Why you’d want a Mini (R50-R53)
Born at a torrid time in Rover’s history, the new Mini was designed for BMW by Frank Stephenson and might have had a K-series engine as a Rover product. Instead, it went into production as a new independent marque under BMW, with an all-new engine from a new factory in Brazil, a joint venture with Chrysler USA.
With iron block and single cam, the Tritec engine was a more basic design than the K-series, but consequently less fragile and easily capable of big power outputs in supercharged form.
BMW wanted the new Mini to be a sporting hatch, with great handling, cheeky retro style and lots of personalisation, to the extent that it’s hard to find two alike, especially now subsequent owners have made further changes. Go for the best spec you can find, and decode the VIN to check what the car’s original order was.
Three models were launched: the R50 Mini One was the base model, but could be specced up if desired; the R50 Cooper was more sporting but mechanically identical, with ECU changes providing the extra power; and, a year later, the headline-grabbing R53 Cooper S, with bonnet scoop, twin exhausts, supercharger and six-speed gearbox.
In 2003, a Toyota-engined turbodiesel came on stream, then in 2004 the R52 Convertible joined the range. Of course, all of them were much bigger than the original Mini – that was inevitable with Euro NCAP and US crash tests to pass, plus the requirement for a modern driving position and the space needed for big wheels – and the packaging was still tight.
A ZF CVT was the auto option at first: it added 2 secs to the One’s 0-60mph time and carved 9mph off the top speed. Much-misunderstood, it’s probably best avoided today because most have suffered from past misuse, though it’s a technically impressive unit with six sequential manual speeds, plus sport and touring modes.
The manual option on pre-facelift Ones and Coopers was Rover’s R65 ‘Midlands’, which can be weak. The six-speed Cooper S and facelifted five-speed cars got stronger Getrag ’boxes.
John Cooper Works (JCW) upgrades were developed by John’s son Mike and officially sanctioned by BMW: they took the Cooper to 130bhp and the S to 197bhp, or 215bhp in ultimate GP Works form, in a race-look shell with no back seat. All are collectable now, especially GP Works cars of which just 2000 were built.
Images: James Mann
Mini (R50-R53): what to look for
See above for trouble spots
Relatively simple, and bombproof provided the cooling system is kept well maintained, the Tritec engine should be the least of your worries. In highest-stressed Cooper S form, it’ll be due a £3500-4000 rebuild by around 130,000 miles – though dropping in a secondhand unit should be much cheaper.
Suspension and brakes
BMW’s Z-axle rear end gives great handling. Check rear brake discs for corrosion, especially inside – calipers get lazy on infrequently used cars.
CVTs can give trouble; Rover gearbox is worse – bearings can get noisy at as little as 20k miles, so change the oil! A rebuilt ’box is £495, but £1000 to fit.
Seats wear on the bolsters, and adjustment cables often fail. Interior plastics are fragile, especially the glovebox catches and chromed items.
Check warning lights work and go out: the airbag light can simply be connections under the seat; ABS light may mean a new underbonnet unit.
Mini (R50-R53): on the road
Like most modern classics, the Mini is a great car when it’s working properly, but can be a daunting DIY prospect when things go wrong.
However, model expert – and former C&SC staffer – Dave Richards reckons that most jobs are within the capabilities of a competent home mechanic if they are approached in the right way. You simply have to spend the time to remove all of the panels and other components that are in the way before tackling each job – and remember to put them back on properly. Most cars will have missing bolts and clips from past dismantling, which affects their crash integrity.
Chipping a Mini One to Cooper spec costs c£300, and fitting a smaller supercharger pulley to boost the Cooper S is a cheap job, too – but servicing the car well to cope is vital. The supercharger has its own oil and few get serviced as they should, which involves taking it off and draining the fluid from both ends.
The cooling system suffers from a complex and often neglected bleeding procedure; a plastic thermostat housing that distorts and leaks (or even jams the thermostat); and a radiator that weeps at 10-12 years old. Problems here can lead to a failed water pump and head gasket, so look out for the signs of oil and coolant mixing.
The hydraulic power steering relies on an electric pump – when it starts whining, it’s best to replace it because it’s not unknown for it to overheat and catch fire. Secondhand, recon and new replacements are available, and it isn’t a huge job.
Mini (R50-R53) price guide
- Show: £3250 (£4000 for convertible)
- Average: £1000 (£1400)
- Restoration: £350 (£700)
- Show: £4000 (£4750)
- Average: £1200 (£1700)
- Restoration: £400 (£800)
- Show: £4750 (£5750)
- Average: £1750 (£2500)
- Restoration: £750 (£1500)
- Show: £7500 (£9000)
- Average: £4000 (£5500)
- Restoration: £1500 (£3000)
Mini (R50-R53) history
2001 Apr Production starts at Cowley
2001 Jul On sale as 89bhp One, 114bhp Cooper
2002 161bhp supercharged Cooper S launched
2003 Mini D added: six-speed gearbox, 74bhp, 103mph, 13.8 secs 0-60mph, 50+ mpg
2004 Jul R52 Convertible goes on sale in all three specs. Range facelift: three-slat grille, reverse light in cluster, chrome-plastic inside; Getrag gearbox replaces Rover
2005 D up to 87bhp, 109mph, 11.9 secs 0-60
2006 Jul John Cooper GP Works: no rear seats, 215bhp, 6.5 secs 0-60, 149mph; Cooper S gets optional limited-slip diff, six-speed auto
2006 Nov R50/53 production ends
2009 R52 Convertible production ends
The owner’s view
“My wife Ann has always dreamed of a classic Mini,” explains Robert Brueford, who has run classic Vauxhalls and Saabs for 20 years, “but she needs an automatic and a bit more space. We had a new Beetle but it was a disaster and we had to sell it for scrap – then this came up and she loves it.
“The CVT was sticking in first, but I changed its filter, reset the software parameters and it’s fine. I swapped the worn and dull grey interior for red from a same-year car, which also provided a good set of alloys.
“It’s done 98,000 miles now and is a good little car, I do enjoy driving it. The coolant disappears and the power-steering pump whines, plus the MoT cost £900 because the garage messed up the calipers, but we only paid £1200 for it, so were prepared for a big bill to get it up to scratch.”
RENAULT CLIO II
Engine options include the 172/182 to rival the Cooper S, and a V6 middie to trump the Works; most have been thrashed, so a good car is now collectable.
Sold 1998-2005 • No. built n/a • Price now £1500-6500 (172/182)
Sold 1997-2011 • No. built 1.16m • Price now £500-5000
Started the retro trend, with transverse front engine and front-drive from its Golf platform. Cooper S competition from the 1.8T, and the cabrio arrived in 2003.
Mini (R50-R53): the Classic & Sports Car verdict
The BMW and Rover teams battled over the new Mini, and it had its faults, but it succeeded on character, value for money and, above all, a great fun driving experience even from the base models, with serious performance at the top of the range. As a result, they are now drawing an increasingly strong following
Find a car with no rust in the coolant, a quiet gearbox and steering, two keys, good door locks and working electric windows and look after it, then you should have a good Mini.
Spend time looking for the ideal spec, too – there are so many variants and options that make the car more special, and so many to choose from, that it’s worth holding out for the right car.
Lots of options, from economy to serious performance or bling; parts availability is tremendous, new, reconditioned or used
Built down to a price and often neglected, so there are wallet-biters out there; Cooper S is thirsty
BMW Mini specifications
- Sold/number built 2001-’09/c1m
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohc 1598cc ‘four’, with electronic fuel injection (and supercharger on S), or all-alloy, ohc 1364cc turbodiesel ‘four’
- Max power 89bhp @ 5500rpm to 161bhp @ 6000rpm (petrol)
- Max torque 103lb ft @ 3000rpm to 155lb ft @ 4000rpm (petrol)
- Transmission five/six-speed manual or CVT, FWD
- Suspension independent, at front by MacPherson struts rear Z-arm, coil springs; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering electro-hydraulic rack and pinion
- Brakes 11in (276mm) front, 10in (259mm) rear vented discs, servo and anti-lock
- Length 11ft 103/4in (3626mm)
- Width 6ft 33/4in (1925mm)
- Height 4ft 7in (1396mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 1in (2467mm)
- Weight 2293-2753lb (1040-1240kg)
- 0-60mph 10.9-7.6 secs (petrol)
- Top speed 115-133mph Mpg 25-50+
- Price new £10,780-20,594 (One-JCW Conv, ’05)