Published Friday, Nov. 2, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

BY MATT NAUMAN, Mercury News

Making the most of the Mini

Legendary British auto is cult favorite in the U.S. and likely will appeal to wider audience with new look. BMW plans to revive the Mini brand and bring the little car that could to America.

Aficionado is poised to let buyers of the new Mini add their own touches

NEVADA CITY -- While the rest of America has to wait until March to drive the new Mini Cooper, Don Racine can jingle a set of keys in his pocket right now.

Of course, he's already taken the car apart -- checking to see what makes it tick and figuring out ways to make it tick a little faster and a little better.

Racine owns Mini Mania, a mail-order company that sells parts for the original Mini. While that legendary British small car remains a cult favorite here in the States, and Racine continues to run a successful business selling super-chargers and spoilers to a estimated 12,000 owners in the United States, it's the new Mini that fuels his imagination now.

Racine sees great potential in the number of people who will buy a new Mini -- perhaps 20,000 a year in the United States and 100,000 a year worldwide -- and then want to make it their own.

"I think for the first number of years, the new Mini owners are going to be closet classic Mini owners," he said. Those people, he figures, are going to want to personalize their cars, both cosmetically and performance-wise.

"The absolute reality of the classic Mini is that it is a personal statement," Racine said. "If you buy an awful lot of cars that people want to collect, their objective is always to make it original. That is the lowest priority for a Mini owner. The objective for a Mini owner is to make it personal, to make it their car."

That's one of the reasons Racine moved his 27-year-old business out of San Jose and up to this Gold Country town last December. He needed more room for people, more room for parts, more room for engineering research and development.

So, Mini Mania no longer exists in a cramped and cluttered 7,000-square-foot facility on San Jose's border with Milpitas near the Great Mall of the Bay Area. Instead, it's inside a 32,000-square-foot complex with plenty of room to grow over six acres of land.

That's where Racine and his staff have been working feverishly to create a racing version of the new Mini Cooper that was on display at this week's big auto after-market show in Las Vegas and will make its track debut this weekend in Monterey.

Called the Mini Challenge, the event will be part of the Sports Car Club of America's Fall Classic Vintage Race at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. Racine's new Mini will be on the track Saturday and Sunday with more than two dozen classic Minis. While this isn't a track event for spectators, Racine said those who want to come down to see the festivities won't be turned away. (Check out www.minimania.com for more details.)

Ever since BMW announced it would revive the Mini brand and bring the little car that could to America, Racine has been in discussions with the German automaker. He admitted that relationship is "hot and cold" and that it's pretty chilly right now. That's because BMW isn't happy with him for staging a coming-out party for the new Mini in Monterey. BMW, which first showed the new model to U.S. car-buyers in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, has been steadily promoting it with a goal of making a big splash when the car goes on sale in March 2002.

Executives with Mini won't say anything bad about Mini Mania. In fact, they won't say much at all.

Begs to be modified

"The Mini is one of those cars that begs to be modified," said Jack Pitney, general manager of the Mini brand for BMW of North America. "We're trying to capitalize on it ourselves. He's an after-market company. A lot of guys have gone and done what Don has done. We think that's great."

One of Pitney's staffers will attend the Monterey event, but Mini or BMW won't have any official presence.

Racine has been in contact with the 70 U.S. BMW dealers who will sell the Mini, and he regularly makes them aware of his product plans. Robert Day, who owns BMW Concord, said he expects to sell both Mini branded and after-market accessories in the Mini showroom that's now under construction.

For his part, Racine still talks to the top brass at Mini's U.S. headquarters in New Jersey, but, he said, ``Their agenda is different than mine."

First produced in 1959, the Mini measured 10-by-4-by-4 and sold for $1,295 (in U.S. dollars). Over the next 41 years, about 5.4 million were sold worldwide. It is the biggest-selling British car of all-time. No doubt a true automotive icon, the original Mini was owned by all four Beatles, and Prince Charles gave one to Princess Diana as a birthday present in 1982.

The new Mini has grown up -- it'll be 18 inches longer and 14 inches wider. Still, at 143.9-inches long, it's more than a foot shorter than a Mazda Miata roadster. While a bare-bones Mini One model will be sold in Europe, U.S. buyers will only get well-equipped Mini Cooper and Cooper S models that come with six air bags and fancy stereos. The Cooper, expected to start around $18,000, will have a 115-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Cooper S pricing will start around $21,000. It'll carry a 163-horsepower, super-charged version of that same engine.

Don Racine got into the Mini business out of a strange combination of luck, economic necessity and losing on the race track.

A New Hampshire native -- you can still pick up a slight New England accent at the end of some of his sentences -- Racine always was into cars. His first was a '49 Plymouth that sounded just like a vacuum cleaner. While racing Porsches as a young man, "the only thing that ever beat me was this little gray-haired old man in a Mini Cooper."

Racine laughs at the irony as he tells this story. Now 57, slight of build and with a shock of white hair, he's become the contemporary image of that long-ago racer.

Anyhow, Racine moved to California -- he worked as an electronics field engineer for Ampex and Memorex -- and bought a Porsche, but shuddered at the pricey insurance bill. So, he sold the Porsche, and bought "a real plain-Jane 997 Cooper" instead.

He paid "next to nothing," less than $1,000 for it, and kept it for four or five years. He can't count how many he's owned since. But finding parts for that first one was a real chore, as that model already was becoming obsolete.

Getting the parts

"I found myself owning a car that I had difficulty getting parts for. As a result, I started importing parts for myself" from England, he said. Other members of his car club, the San Francisco Chapter of the Mini Owners of America, began asking him to get parts for them, too.

The business grew from there, but it certainly wasn't an overnight success. He operated it from his garage. Racine kept his full-time job, and remained an absentee owner for many years. He slowly began adding employees, and moved from one office space to the next all around San Jose and surrounding cities.

It was a labor of love more than a business," he recalled.

Things grew to the point where Racine decided he could make a living selling Mini parts, so his hobby become his career. Mini Mania now has a huge catalog with perhaps 20,000 parts numbers, or SKUs. It also has a very complete mailing list.

That constant communication, fueled by newsletters and catalogs and, now, the Mini Mania Web site, created a loyal customer base.

Racine guesses that 10,000 classic Minis exist in the United States today -- not coincidentally, that's how many people are on his mailing list. (While the car was sold in the United States from 1960 to 1967, and some of those cars still exist here today, many of those found on American roads are so-called gray-market models. They have paperwork that says they're from 1974 or before -- to get around U.S. safety and emission laws -- but they're really much newer cars than that.)

Terry Smith, Webmaster for the local chapter of the Mini Owners of America, said Mini Mania "makes it easier to gets parts for an old car now than it was in the early '70s for a car that was only 6 or 7 years old then." Smith owned his first Mini back then, and got his second, a newer version of the car, earlier this year.

Increased competition

While Mini Mania is a recognized source for parts, Smith said, the advent of the Internet and less-costly international shipping, has persuaded some Mini owners to order parts directly from England.

Racine acknowledges the increased competition, but the Internet now is used in 25 percent of his transactions, and it allows him to sell parts to Mini owners in South America, Japan and even Britain.

He also sees another big change in the Mini world. He doesn't know if that's due to the publicity of the pending arrival of the new Mini Cooper or due to the publicity of the demise of the old Mini, but more classic Minis are coming into the States than ever before, he said. He makes a conservative guess of a dozen a week, and said that it could be many more.

And these cars are going to owners who view them as a reward.

"Today, they're toys. Very, very few people depend on their Mini to drive every day," Racine said.

So, instead of selling lots of transmission parts, which it used to do, Mini Mania now sells complete transmissions. And, for a car that always was in size and price toward the lower end of the market, the Mini is getting expensive. Finding Minis for sale with $20,000-plus price tags is easy to do these days, Racine said. In fact, last month, he shipped out a $20,000 engine for a Mini. He's got a two-month backlog of engine orders.

One question will remain unanswered until March: Will the new Mini dry up or heat up the U.S. market for the old Mini?

In the near future, Racine said he'll serve both markets, keeping owners of the old car in hard parts and helping owners of the new version to make them special.