It was the summer of 2003, and having already been stung once by the vintage Mini bug, it was time to buy another. A Morris Mini already resided in the garage, and to ensure that at least one of them was running when I wanted to go for a drive, a second Mini was needed — just to be safe.
When the time came, the auction ended, and I was the high bidder. I hadn’t met the reserve, though, which was a whopping $5,000. My bid of $3,500 just didn’t make it, so I contacted the seller — the owner of a garage in England that specialized in Minis. The seller was a little gruff and hard to work with, but in no time, we managed to hammer out a final price of $4,200. Shipping was arranged. Money changed hands. And now, the waiting started. All nine weeks of it.
Nine anxious weeks passed, and the day came when the shipping line informed me that a car awaited my arrival at the Port of Baltimore. They would gladly hold my car at the port for 30 days, after which it would be sent to the crusher. In other words, “It’s here, come get your s**t.” I booked my one-way flight to Washington, D.C.
Picking up an old car more than 600 miles away is sketchy enough, but Mini Mania’s message board made life considerably easier. Another Mini owner lived in Baltimore and was willing to help out if I ran into difficulties with the car.
These events take place less than two years after 9/11. At this point, I had taken eight flights since 9/11, and the new policy was to randomly pull two people aside from every flight for “special screening.” For seven of those eight flights, I was randomly drawn *cough* for special screening.
Now, after such searches post-9/11, you might expect that a single man of Middle Eastern descent under the age of 40 with a one-way ticket to our nation’s capital while carrying a pouch full of tools and an empty gas can would have been searched via X-rays, gamma rays, microwaves, some forms of radiation never previously heard of, and an entire team of proctologists. Please believe me when I say that any fears about the car were displaced by worries of government “intrusion,” for lack of a better word. If there was ever a time for a special screening, this was it. My fears proved unfounded, though, and I was free to get a cab to the port unmolested, as it were.
She’s right-hand drive, so I got in and quickly found the keys under the floor mat. The key went into the ignition, and … click … click … nothing … dammit. Click. More dammit. Thus began the several hours of troubleshooting in the relentless heat, all ending in click … click … and a series of words progressively less pleasant than “dammit.” I eventually caved, out of ideas, and finally called my contact from the Mini Mania message board, Bradford McDougall. An hour later, he was there, and a short time after that, the only idea we had left was “tow truck.”
As it turned out, Bradford had a great place to work on a car and a beautiful vintage Mini of his own. More importantly, he had spare parts. After tearing into the car for a while, the last thing left was to change the battery cable, and he thankfully had one sitting around. No ordinary cable, the Austin Mini requires a 10-footer to run from the back of the car at the battery, snake through the passenger cabin, and wind up at the starter under the bonnet.
It’s a great feature, if you’ve never seen one. In a nutshell, it stops a car from going vroom-vroom when you turn the key, and it makes a car go click-click when you turn the key. It was in click-click mode, so the eight hours of fiddling around in the brutal heat had been completely unnecessary. Dammit.
When the slack-jawed swearing subsided, we finished what we were doing, i.e. bypassing the ignition lock-out. When the car started, it coughed out the remainder of the salt air from its sea voyage and came alive. It was a ferocious little beast, a steroidal Chihuahua with the bark of a Great Dane. It was wholly unlike other Minis we’d previously encountered. She needed some clean-up, but she had all the right bits and bobs to be the belle of the ball. Brad immediately told me, “If you ever decide to sell it, call me first.”
Since then, the Austin Mini has gotten new sheet metal and a new paint job that takes the edge off the blast furnace interior. The motor has lost some of its 120 horsepower over the years and could probably use a rebuild. With only 1,400 pounds to haul around, minus the driver, she’s still quick, endlessly fun, and elicits smiles everywhere she goes. She’s still the belle of the ball. So, with my most sincere apologies to Bradford, I’ll be keeping her at least another 16 years.