The Saga of the MINI Cooper: Pt. 1, The Porsche Years

I’ve waited for years to write this column — a column I threatened the executives in the highest offices of MINI BMW that I’d write, but never did because, well, I was afraid to. Now that it’s gone, the story of my MINI Cooper can be told.

But before I get into the gory details, I have to admit I’ve never had much luck with cars. Before my MINI it was my Porsche.

The year was 2002. I had been driving a mid-‘90s VW Cabrio, which had been a good car. No complaints. I had bought it new and it ran fine for years, but it was time for a change. I wanted something… nicer. My dad connected me with a guy who attends auto auctions around the country. I told him I was looking for a used silver Audi TT, just like the one Donald Fagen presumably used to drive.

Off he went to Milwaukee. A day later I got a call. “There’s a silver TT here, and I can get it for a good price,” my auction-going friend said. “But I thought I’d let you know that there’s also a gorgeous silver ’99 Porsche Boxster I can get at an even better price. Low miles. Look, if you don’t like it, you can turn around and sell it for a profit.”

Porsche. There is no substitute. I told him to do it, and within a few weeks, I was driving a sweet silver Boxster with ruby-colored leather seats — a gorgeous car by any standard. And it was fast. Very fast, at least compared to my VW.

But it didn’t take long to realize two things about driving a Porsche Boxster. First, they’re designed for… little people. At least people littler than me. To get into the Boxster meant folding my 6-foot 2-inch 235-pound mostly-shoulders frame into the car’s low, cramped cockpit. While I did have plenty of head room, my shoulders felt they were being squished together by the narrow “sport seats.” Every time I twisted to grab the seat belt or check if the driveway was clear,  I felt like a baby turning inside its mother’s womb.

Then there’s the asshole factor.

It’s here I should point out that I grew up in a “car family.” My dad always admired the finest automobiles and had a collection that was the envy of everyone in our neighborhood. He had everything from a 1944 Jaguar convertible to a Maserati to an Austin Healy to a Jensen Intercepter to a Citron to an Avenger GT 12, along with a small fleet of VW Beatles and microbuses and typical family station wagons. And, of course, a Porsche.

Dad’s collection included a number of “classics,” and more than just drive the cars on weekends, dad often entered prize examples into local auto shows. That meant us kids spending our Saturday afternoons washing, then polishing every inch of the vehicle prior to display. I cannot tell you the numbers of hours I spent tediously hand-polishing chrome on wire-spoked wheels.

As reward for our hard work, we got to spend endless hours walking around the lower level of the Civic Auditorium staring at parked cars with their hoods up, while dad talked to guys about carburetors and in-take manifolds.

The point is, back then everyone admired a great car, and whenever I got a chance to sit in the passenger seat of one of dad’s classics as we rolled through the neighborhood, I felt proud and lucky, knowing every kid on the block wanted to go for a ride.

It wasn't like that when I finally got a "classic" of my own. I blame the media and the movies, which depict Porsche drivers as leather-glove-wearing, sunglasses-at-night, smug-faced rich-guy creeps.

The first time I heard it was on an unseasonably warm late-spring afternoon. It was so warm, in fact, I decided what-the-hell I’m going to put the top down. As I slowly drove down Underwood Avenue through the heart of Dundee someone yelled from the sidewalk near the Underwood Bar, “Sweet Porsche!”

I smiled and turned, but didn’t see who it was. Then as I continued driving west past what was Trovato’s, out of nowhere came “Asshole!” I never saw who yelled it; I just kept driving.

Shortly after that I began noticing the stale looks when I drove up next to Omaha’s fleet of beige Hondas, Cavaliers and mini-vans, cars people drive not because they want to, because they have to. To them, a car was merely transportation. A Porsche, on the other hand, was an ego-mobile. I called it “The Asshole Look” — when someone glanced over, noticed the car in all its shiny glory, and then with squinty eyes assessed the guy driving it. There is no hiding when you drive a Porsche with the top down.

There’s also no avoiding the psycho greasers driving late-model muscle cars and the suburban kids behind the wheels of Japanese pocket rockets with ridiculous “scoops” bolted to the back. Up they would idle at red lights, revving their engines and gripping their fur-covered steering wheels, as if reenacting a scene from American Graffiti or The Fast and the Furious.

Half the time I was fumbling for something in the car and didn’t notice them until the light turned green and SQUEEEEEEE! off would tear the Lexus or Mustang or Hyundai that had been idling next to me.

For two years I managed to convince myself I liked driving the Porsche. It took a major mechanical problem that cost $2,600 to repair before I finally had enough and sold it on eBay to some guy in Park City, Utah. Now it was his turn to be called “asshole.”

After all that, I figured it was time for something more practical, something… humble, like a MINI Cooper...

 

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 09:08 pm
on Sunday, April 27th, 2014

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