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The multicultural Mini not just a British phenomenon

1973 Innocenti Mini Cooper

Bob English/The Globe and Mail

In what has become a tradition, 47-year-old Simon Felice and his 90-year-old dad Tony climb into his Innocenti Mini Cooper and "rip up" Ottawa's Preston Street in the wake of the Ferraris and Fiats participating in the annual Italian Week car parade, waving a large tricolore flag.

The Italian-born father and Canadian-born son perform this ritual to celebrate their own heritage, but also that of this rather rare – in Canada at least – multicultural Mini. And, as something of a mild gesture of reproof to the parade committee – which deemed it wasn't Italian enough to participate, although it's one of more than 400,000 Minis produced by Milan-based Innocenti.

Felice's Mini actually did take part in one Italian car parade, as part of an Ottawa Mini club contingent, but when he asked to be included the following year, pointing out the car's Italian connection, he was turned down. His Mini might have been seen as just too much of a British icon for the parade committee, he says, despite being built by a company famed for creating – albeit with American inspiration – one of Italy's most recognized motorized icons, the Lambretta scooter.

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Ferdinando Innocenti launched his company in the early 1930s to produce metal tubing of various sorts, from lampposts to fence posts and automobile prop shafts. During the Second World War, it produced military materials and one of the pillars of its post-war reconstruction was development of the Lambretta scooter, which was inspired by Cushman scooters that arrived with American paratroops.

Managerial ambitions to put four wheels under the company's badge were realized in 1960 when a deal was done with British Motor Corp. to build its Austin A40 Farina under licence. The A40 body design, by Italy's Pininfarina, included a drop-down tailgate "hatch" that Innocenti later developed into a proper hatchback. Innocenti also built an Austin-Healey Sprite-based roadster, styled by Ghia and known as the 950 Spyder, and later a coupe. And in 1965, it concluded a deal to build the Mini.

Brit James Ruppert, in his book Mini, makes a case for Felice's car being "Italian enough." He says of the Innocenti-built versions, produced between 1967 and 1975 – "their models were not just rebadged and rehashed Minis, but were often thoroughly reworked and remodelled with their own distinctive character."

Initial production, however, was closely based on the 850-cc-engined and De Luxe trimmed model, with a few distinctive bits added, including a nine-bar grille and sold under the Innocenti Mini-Minor 850 name. A Cooper version, fitted with the 998-cc engine, turned up a year later and was badged as a Mini Cooper, and was in turn followed by the estate wagon.

Innocenti died in 1966 and his son slipped behind the wheel of the company, but financial problems led to a takeover in 1972, by British Leyland Motor Corp. Innocenti put a rebadged Austin Allegro into production as the Regent, but also began development of the Mini 90 and 120. These were virtually all-Mini underneath but had modern three-door hatchback styling by Bertone, and almost made it into production as the original Mini's replacement in Great Britain.

But, with losses mounting, BL bailed out and sold the company to racing and grand touring car maker Alejandro de Tomaso, who escaped up an exit ramp provided by Fiat in 1990. Fiat ended Innocenti production in 1993, but the name survived until 1996, attached to the imported Serbian Yugo and Brazilian Elba.

Italy wasn't the only country to which Mini production migrated, sometimes as CKD (completely knocked down) kits, in other cases with considerable local content and input. They were also built in Australia, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Chile and Venezuela (both making them with fibreglass bodies).

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Felice's Innocenti Mini Cooper is a 1973 model and fitted with the classic sideways-mounted, 998-cc, twin-carb, A-Series engine and four-speed gearbox, hydrolastic suspension and tiny 145/10 tires mounted on 10-inch rims. With 60 hp on tap, it takes about 15 seconds to get to 100 km/h – putting Felice's "rip" up Preston Street into a more socially acceptable context – and top speed is about 150 km/h.

Felice says his tiny Italianesque-Mini is a complete contrast to his first fun car, a massive 428-cubic-inch, 1966 Ford Galaxie convertible, upholstered in "a sea of red vinyl" that was acquired during a mid-1990s sojourn in Toronto. Felice worked at the time as a scenic carpenter building theatre and movie sets, which included a White House interior for the Wesley Snipes flick Murder at 1600 and "lots of Leon's commercials."

He and his wife then returned to their Ottawa valley roots with a move to Almonte, where they now live and he operates Simon Felice Carpentry, specializing in old-school-style heritage and timber-frame construction.

But Felice says he has always been a small-car person at heart, with a soft-spot for British, and thanks to his father's influence, Italian cars. "Not so much the Ferraris, more the common man's cars," he says, like the Fiat 500.

One of which he went looking for on a Toronto Fiat website where, instead of a "cinquecento," he found the Mini Cooper in 2004. "It was news to me," he says, not previously having been aware of the Innocenti-built Mini. But it was the right size, was an interesting design and was made in Italy, all of which appealed to him.

Felice's Italian Mini now shares garage space with a made-in-Germany 1972 Volkswagen Westphalia camper van, currently being put into shape for a planned cross-continent drive along Route 66. "Long trips in the Mini just kick you around too much."

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Back in 1973
The Royal Canadian Air Farce radio show is created, Sudbury, Ont.-born Alex Trebek moves to the United States to host Wizard of Odds and Canada’s first lottery is introduced in Montreal to help pay for the 1976 Summer Olympics. Work begins on the CN Tower in Toronto.
Led Zeppelin’s Tampa stop on its 1973 North American Tour attracts 56,800, topping The Beatles stadium-crowd record. The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, featuring The Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and The Band, draws 600,000. Pink Floyd releases The Dark Side of the Moon album.
Lite Beer is introduced by the Miller Brewing Co., a patent is granted for the ATM, the World Trade Centre opens in New York and the last U.S. soldier leaves Vietnam.
Jackie Stewart wins the World Drivers’ Championship, Gordon Johncock the 57th Indy 500, and Richard Petty the Daytona 500.


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