

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.

mini

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.