You’re doing what? In a Mini? It’ll never make it out of the foothills, much less up the Alps!" they all said. Shortly before my 40th birthday, the AARP sent me a membership card. It wasn’t a real one but a cleverly disguised "invitation to join." I never really thought of 40 as being officially old, even before approaching the mark myself. However, the signs were there. AARP notwithstanding it was high time to schedule a midlife crisis.
Let’s be honest, we don’t normally think of crises as being scheduled, but with a year’s worth of planning it cannot be said this was a spontaneous decision. For the first time in my life, I was going to do something fun and totally non-business related. "Let’s see. I could go sit on the beach.., no. What about climbing the Alps in a Mini? Hey now, there’s an idea!" As luck would have it, my new old Mini is in storage on the outskirts of London. We’ll go over the new old thing in a moment. Right now we re busy planning.
Drive down to Monaco. Check. Do the Grand Prix. Check. Sorry, I’m just mumbling to myself here. Right. On to the part that matters. The Mini I’m driving was purchased brand new in 2000. However, it’s not the "New Mini" as currently seen at your local BMW dealer. It is the old style Mini just like those you could buy in 1967, right down to the BMC A-series pushrod lump and five-speed gearbox (with four of them forward). It still has its body seams on the outside for easier corrosion.
In fairness, there have been some upgrades, like intermittent wipers. Okay, forget that one. As the sales brochure says, they’ve doubled the number of heater blower speeds from one to two, otherwise known as loud and louder. The car was returned to Rover for its first scheduled maintenance at 1000 miles; whereupon they re-torqued the head and adjusted the valves.
If you think I’m making all this up, I’m not. The 1000-mile service is listed right there in the manual – along with terms of the one-year warranty. By my reckoning, it’s not exactly a Honda. On the plus side, it’s got 13-inch Minilite-style wheels, big wide fender flares, Cooper stripes and about 57 lamps on the front. It’s all perky and cute like the big head caricature doll you buy at the fair.
So back to present time, my English compatriot (a knowledgeable chap) is telling me it won’t get out of the foothills. Even a Model T Ford can climb a mountain.., if you do it in reverse gear. Besides which, it’s raining here in London, and I know in the south of France it isn’t. I’ve got a tank full of petrol, a Michelin map, a set of Douglas Adams signature series peril-sensitive sunglasses (they turn completely opaque if anything bad happens, so you don’t have to see it) and a good fake Cohiba cigar to smoke on the side of the road while waiting for the tow truck. I’m gone.
This is not a travel log, as recounting French culinary delights and overnight stays in former French castles is not my bag. I eat gas station ham and fromage baguettes for lunch and stay in two star hotels. Most of them actually had showers – some even had soap for the showers. Thankfully all of them had clean sheets. However, the real purpose of our little adventure is to get lost in the Alps.
They don’t publish guides to obscure old mountain roads with names like Col du Switchback. Perhaps they do, I’m generally just a bit too lazy to find out who "they" are. Besides, the little Michelin Man on the front of my map is whispering "Go there. That one is steep as all heck and there are patches of ice and snow in the middle of all the tight turns!" Perhaps it was high altitude delirium, but I thought I could hear him. Exactly duplicating the old Alpine rally routes would take planning and forethought. My plan was simply to wake up in the morning, look at the map and --randomly pick a direction. I quickly learned the squiggly lines in yellow, typically named Col du Something, were exactly the sort of roads I had in mind.
Now, about those European drivers. Would I be delayed for hours behind creeping RVs2 Is the bus from the movie The Italian Job just around the corner, rusting slowly and still half blocking the road? It did not take long to learn Mini velocities are no match for a French family in a four-door diesel Passat station wagon. I like the French; they get up on the wheel and drive.
In our defense, the Mini and I were handicapped by a lack of power and grip.., and luggage. Specifically, a 40-pound suitcase which would not go in the boot. Like jetsam on a stormy sea it merrily bashed about in the back seat, adding its considerable momentum to cornering loads. Race teams shy away from "moving mass handling technology. I had it in spades. Another problem was flailing left arm syndrome, brought on by flying maps and cameras in the passenger seat. Funny thing, it always happens in the middle of a downhill hairpin turn. Like little kids on ice cream, the stuff in the passenger seat simply would not stay put.
Swiss drivers deserve
special recognition. Perhaps I chose the wrong day, a Sunday,
which may possibly have coincided
would be a big long multisylabic German word meaning
national-day-of-driving-slowly? That’s what day it was. Never before
have I seen so many exotic machines idling along at a walking pace.
At one point I had a Swiss gendarme following me. Uh oh. It’s hard to know if you’re breaking the law when you can’t read the signs. They pulled up behind me at a light. In the mirror I could see one point at the the stupid Englisher. That thing won’t get out of the foothills." They both laughed uproariously. Then the driver turned a corner and disappeared.
Minis are not -possessed of legendary strength; particularly a -relates to the front suspension. To put it bluntly, don’t ever curb a Mini. If you like turning the wheel left to go straight, have at it. Otherwise, don’ ever curb a Mini. While we're on the subject, don’t ever drive a Mini off the edge of the road to shoot photos of old monasteries. A day and a half after the monastery encounter I’d had my fill of turning left to go straight. The steering wheel was listing about fifteen degrees to port. I did not relish the thought of gesticulating my way through the explanation process with a French-speaking mechanic, one who could not possibly understand why I was A: not driving a Renault, and B: trying to push a Mini up the Alps when everyone knows they’ll never get out of the foothills.
Fortunately, daydreams lead to solutions. In this case, a solution to the alignment problem. If it’s easy to knock a wheel out of alignment going forward, should it not be every bit as simple to do so in reverse? If the offending wheel is pointing out, would driving backwards into a curb knock it back in? Is that a look of horror on your collective face? Well bless my soul if on the second attempt, the one where the car bounced up over the curb and kept going, providence allowed I could once again point the wheel where I actually wanted to go.
There was collateral benefit to the innocent bystanders at the rest stop, as they got to go home and tell their families about the crazy bearded Englishman repeatedly bashing his car into a curb. Had they known it was really an American driving, they would no doubt have written off the entire incident. (Ugly American doing something stupid, so what else is new.) Perhaps now would be a good time to exit France and head for Zermatt, Switzerland. They have a mountain there designed to look just like the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Zermatt’s cable car ride to the 12,700-foot Klein Matterhorn wasn’t half as scary as Disneyland’s rollercoaster, but I’ll grant the view of the Alps was better than the view of Anaheim offered by California’s Matterhorn.
The goal of any planned adventure is to be able to look back and say "Yes, that was great." I went to Europe in search of a new and different driving experience. I climbed a pass paved with Belgian blocks, which, in America, are called cobblestones. If ever once you wonder which parts are most likely to fall off your car, drive up a mountain road paved with rocks set in a harmonic inducing pattern. The scenic beauty of American mountain roads is often littered with adopt-a-highway signs and warning signs to let us know there are curves and dips and deer and driveways. Old cobblestone alpine roads suffer no such maladies.
My new and different perspective on driving also included another taste of days gone by. There was one pass in particular, the Col du Noguardrail, or something like that. The drops were considerable, with no artificial means of keeping you from driving off the edge. Strategically placed rock outcroppings would, however, impede your progress as you tumble down the side of the mountain. After 10 days and 2,700 miles, to show for my effort I have a dirty car, a sore backside, and an overwhelming desire to go hack and do it again.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of British Motoring.