For Ho Sheng-chang (
Ho bought his first Mini in 1985 and its butchered shell sits in his workshop today. He paid NT$270,000 for the 1960 car and it changed his life -- even becoming a cherished as a family pet. Since then, Ho has purchased three more Minis -- one more for himself and one each for his wife and mother.
"I offered to buy my wife the latest in compact cars several years ago, but she wouldn't have it," said the good-humored mechanic. "I showed her a glossy photo of a [Nissan] March and asked her if she wanted one. It took her about three seconds to answer. She made a face and shook her head and that was that."
Designed by Alec Issigonis, the first Austin Mini rolled off the production line in August 1959. Along with being the most compact car of its day, it was also the quickest to assemble. It could be put together in seven hours by hand or in two hours on an assembly line.
Along with the Volkswagen Beetle and Citroen 2CV, the Mini is one of the most collected and sought after cars in the world. In 1991 more Minis' were sold in Japan than anywhere else in the world, and a classic Mini can cost up to NT$750,000. Production of the original Mini design halted in 2000 after British Aerospace sold Rover to BMW. A total of 5.5 million Minis were made.
Ho's family might be considered less than ordinary when compared to the average Taiwan household, for whom owning the latest in glossy five-speed, four-wheel drive is must -- if only to impress the neighbors -- and they are certainly not alone in their love for the undersized British motor. Of the more than 5 million Minis produced, somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 of them either are plying the highways and byways or sitting idol in garages somewhere in Taiwan.
"It's hard to put an exact figure on the number of Minis in Taiwan because not all of them are on the road. There are probably somewhere in the region of 1,700 roadworthy vehicles, but then there are hundreds more stashed away in garages awaiting repair," Ho said. "Minor repairs might take only a few days, but importing certain parts can be a lengthy and costly process."
Chang Chung-ren (
"I see about 150 to 200 Minis a year coming through my garage. I think some owners treat their cars better than their women," Chang said. "If their car is in for servicing, I get phone calls every day from these people asking if their car is OK and when can they can come and pick it up."
Nearly all of Taiwan's Mini owners are members of either one of Taiwan's 10 official Mini clubs or one of the half dozen private Mini owner associations. With memberships ranging from between 50 and 200, these clubs pool resources once a year and gather for the Taiwan National Mini Day on Oct. 12. Organized on a rotating basis by Mini clubs around the country, the event is now in its sixth year.
In a break from tradition, this year's event, which took place at the China Taipei Motor Sports Association (
A roadworthy 1,000cc or 1,300cc Mini costs between NT$200,000 and NT$350,000, or roughly a quarter of the price of the new BMW-manufactured Mini Cooper S, which was released in Taiwan last year and costs upwards of NT$990,000.
Although production of Minis has long since ceased, every part of the Mini from body shell to hubcap is still produced. Garage owners such as Chang and Ho have to regularly import accessories from the UK in order to keep up with demand. Should a Taiwanese owner be involved in an accident, however, he or she is looking at an expensive and time-consuming refit.
"This one guy spent a lot of money getting hold of an original late 1960s Mini. Man, he flipped it 180 degrees one night, slid along the road for 100m on the roof and completely ruined the bodywork," explained Ting pointing to a gnarled wreck. "It's been sitting here for almost a year. He can't afford to do it up. It's going to cost him NT$450,000 to import the body alone."
Due to a change in import laws in the mid-1990s and the subsequent ban on the importation of certain pre-assembled automobiles, a few enterprising Mini lovers have started importing their cars from Japan piece by piece and reassembling them in Taiwan.
"It's a very costly way to do it. I'd guess that the owner of this car has probably spent anywhere in the region of NT$300,000 to NT$500,000 just getting hold of a car in Japan," Ho said. "And then there were the import costs of every single piece on top of that. ... It's illegal to drive a right hand drive vehicle in Taiwan, so the steering has to be switched. You certainly have to be both rich and a real Mini nut to import your own car."
Since he's been in the Mini business, Ting has not only helped convert half a dozen illegally imported models but he has also helped put many of the two-dozen Mini pick-ups, Mini convertibles and Mini vans on Taiwan's roads. Nowadays, he's being asked to do work of a different kind. The recent remake of the 1960s movie The Italian Job has led to a renewed interest in speed as well as looks. One customer has asked Ting to install a double-injection engine into his Mini, thus enabling the owner of the glossy black beast to reach, albeit illegally, a speed of more than 200kph.
Along with being a couple of the nation's top Mini mechanics, Ho and Chang are Mini history experts and have amassed huge collections of memorabilia. Such Mini fervor led Chang to design his garage desk to took like a stretch Mini. Ho has filled his basement with everything from toy Minis to steering wheels. According to both fanatics, large numbers of today's younger Mini fans are knowledgeable about their four-wheeled prize possession.
But pity the fool who buys a Mini and is dumb enough to demonstrate his ignorance in front of Ting.
"You can own a regular car and remain ignorant as to where, when and how it was produced, but as far as I'm concerned you can't do that with a Mini," he said with a smirk. "A Mini is not just a car, it's a slice of motoring history and it should be treated that way."