x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Auto world's diminutive star takes over Sheikh Zayed Road

Neil Vorano can't help but feel the love at Dubai's Drive Out Loud festival honouring the Mini.

Minis from around the GCC travel in convoy along Sheikh Zayed Road before gathering at Dubai Autodrome.
Minis from around the GCC travel in convoy along Sheikh Zayed Road before gathering at Dubai Autodrome.

This definitely isn't the type of convoy that would intimidate other drivers on the motorway.

There are no big lorries or loud Harley-Davidson motorcycles; no, this convoy is made up of cute, little Minis, more than 100 of them, all swarming like bumblebees. They're the type of car that make you giggle instead of cringe in fear, and right now on this Friday morning there seems to be a lot of giggling happening on the E11.

Made up of 105 Minis in various colours and models, the procession starts off from the Aloft Hotel in Abu Dhabi and hits the motorway for its final destination of the Mini Drive Out Loud Mini Festival at the Dubai Autodrome. It's a gathering of Mini owners and fans of the brand, put on by Mini Middle East, to have a little fun with events and shows and just relax with people who share the same, quirky love for the diminutive car.

I'm along for the ride in a Mini Countryman, the 4x4 version that towers - relatively - over the Mini hatches and convertibles that fill up the convoy; call it a Jumbo Shrimp. The mood is fun and light and, at some points, people are standing out of their sunroofs taking pictures of the long line of cars; not the best idea on a major motorway, even if we are only doing about 80kph.

That the Mini is a cute, fun car is without question. Even if you're not a fan, you can't help but smile. But what is it with the car's huge following and dedicated owners? What's with this communal atmosphere? And why does the Mini warrant a festival of its own over other cars? A sceptic could say it's all just a marketing gimmick, a PR stunt, but there's no denying the buzz and enthusiasm among the many owners here, and they've come from all over the GCC to participate - as far off as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The answer must lie at the autodrome.

Arriving at noon, we're divided into different parking areas and register. Minis are everywhere, along with a special treat we find: a line-up of 10 original Minis, on display from owners in the UAE. Side by side with the new, BMW-built car, the old Mini is downright tiny. And even more smile-inducing.

The day isn't just about looking at cars, though. Mini Middle East has set up various events for people to find out just how fun its car can be. There are opportunities to test out the new Coupé - including some hopped-up AC Schnitzer and Hamann versions - on track; or take your own Mini around the 'Drome; taxi rides in John Cooper Works Mini race cars; an off-road course with the Countryman; and an autotest slalom to test the car's agility and the driver's skill, among others. As the day progresses, it's not without its hiccups. The events book up quickly and some people are left out, but the cheerful atmosphere remains. Nowhere more so than among the small group of Minis on display for public judging.

Here, owners are chatting with each other and the public, who are wandering from car to car. One of the Minis stands out - its Lamborghini-style scissor doors an obvious difference from the rest of the pack. Faisal Alabdulla, 27, is the owner and someone who enjoys talking about his Mini. "Yes, we did the doors, but I also had a lot of engine work done," he says about the yellow 2004 model.

Popping the bonnet, he shows me an obviously reworked little 1.6L engine - he installed a John Cooper Works system that boosts the power to 275hp. "I love this car. You can't compare it with any other car; it's perfect. And you can upgrade this engine up to 400hp and race Ferraris then. Handling is great, too.

"I'm part of the Dubai Mini Club, and I go out with some people on the road sometimes. We're always going out with friends. It's cool."

Maher and Lilian Roz, 35 and 36, are also in the parking area. While their car isn't on display, they drove to Abu Dhabi from their home in Dubai last night, just so they could be a part of the convoy today with their Mini convertible.

"It's fun, it's just like an emotional attachment," smiles Lilian. She wryly tells me that she "allows" her husband to take it to his banking job every day. "You have to see it; whenever I see it when I get home, I just think 'it's so cute'.

"We bought a used Honda five years ago. But when it was time to replace that, we wanted something that we wanted to keep all our life, and we thought about this one. It's a car for us, and we enjoy it. It's not the family car, it's our car."

Perhaps the highlight of the festival, which also includes a string of bands later in the night, is the stunning driving display of Russ Swift. The four-time British Auto Test champion wows the assembled crowds with his car-control abilities, spinning his Mini into tight parking spots and driving up on two wheels. Even at 60, Swift has still got it. "I expected to be retired years ago, but the phone keeps ringing," he quips.

Between shows, he talks about the draw the Mini marque has had on people for the last 50 years.

"It's classless. It doesn't matter if you're a sheikh, or a film star, or a regular guy, you can still enjoy driving a Mini," he says enthusiastically. "And that's always been the case. It's the broadness of the appeal and it's as strong as it ever was.

"This new car took over from where the old one left off. For the sport that I do, there's still nothing that can beat it, for agility and mobility. And this new one is a far more sophisticated car than the last one - it gives you all the comfort you need. But you just need to look at the people who drive Minis, they all have big grins on their faces. And when I'm doing my thing people tell me I'm just grinning from ear to ear."

Sarah Klippert, the manager for Mini Middle East, echoes Swift's sentiments on the little car's popularity.

She says that sales for Mini have almost doubled this year from last, and it's not because people are interested in downsizing these days.

"For us, it's not only about the size, because our customers want something interesting and eye-catching, and it's just buying into a community.

"It was always like that, and it's just continued. Mini customers share the same lifestyle, and they really want to know each other and share information together. Everybody likes the cars; with the old one, the Queen was driving one, the Beatles were driving one, but it was actually meant to be appealing for people who could not afford a larger car. And it just became an icon."

As the sun sets, the autodrome is still abuzz with people. In all, 210 Minis and 1,400 people roll or stroll through the gates to join the festival, and many are staying on for the bands in the evening and the party atmosphere. But I'm exhausted from standing in the extreme heat all day, even if it is cooling down now, and I make my exit. And I think I get it. If you own a Mini, you must have been drawn in by how much fun it is to drive - it really is - and it's infectious. After a full day of seeing these little cars buzz around or sat parked, I stroll out of the gates, get into the Countryman and start it up. And I can't help but smile.