Mini Meet West 2005:
Big crowd driven by love for Mini Cooper

By Sara Steffens, CONTRA COSTA TIMES

In a cynical world, the sight of a Mini still inspires delight, even a bit of protective tenderness.

Awww. Look at that one!

"How many cars can you drive today where everybody smiles and waves?" said Oakland resident George Olson, who drives a 1964 classic Mini. "Kids just press their face to the window and look and point. It looks like Hot Wheels or a dinky toy come to life."

"My fiancee thinks of it like it's a puppy dog that followed me home," adds Olson. "She thinks it's the cutest thing she's ever seen."

Cute is a word oft heard at Mini Meet West in San Ramon, where owners of both new and classic Minis have gathered this weekend to share their passion for the diminutive automobiles.

Attracting hundreds of cars from up and down the coast, the event is an Alice-in-Wonderland-like exercise in perspective. Consider the space where someone left a Toyota Camry parked between two Minis.

The Camry suddenly seems a woolly mammoth, a Brobdingnagian monument to automotive excess. And then you remember: The Camry is considered a small, sensitive car amid the Bay Area's commuting armies of SUVs.

The three-day Mini Meet includes rallies, judging and family events but the main attraction is milling around, admiring tiny cars.

"We could spend a whole weekend and all we do is talk about these cars," says Martinez resident Jon Becker. "What we've done to our cars, what we want to do. What's up with our families."

True enthusiasts circle the parking lot clutching cameras, reverently documenting the array of Mini Mokes (like an itty-bitty Jeep), vans (nothing like those other minivans), wee wagons, even petite pickups, and their personalized plates: WUZZAT. MIINI ME. SQZE BOX. EDBE CAR. OH WHEEE.

Others set camping chairs alongside their own cars and settle in to answer questions.

"I could go out there at 2, 3 in the morning and they'd all still be out, --with their hoods propped up, talking," said Manteca resident Larry Paquette, proud owner of a 2003 Cooper and a 2005 Mini.

"I've never been a big-car person," explains Paquette. (Emphasis there on big, not car.)

Among this crowd, Oakland resident John Koo is a celebrity.

"Are you Mr. Koo?" one man asks, genuflecting. "It's a pleasure to meet you. You're legendary.

"He makes the best quality Mini products in the world."

Koo is known around the world for the high-performance parts he designs and sells through his Oakland business, Sracer.com.

"It's a cute car, a little car," Koo said. "They are very popular. All women love Minis. Women like cute cars. ... Men like them because they go fast."

Jo-Ann and Richard Ford drove all the way from Victoria, British Columbia, to attend the meet. They spent three years restoring their right-hand drive Mini "woody" station wagon, including covering the original Java green with a glossy coat of "black tulip."

"You can come here and you're not going to find two alike," said Jo-Ann, an elementary school teacher. "You just get one and you start to personalize it."

"And everybody's proud of them. Even the grimiest ones. People love these cars."

Mini-lovers speak reverently of the noise and the roughish ride, the cornering and handling, the incredible speed their tiny cars can produce.

"You don't feel isolated from the driving experience by power steering and soft shocks and springs," said Becker. "It's almost like you're putting the car on."

Brentwood's Andrew Norris showed off his pride and joy, a green 1964 Austin 1071S Cooper, very rare. Only 673 were produced and no one knows how many are left.

His first car was a 1959 Mini, when he was 18. After moving to California, he "got the itch" to own another, Norris said.

"The rule of thumb to driving a Mini is you give way to anything and everything in the road," he said. "It's a different mind-set. ... You don't want to be an accident, because you won't win."

Ah, but Mini owners often get the last laugh.

Explains Norris, "Parking at a big event, there's usually somewhere where two cars are taking up three spaces, and you can fit in between them."

Reach Sara Steffens at 925-943-8048 or mailto:ssteffens@cctimes.com

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