Zarasai, Lithuania – The International Mini Meet is one helluva party. Especially if you have a soft spot in your heart for an iconic ten-foot box with a wheel at each corner that revolutionized small car design. Yes, we’re talking the original Mini – designed by genius BMC engineer Alec Issigonis (later Sir Alec) and produced from 1959 to 2000.
The IMM is an annual event, and Mini clubs from all over Europe bid for the honour of hosting. Last year it was in the UK and 4,000 classic Mini’s showed up. Next year’s shindig will be in Belgium.
For 2015, the Mini faithful travelled all the way to this far away corner of northeastern Europe to kibbitz, swap parts, drink, and in the case of the Flying Finns Mini Club, get butt-naked and jump in the lake.
I’m excited to be here because I am one of them. A Mini nut. (Not a naked Finn.) I caught the bug as a young teen in Nova Scotia, inspired by tales of the Mini’s giant-killing victories at the Monte Carlo Rally with legends such as Rauno Aaltonen at the wheel. When I was 15 my Dad bought me a ’68 Mini 1000. I worked on it in our garage and drove it up and down our long driveway until the blessed day I got my license.
If someone had come up to me in that garage (where I was learning to swear under the Mini’s hood) and said, “41 years from now, you will be driving a Mini very similar to this one in Lithuania, and you’ll be camping with Rauno Aaltonen”, I would have corked them up side the head with an SU carburetor and called the cops. Or in the case of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, the cop – singular.
But here I am, pulling into the 2015 IMM festival grounds in a small convoy of new Minis. Rauno Aaltonen is driving one of them. We’ll be camping. I spy a pair of ’97 classic Minis that BMW has brought here for this small group of journalists to sample. I park my green-with-white-stripes 2015 Mini Cooper 5-door right next to a ’97 Cooper Classic with identical livery. The 5-door looks enormous. The Classic is so cute you want to hug it.
The hilly terrain of this small island in a small lake is lousy with classic Minis – the scene underscored by the eager snarl of BMC A Series engines. I speak with three jovial Brits from the Torbay Mini Club who are in the middle of a 5,600-km road trip that has them visiting the Nurburgring, Berlin and Auschwitz. They are driving a modified ’82 and a nutty bright orange chopped ’72 Clubman Estate sporting a twin-cam Rover engine up front. What’s on the agenda for tonight? “We’re getting pissed.”