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I Bought a Cheap R53 Mini Cooper S to Fulfill My Supercharged Hot Hatch Dreams

The 2002-2006 Mini Cooper S is a great low-buck driver’s car these days. Yes, it’ll take some work to keep alive, but that’s all part of the project-car experience.
Toby Kessler

Sometimes you find the car, sometimes the car finds you. I’ve long loved the first-generation “new” Minis, known by their chassis code R53, but never quite been in the right place at the right time to scoop one up. That changed weeks ago, when I stumbled on a cleanish manual early build Cooper S street parked on my running route with a for-sale sign in its window.

Dark gray with a white roof and two tone black/blue interior, there it was, with a phone number displayed in the curb-facing window. “Not today,” I thought, as I lingered on the street corner. A month passed. I checked on the Mini during my morning runs, tracking its progress across the street and back again. Little clues like its beat-up Empire State license plate hinted that it might still be with its original owner. Its stock exterior and the presence of a child seat suggested that person was also a responsible adult.

Boarding a flight for a work trip, I broke down and texted the number. After several suspenseful minutes, I found out that not only was the seller the original owner, but he’d only put 51,000 miles on the car from new. It was at this moment that I abandoned all hope. Once back, I met up with him for a quick test drive. The car felt healthy and I got a good vibe, so after putting it up on a lift to make sure it was only a slightly terrible idea, I sealed the deal.

Why an R53 Mini?

Since BMW reintroduced the Mini (or “MINI” as they write it) brand in the early 2000s, there have been three generations, along with various models and sub-models. With the exception of limited-run special editions like the John Cooper Works GP cars, the first-gen Cooper S codenamed R53 is the one to have. Sold for just four years between 2002 and 2006 (production ended in 2008 for the convertible), the rebooted Cooper was designed by Frank Stephenson—the same guy who did the McLaren P1—and it still looks as good today as it did in The Italian Job. The 1.6-liter Tritec engine features a robust iron block and single-overhead-cam design, which means durability and tunability. For the Cooper S trim, BMW added an Eaton supercharger and intercooler to the engine—good for a claimed 163 horsepower stock and a glorious whine.

The R53’s engine also isn’t an interference motor in the traditional sense, meaning that if the timing chain guides break, you’re looking at a timing job but not necessarily bent valves. By contrast, the second-generation R56 Cooper S used a 1.6-liter turbocharged, aluminum-block Peugeot-Citroen engine that is known for oil consumption, timing chain failure, and carbon buildup. Former The Drive Editorial Director Patrick George once owned one, which he called a “son of a bitch” that “filled [him] with dread.” That’s not to say R53s are indestructible—tight packaging and cost-cutting are well documented (see: fiberglass dipstick). But most failures aren’t catastrophic—or so I’m told.

The R53’s short production run and relatively high new prices meant it was overshadowed by the 8th-gen Honda Civic Si and Mk5 Volkswagen GTI, both of which hit the scene with more space and modern powertrains as it was leaving production. But it’s a hidden gem. Put together a lively supercharged engine, communicative electro-hydraulic steering with just 2.5 turns lock-to-lock and a 2,500-pound curb weight, and you have a package far closer to the original ‘80s Golf GTI than anything on sale today. I also own a 996 Porsche 911, and in most real-world and particularly urban driving scenarios, the Mini is more fun—seriously. Turn-in is instant, power delivery is linear, and the supercharger screams “wheee” as revs build. It’s a car that makes you smile each time you take it out and is a hoot at legal speeds. The only disappointment is the shifter, which is slightly clunky with a longer throw than I’d like, but the sizable aftermarket community can help me with that.

Everything wrong with my cheap Mini

Despite its low odometer reading, my hatchback is showing its age. New York miles are like dog years, and this dog’s whiskers are gray. The brake rotors are rusty and warped from disuse, and the rear exhaust hangers aren’t far behind. Judging by age and the looks of the upper shock mounts, I suspect it’ll need a pretty comprehensive suspension refresh, and there are some sweaty-looking seals on the engine and power steering pump. In addition, at least one wheel is bent and the airbag light is on, though I’m assured the airbags work (probably).

My therapist says that stacking up easy wins (think making the bed in the morning) is a good way to build motivation, so I replaced a cracked piece of A-pillar trim and swapped the splintering dipstick right away. My first priorities besides a baseline fluid flush are upgrading the brakes and addressing crusty exhaust components—if anyone has recommendations for an aftermarket catback, hit me up! Then, I’ll focus on the suspension. I live in the city and don’t want to lower the car, so the current plan is an OEM+ refresh with some Bilstein parts. I’d also like to swap out the heavy 17-inch wheels for lighter 16s with stickier rubber. At some point over the winter, I hope to tear apart the front end (possibly in Andrew Collins’ upstate garage) to tackle a supercharger service and investigate those sweaty seals.

My goals

My plan is to drive the car to next year’s MINIs on the Dragon cruise in early May, and hopefully compete in next year’s Lime Rock Autocross series with it. Those things may sound far away, but as anyone with a project car knows, the months will fly by.

After signing over the title, the original owner patted his steed’s roof and made me promise that if I sold it I’d give him first right of refusal. I agreed, of course—keeping a car alive for 20 years is no easy feat, evidenced by his enthusiasm and stack of maintenance receipts. But some special machines are worth the trouble. This Mini is, and I’m excited to be a part of its second act.

Toby Kessler