When you hit up an event like Mini Takes The States – a two-week road trip where 1,500 Mini fans per day ply America's highways on a trajectory that takes them from Atlanta, Georgia, all the way to Palm Springs, California – you'd think after you'd had Cooper number 50 roll on by you on the staging ground of the event's final leg, you'd start to feel a little bored. After all, with 600 vehicles forming up in the parking lot of the University of Las Vegas under the searing Nevada sun, chances are once you'd seen one Clubman or Roadster or Paceman, you'd seen them all.
You would be wrong.
If there's one thing that unites Mini drivers, aside from this year's Feed America charity woven through the entire fabric of Mini Takes The States (MTTS), it's that they happen to be the most individualistic automobile owners in the world. Ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw two identical Minis parked side-by-side, anywhere? The answer is most likely never, because well more than half of the Coopers that leave the factory do so with unique sets of options, paint jobs, and interior designs that differentiate them from most other models.
Now imagine plucking a few thousand of the most hardcore Mini enthusiasts from that roiling sea of one-off cars and plunking them down on the same ribbon of tarmac for a full fortnight of driving. What do you think their personal rides look like? Would you imagine that their desire to customize ended when they'd exhausted the contents of the official catalogue?
Oh no. Not even close.
That parking lot at UNLV might as well have been the out-front show at SEMA in terms of trying to find cars sharing more than the badge on the front and the engine under the hood. Where else would you find a full-on replica of the Wallace and Grommet Anti-Pesto S.W.A.T. Team van, complete with obligatory rust wrap? Or a tiny teardrop camper dubbed “The Bee Hive” being towed behind a convertible Cooper with suitable bright yellow stripes? Or how about a World War II fighter plane grin snarling up out of the wheel-well of a Cooper coupe?
And the stickers. The amount of adhesive vinyl applied to the fleet of Minis participating in MTTS 2016 could most likely have circled the Earth at least twice. Anything from “Prius Repellent” arrows pointing at exhaust pipes, to the giant “9 3/4” stuck on the side of one particularly nudge-nudge-wink-wink Cooper, to bespoke badges, Band-Aids, life-size greyhounds, and pint-size Minions were draped across the vehicles laid out in the desert sun.
From a practical standpoint, it's a winning strategy. After all, it's almost impossible to get lost on an unfamiliar road in the middle of the Arizona badlands if all you have to do to find your way to the next checkpoint is tuck in behind the next unusually decorated Mini that goes rolling by. It is, unfortunately, very easy to run out of gas, which my companion and I almost did in 40 degree Celsius heat that made me feel like I'd taken a blow-dryer to my contact lenses every time I left the comparative cool of the air-conditioned John Cooper Works convertible I was piloting.
Mini Takes The States is something of an institution, having stuffed charitable coffers considerably during its decade-long run. More to the point, it brings together exactly the kind of people you want buying your brand of car: passionate, free-thinking individuals, families, and couples, each with the kind of free time and disposable income required to participate in such a long-distance, multi-week event. All I had to do was count the city pins on each driver's lanyard to dispel myself of the idea that most hopped on and off each leg at their own convenience, with many people not only going the distance for 2016, but also having run the event every single year going back to its 2006 inception.
It's a simple equation, really. You can build the best car in the world, but if no one wants to buy it, you can't honestly call it a success. For all of its quirks, Mini has managed to snag a cohort that not only embraces the brand, but also leaves room in the bear hug for each other. These are the people who wave at each other from behind the wheel on even the shortest of trips, who congregate at ice cream cruise-ins and local shows, and who view their Coopers as canvases for self-expression in a way that simply doesn't happen with the vast majority of other automobiles.
I don't think anyone could deny that the human element is the soul that animates the nuts and bolts of our automobiles and makes them stand apart as something special compared to the appliance idling in the next lane. As different and as beautiful as the keenly personalized Minis were on that final stretch of MTTS 2016, what stuck with me even more were the conversations I had with those who scheduled their vacation time so they could hang out with the extended family granted to them by way of their shared passion. Whether they were speaking to me, or to each other, or – on at least one occasion – to their cars, once you got past the shop-talk, everyone had the same question to ask: Will I see you again next year?
I hope so.