Spring is in the air, and people are thinking of open cars again. For fans of the new Mini, a factory cabriolet is at least two years away, but if you already have one of these hot hatches, Bespoke Convertibles in Brighton, England, can convert it in just four weeks, in time for the summer.
Although the car I drove is Bespoke's prototype, I was very surprised at just how well the project has been thought through and any potential problems overcome.
The shape of the roof when the car is closed, for instance, is an achievement in itself. Even some major manufacturers do not get it right, let alone small aftermarket companies. In this instance, it is obvious that a lot of work has gone into the shape of the top and how it interfaces with the car.
Top down, the obligatory press-studs secure the canvas cover, and the resulting side profile is a long wedge rather than a canvas mountain like on a Golf Cabriolet. Top up, the roofline approximates that of the closed car, albeit with thicker C-pillars. The main thing is that, either way, it does not look like a pram.
Such conversions are very labor intensive and Bespoke has been careful to tailor its work to as many pockets as possible. The base conversion has a manually operated top, but you can opt for electro-hydraulic operation as fitted to Bespoke's Mini One demo car.
A Mini One with manual top sells for 16,995 in the UK, and a Cooper is 18,500. The power-top option is an extra 1,705 on a Mini One and 1,455 on a Cooper. Bespoke can carry out the work on an existing car or supply a new car with the conversion and even finance it for you.
Bespoke Convertibles managing director Adrian Archer gained his motor trade experience with BMW and Rolls-Royce/Bentley dealerships, and founded the company last year. "At the end of 2000, I was approached to make a cabriolet version of the New Beetle," he explained. "We looked at what Straman had done in California, but for cost reasons decided we were better off doing it in the U.K. In the end, however, we decided that it was not the right car, as New Beetle sales were beginning to wane and a factory cabriolet was supposedly due out in 2002.
"Instead, we decided that the new Mini was the ideal car for a cabriolet conversion, as it was right at the start of its lifecycle and had frameless-door side glass to start with. At the time I was working for Chandlers, the BMW dealer in Brighton, and I left in May 2001 and set up Bespoke Car Finance with Mark Brazier. This was mainly because we had to have a source of income whilst we were working on the project, and it would allow us to finance cars for people.
"In the event, the motor finance and supplying of new cars side of the business has really taken off, and we have ended up with the Bespoke Car Group, encompassing Bespoke Finance and Bespoke Convertibles. We took delivery of our Mini One in October last year, and the prototype conversion work took three months," Adrian continued. "The Mini has good looks to start with; most people think it is cheeky and sexy. Removing the roof makes it even better. It is a car that really lends itself to being open."
Operation of the top is simplicity itself. Undo the two latches above each side glass, lower the electrically operated rear side windows via the buttons on the center console, and then hold your finger down on the electric roof button. The top folds down in about 16 sec., and then you can put the canvas cover on. Getting the roof up is the reverse operation.
The top itself is made from the finest German mohair and normally comes in either black or blue. You can, however, specify any other color as an extra-cost option. The rear window is soft plastic, as there is no room for a glass panel.
All cars rely on their roofs for structural rigidity, so removing this vital panel requires the addition of strengthening elsewhere. "The company we use is well known for cabriolet and stretched limousine conversions," Adrian explained. "They were very impressed with the strength of the basic Mini floorpan. It was a good basis, and they added extra steel in the A-pillars, across the base of the dashboard, in the sills, up the now truncated B-posts and across the parcel shelf area, which, of course does not exist in the normal Mini hatchback."
The result is very impressive when you drive it on a bumpy road, although it no doubt benefits from the fact that the Mini is a short car. As Bespoke is fairly local to me, I was able to drive the car on some of the more challenging country roads I know. One particular road has a combination of bumps, humps, adverse cambers and tight corners that is guaranteed to upset any car whose suspension is not up to scratch.
The standard Mini does very well on this road, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the Mini Cabriolet was not far behind. On some of the worst bumps, I could detect a small amount of scuttle shake, but when all is said and done, it is no worse than a new VW Golf Cabriolet, one of the better hatchback-derived factory cars. For a small outfit like Bespoke, this is a grand achievement, especially as it is its first-ever conversion.
It was bright but cold in early March when I drove the car. Airflow management inside any cabriolet is difficult unless you have a windbreak behind the seats. Unfortunately, that is not practical with a four-seater, but if you wear a tight-fitting hat, it is okay. With the roof up, the car is very snug inside and wind noise is minimal, even traveling at 80 mph.
The extra weight of the reinforcement slowed the acceleration of this Mini One slightly, but as most people will use a Cooper or Cooper S as the base car, it is less of an issue.
Given that the new Mini is a hatchback, I was curious how Bespoke tackled the problem of a new bootlid opening arrangement. "When we removed the rear glass, we decided that the best way to tackle the problem was to hinge the bootlid from the bottom like on the classic Mini," explained Adrian. "In fact, to preserve the Mini character and also for practical reasons, we use the hinges from the classic Mini, with cutouts where the bumper meets the bodywork, and move the electrically operated hinge to the top of the bootlid."
This arrangement works perfectly, and the precision with which the electric release and the hinges work give it similar feel and shut characteristics as the standard factory set-up. Boot load capacity remains the same as the hatchback up to parcel shelf height, and the car retains its rear seat room as well as the split/folding seatback arrangement. If you go for the power-operated hood option, you lose a small amount of space in the lower left-hand corner of the boot floor to the hydraulic pump. This has a neat, carpet-trimmed cover on it and takes up the same room as one and a half British-sized house bricks laid end to end.
Inside, nice touches are the buttons for the electric rear windows laid out neatly beside the handbrake and the digital clock moved from the roof headliner to the otherwise useless gap in the center console.
In terms of production cars, Bespoke is ready to roll now, and the only additional on-going developments are a second inner lining for the hood and a chromed rollover bar welded to the B-pillars, both of which will be offered as options. The car looks great as it is, however, and I think a rollover hoop would spoil its lines.
Spring is in the air, and people are thinking about open cars, so Bespoke has got its timing spot on. It is also happy to supply cars to European and Far East customers directly. For the U.S. market, where the Mini was launched this past March, it is keen to appoint an agent and license out production.