First Gen MINI (R50/R52/R53) Buyer’s Guide

Despite being seen as a bit of a porker when it first launched, BMW’s first MINI Cooper managed to capture much of the charm of the original British motoring icon. Its styling was on point, had a surprisingly good chassis and its peppy little engine provided enough pull to make things exciting (especially the supercharged version in the Cooper S and Cooper S Works GP).

In this R50, R52 and R53 MINI Cooper buyers guide we will be looking at everything you need to know before purchasing one of these cars. From common problems with the MINI Cooper, to its history and specifications, and much more.

Using this R50 to R53 MINI Cooper Buyer’s Guide

To start with we will cover the history and specifications of BMW’s first generation MINI Cooper to give you a bit more background information about the car. We will then dive into what to look out for when buying one and we will finish off with more general car purchasing advice. The R50-R53 MINI Cooper is also known under the following names:

  • MINI Hatch (USA)
  • MINI Hardtop
  • MINI
  • MINI One (base model version of the car)

This is a long guide, so use the table of contents below to skip to the section you want to read (or just read it all) We are not going to be specifically looking at the diesel versions of the Mini (or Mini One), but much of the information in this guide still applies to them.

History of the First Gen Mini Cooper (2001 to 2006) and Mini Convertible (2004 to 2008)

The original Mini produced by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) was the brainchild of Alec Issigonis (also known as Sir Alexander Arnold Constantine Issigonis). He was given the task of creating three new vehicles at the end of 1955, with one of them being a small, yet practical compact car with excellent fuel economy and a very affordable price.

Issigonis initially focused much of his attention on the largest of the three cars as that was the direction Leonard Lord, the president of BMC at the time, wanted to go. However, the small economical model was where Issigonis’ main interests laid.

He didn’t have to wait long before his dreams became reality. Roughly one year after he began working on the new cars, fuel rationing was introduced due to the Suez Canal crisis. As a result, Lord instructed Issigonis to make the small car design the priority and get it ready for production as soon as possible.

The Mini Hits the Streets

By April 1959 the car was ready to be shown to the press and four months later the general public would get their chance to have a look at the new vehicle. Labelled the Mini and sold under BMC’s two main brand titles, Morris and Austin, the new car proved to be a massive hit. Nearly 1.2 million Mark I Minis were produced over the course of the car’s life, making it one of the most successful cars at the time.

The Mark II would replace the Mark I in 1967, and two further generations would come before 1980, with the first in 1969 and the second in 1976. When the Mark IV was introduced in 1976, it was expected that the model would be short lived and the end of the Mini was near. British Leyland (established in 1968 after a merger of BMC and the Leyland Motor Corporation Limited), was working on a new compact car that was expected to replace the Mini and there were far more competitors in the market.

Despite this, British Leyland would release more variations of the fourth generation Mini and even when the Metro was launched in 1980, the Mini’s production would continue (although at a reduced rate).

While the Mark IV Mini would continue to be produced until 2000, three more generations would come in 1984 (Mark V), 1990 (Mark VI) and 1996 (Mark VII). The Mark VII was the final version of the classic Mini to be produced and when its production ended in October 2000, it would also mark the end of the 1,275-cc engine which had powered numerous British Leyland, BMC and Austin Rover Group cars (Austin Rover was formed after the collapse of British Leyland in the eighties). Ironically, the Mini had outlived the Metro, the car that was meant to be its replacement.

BMW’s MINI Makes Its Debut

Credit: MINI/BMW

In 1994, the Rover Group along with Land Rover, Riley, Triumph, Austin-Healey, and of course Mini, was sold to BMW. Development of a new, more modern Mini would start soon after, with Frank Stephenson in charge of the design.

Both Rover Group and BMW’s development teams worked on the project and the result of their work was displayed at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show. They displayed a number of different trim options at the show, including the Cooper, the Cooper S and the Mini Minor. The first two models would ultimately wind up as production models, while the Mini Minor trim option was shelved before it could hit the streets of the world.

By 1999, BMW was in charge of the entire project and the next year they decided to sell off Rover but retain the MINI branding and project. Production would then move from Rover’s Longbridge plant to BMW’s Oxford one, before cars would start rolling off the assembly line in October 2001.

The New MINI Launches

Sales of the new version of the MINI started in July 2001 as a 2002 model year in the United Kingdom, with European markets following a couple of months later. Japan, the United States and other international markets would have to wait until the next year before they could be their hard earned (cash) down on one of these cars.

Even up to the launch of the new MINI Cooper, many had doubts that the vehicle could recapture what made the original so great. But BMW didn’t take the design task lightly and when the car finally got in the hands of buyers and journalists it became immediately apparent that they got the end result right.

The design of the MINI Cooper managed to modernise the retro look and features of the old car, while bringing modern updates, safety features and more. BMW’s savvy marketing and design team also offered a massive list of optional extras, which were inspired by those of the classic Mini. Buyers could opt for everything from Union Flag roof decals to a wide range of interior trim options, and much more. These optional extras helped MINI buyers to individualise their cars and it proved to be a massive hit.

BMW didn’t just get the styling and features right, they also managed to maintain the Minis fun and enjoyable driving experience despite the weight and size increase. They managed to do this by combining the MINI Cooper’s great new steering and chassis with a zippy new range of engines. The Cooper S, with its 160 bhp (119 kW) 1.6-litre supercharged version of the Tritec engine was particularly well received.

The MINI was also offered with a naturally aspirated version of the 1.6-litre engine and some European markets received a 1.4-litre version under the “MINI One” badge.

John Cooper Works Kit (2002 onwards)

Credit: MINI/BMW

Prior to the launch of the MINI in 2001, Mike Cooper, the son of the legendary John Cooper, already had plans for a higher-powered version of the car. His company would eventually come up with a tuning kit that added features such as a modified cylinder head with higher compression, special air filter, new rear silencer, and altered engine electronics.

All these changes helped boost power to 198 bhp (147 kW) at 6,950 rpm and 240 Nm (177 lb-ft) at 4,000 rpm. The hefty power bump dropped the 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) time to 6.7 seconds and increased the top speed to 226 km/h (140 mph).

Along with engine performance improvements, the John Cooper Works Kit also introduced a number of other visual and handling changes as well. New, more supportive sports seats and lightweight 18-inch wheels wrapped in 205/40 R18 tyres were the most notable of these changes. Despite being unique to the John Cooper Works Kit, the new seats were available in almost all the regular colour and upholstery designs of the standard Cooper and Cooper S.

BMW Expands the MINI Range

Credit: MINI/BMW

In early 2003 BMW was ready to expand the MINI range. They introduced a diesel version of the car known as the Mini One D and then the next year they released the soft-top convertible R52. Like the hardtop version of the car, the convertible version was available in three different options: the range topping MINI Cooper S Convertible (170 bhp/125 kW), the very popular Mini Cooper Convertible (115 bhp/85 kW), and the base model MINI One Convertible (90 bhp/66 kW).

John Cooper Works GP Kit Launches

Credit: MINI/BMW

2006 saw the introduction of hottest MINI yet in the form of the John Cooper Works GP. With a 215 bhp (160 kW) version of the supercharged Tritec engine, the Works GP was a serious performer with a 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) time of around 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 240 km/h (149 mph). The power increase was achieved with the addition of a less restrictive intercooler, high-volume injector nozzles, a less restrictive exhaust system and a recalibrated ECU.

Changes didn’t stop with the engine however, the steel rear-suspension trailing arms were swapped out for bespoke cast-aluminium ones and lightweight alloy wheels were also fitted. The rear seats, rear sound proofing and rear wiper were also removed in the name of weight saving, and even the air-conditioning was tossed, although buyers could opt to include it at no-extra cost. All the changes led to a weight saving of around 40 kg (88 lbs) over the standard Cooper S, but this was obviously slightly less for cars that retained the air-conditioning system and radio.

To compliment the extra power, the John Cooper Works GP Kit was kitted out with sports suspension. The springs were made to be firmer, the dampers were stronger and combined with the lighter body, the car proved to be extremely agile and was massively praised by the motoring press for its handling. Changes to the brakes were also made, with new larger 294 mm (11.9”) vented discs at the front to help stop the powerful MINI.

With a deeper front chin, a special roof spoiler, extra-low side-sills and an underfloor cover, John Cooper Works GP MINIs were not only more noticeable, but they also boasted better aerodynamics than the standard Cooper S. The more striking visuals were enhanced by special metallic paintwork that was only available on the Work GP kit.

A total of 2000 cars were produced during the model year, nearly a quarter of those going to the United Kingdom (459 sold) and nearly the same going to the United States (415 sold).

MINI Convertible (R52) Carries on and the End of the First Gen Model

Credit: MINI/BMW

While the hard-top first generation MINI Cooper would end production in 2006, the convertible would not see an end to production until the middle of 2008. The final car – a MINI Cooper S Convertible Sidewalk finished in metallic White Silver was sold to a fan in the United States.

First Generation MINI Specifications

ModelCooper (R50 and R52)Cooper S (R53)John Cooper Works GP
Country/LocationUnited KingdomUnited KingdomUnited Kingdom
Year of production2001 to 2006 – hardtop 2004 to 2008 – convertible2001 to 2006 – hardtop 2004 to 2008 – convertible2006
LayoutTransverse front-engine, Front-wheel driveTransverse front-engine, Front-wheel driveTransverse front-engine, Front-wheel drive
Engine/Engines1.6-litre 4-cylinder1.6-litre 4-cylinder supercharged1.6-litre 4-cylinder supercharged
Power116 PS (114 bhp/85 kW) @ 6,000 rpm – 2001 120 PS (118 bhp/88 kW) @ 6,000 rpm – Later update162 PS (160 bhp/119 kW) @ 6,000 rpm – 2001 170 PS (168 bhp/125 kW) @ 6,000 rpm – Later update218 PS (215 bhp/160 kW) @ 7,100 rpm
Torque149 Nm (110 lb-ft) @ 4,500 rpm – 2001 160 Nm (118 lb-ft) @ 4,250 rpm – later update  210 Nm (155 lb-ft) @ 4,000 rpm – 2001 220 Nm (162 lb-ft) @ 4,000 rpm – later update    250 Nm (184 lb-ft) @ 4,600 rpm
GearboxRover R65 5-speed manual – until 2004 Getrag 52BG 5-speed – 2005 to 2006 CVT 6-speed Getrag G285 manual (gear ratios changed from July 2004 onwards) 6-speed Aisin 6F21WA/TF60SN automatic 6-speed Getrag G285 manual  
Brakes Front276 x 23 mm (10.9 x 0.9 inch) discs276 x 23 mm (10.9 x 0.9 inch) discs294 mm (11.6 inch) discs
Brakes Rear259 x 10 mm (10.2 x 0.4 inch) discs259 x 10 mm (10.2 x 0.4 inch) discs259 x 10 mm (10.2 x 0.4 inch) discs
Wheels Front (standard)5½J x 156½J x 167J x 18
Wheels Back (standard)5½J x 156½J x 167J x 18
Tyres Front (standard)175/65 R 15195/55 R 16205/40 R 18
Tyres Rear (standard)175/65 R 15195/55 R 16205/40 R 18
Suspension FrontMacPherson StrutMacPherson StrutMacPherson Strut
Suspension RearMulti-linkMulti-linkMulti-link
Weight (Kerb)1,050 – 1,075 kg (2,315 – 2,370 lbs) – hardtop 1,175 kg (2,590 lbs) – convertible  1,140 kg (2,513 lbs) – hardtop 1,240 kg (2,734 lbs) – convertible    1,100 kg (2,425 lbs)
Top speed201 – 203 km/h (125 – 126 mph) – hardtop 193 km/h (120 mph) – convertible203 – 222 km/h (126 – 138 mph) – hardtop 215 km/h (134 mph) – convertible240 km/h (149 mph)
0 – 100 km/h (62 mph)9.1 – 9.3 seconds – hardtop 9.8 seconds – convertible  7.2 – 7.6 seconds – hardtop 7.4 seconds – convertible    6.5 – seconds  

MINI Cooper and Cooper S (R50, R52 and R53) Buyer’s Guide

Credit: MINI/BMW

Unfortunately, while the first generation MINI won many fans at launch for its great styling, fantastic driving characterises and plethora of options, the car today has a bit of a reputation for reliability issues. Many of these problems are down to how individual first generation MINIs have been maintained and treated. However, even with good maintenance the R50 to R53 MINI isn’t going to be as reliable or as cheap to run as a Toyota or Honda.

In this section we will cover all the things you need to watch out for when looking to buy a first gen MINI Cooper (we will also look at the MINI One as well, but more of a focus on the Cooper and Cooper S). We will also go into some information on where to find one for sale, how to set up an inspection and much more.

Setting Up an Inspection of a First Gen MINI

Here are a few things to keep in mind when arranging an inspection of an R50 to R53 MINI Cooper:

Inspect the MINI Cooper or Cooper S in person if possible – While the rise of websites such as bringatrailer.com and carsandbids.com have led to more sight unseen purchases (especially more desirable classics), we still believe it is best to physically inspect a used car prior to purchase if possible. A proper physical inspection may reveal some hidden problems that could be expensive to fix. If the car is being sold on a normal website/service that does not vet their listings, it is even more important to do a physical inspection. If you can’t look at the MINI yourself, it can be a good idea to enlist the help of a reliable friend or third party who can.

Take a second person with you to the inspection – A second or even third person can be extremely helpful when inspecting a used car. They may be able to spot something you missed, and they can also help you test the vehicle. Additionally, your helpers can also give you their thoughts on the first generation MINI and whether or not they think it is a good buy.

Inspect the MINI at the seller’s house or place of business – This isn’t always possible depending on the seller’s situation, but it is always something we recommend that you try to do. By looking at the MINI at the seller’s house or place of business you can get a bit of an idea of how and where the car is regularly stored. For example, is it always garaged or is it kept out on the streets in the elements? If the MINI Cooper or Cooper S you are looking at has been parked on the streets its entire life it is more likely to have rust issues, paint fade, etc. Additionally, when you go to the seller’s house you can also check what sort of roads the car is regularly driven on. If they are really rough and full of potholes, the suspension, wheels and tyres may have taken a beating.

Look at the MINI Cooper in the morning if possible – It is generally best to inspect a car as early as possible in the morning (obviously not when its dark however). This is because it will give the seller less time to clean up any potential issues such as a big oil leak or pre-warm the vehicle.

Tell the seller to not drive or warm up the MINI before your arrival – This may not be possible, but it is worth asking as a warm engine can hide a multitude of sins which could be expensive to fix.

If the R50 to R53 MINI is being sold at a dealer, don’t let them know you are coming to see it – While this is not always possible depending on how the dealer operates, it can be a good idea. If the dealer knows you are coming it gives them a chance to clean up any potential issues and pre-warm the engine.

Try not to inspect a used MINI Cooper in the rain – Water can cover up a number of different issues with the bodywork and paint. If it does happen to be raining when you inspect/test drive the MINI Cooper, try to go back for a second viewing before making a decision on the car.

Be cautious if the seller has just washed the car – This is largely for the same reason as above, but some sellers will also wash the engine bay and underside of a vehicle to hide an issue (or anywhere a leak/issue may occur).

Get the seller to move their first gen MINI Cooper outside if it is in a garage or showroom – Lighting in places such as garages and showrooms can cover up issues that direct sunlight may have revealed.

Purchasing a Used R50, R52 or R53 MINI with Problems

A good number of first generation MINIs have more than a few issues. While much of the information in this guide revolves around avoiding these sorts of cars and instead getting yourself the cleanest example possible, we have to admit that there isn’t necessarily a problem buying a used MINI with issues. However, there are a few things to consider. Make sure you find out exactly what is wrong with the car prior to purchase and try to find a quite for parts and labour as well.

Use this guide work out what common issues to look out for, and if you do find any problems, use them to get a discount. Be mindful of the fact that the problems you find could be more extensive and expensive to repair than first envisioned, so it can be a good idea to add a bit more to any quote you receive.

Where to Find a MINI Cooper or Cooper S for Sale?

More general auction/classifieds websites and dealers are probably going to be your best bet here. They will have they greatest selection of MINIs for sale in a wide variety of specifications, condition levels, etc. You do sometimes see first gen MINIs pop up on more specialist auction sites like Bring a Trailer (BAT), especially if they are the highly desirable and collectable John Cooper Works GP version of the car.

Along with the above we also recommend that you check to see if there are any MINI owners’ clubs in your local area (The classic Mini and the new one were popular cars, so we suspect there will be clubs). A good number of these clubs are now on social media platforms such as Facebook. We also recommend that you do a Google search as well. Here are a few examples of some clubs.

MINI Owners Clubs USA – This is a page on the MINI USA website that contains most of the MINI clubs in America. Definitely worth checking out if you are in the states.

British MINI ClubUnited Kingdom based club that was established in 1992 but accepts membership from all across the world.

MINI2Forum that covers all versions of the MINI

We recommend that you check out MINI clubs because the people in them tend to be very knowledgably about their cars and usually look after them better. Alternatively, if nobody has a MINI for sale, they may be able to point you in the direction of somebody who does.

How Much Does a First Gen MINI Cost to Buy?

This will largely depend on a number of different factors from a particular MINI’s history to its current condition, specifications, where it is being sold, how it is being sold and much more. For example, a low mileage John Cooper Works GP is going to be worth a lot more than a poor condition Cooper or MINI One that has seen a lot of action.

At the time of writing, prices for first generation MINIs can vary quite a lot. For example, in the UK you can get a Cooper that has been used and abused for around £1,000, but most okayish cars will be closer to three times that. If you are looking for a really good example with low mileage they can be closer to £10,000, with John Cooper Works GP models exceeding that. The story is the same in the states, with base MINI Ones and Coopers going for very low prices, but rarer versions of the car in good condition fetching quite handsome figures (This John Cooper Works GP sold for $28,000)

With all the factors that come into pricing and how much it changes over the years, we can’t give you an exact figure on what to pay for a first generation MINI. What we recommend that you do is to check your local auction/classifieds sites and dealers for R50 to R53 MINIs for sale. You can then use the prices from these cars to work out roughly what you need to spend to get yourself a MINI in a specific condition/trim level. Remember, it can also be a good idea to add around 5 to 10% of the purchase price to your budget for any unexpected expenses.

Will the R50/R52/R53 MINI be a Future Classic?

In our opinion, the John Cooper Works GP is already a bit of a modern classic, along with cars fitted with the standard version of the kit. We also feel that normal Cooper and Cooper S cars (more so the latter) have some good classic potential as well. This is because BMWs MINI was something a bit different when it launched. The styling was not only unique, but it also offered an excellent driving experience.

MINI VIN Decoded/Explained

Remember to check the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) if you go to see a used first gen MINI (or any used car for that matter). The VIN is a series of 17 characters and numbers that manufacturers such as BMW assign to a vehicle at production. It can be used to find out information about a particular car, such as where it was manufactured, the model, year of manufacturer and more.

The VIN can also be entered into a VIN checkup/decoder website that may contain information such as whether or not the MINI you are inspecting has any money owing on it or if it has been written off at any point. Most of these VIN checkup websites/services are region limited, so keep that in mind.

The VIN on a first generation MINI should look something like this – WMWRE93526YXXXXXX

Digit 1: Country of manufacture

  • W = Germany (even though the car was manufactured at BMW’s Oxford plant in the UK – VIN country code S)

Digit 2: Manufacturer

  • M = BMW/MINI

Digit 3: Vehicle Type or Company Devision

  • All R50 to R53 MINIs should have a ‘W’ here

Digit 4 (4 to 8 indicate body style, engine type, model, etc.)

  • All MINIs of this generation should an ‘R’ here

Digit 5: Model Type/Version

  • A = MINI One
  • B = Mini One Diesel
  • C = Mini Cooper
  • D = Mini One Convertible
  • E = Mini Cooper S
  • F = Mini Cooper Convertible
  • H = Mini Cooper S Convertible

Digit 6: Fuel/Engine

  • 1 = Diesel
  • 3 = Petrol/gasoline
  • 9 = John Cooper Works GP from factory

Digit 7: Driver Position

  • 1 = Left-hand drive
  • 2 = Right-hand drive
  • 3 = Left hand drive (only for some American bound models)

Digit 8: Restraint System (Air Bags, etc.)

  • Should be a 4 for all MINIs produced before 2005
  • Models produced from 2005 onwards should have a 5 as the restraint system was updated in this year (some may still have a 4, but now 100% sure on this)

Digit 9: check digit

  • Should be a 0 through to 9 or an X indicates 10

Digit 10: Year of Manufacture

  • 2 = 2002 for example

Digit 11: Manufacturing Plant

  • T = Oxford
  • John Cooper Works GP cars should have a ‘Y’ here.

Digits 12-17: Sequence number of production/serial number

VIN Breakdown Examples

WMWRE93526YXXXXXX – This is a 2006 John Cooper Works GP in Left-hand drive that was sold new in the United States (3 for Digit 7).

WMWRE33413TXXXXXX – This is a 2003 Cooper S in left-hand drive

Where Can I Find the VIN on a First Gen MINI?

You should be able to find the VIN in the following locations on an R50 to R53 MINI:

  • In the engine bay on the right-hand side suspension tower/support
  • Driver’s door Jam on a label/plate

Engine

Credit: MINI/BMW

In this section we are going to go into common engine issues you may come across when looking at a first gen MINI and some more general motor problems to look out for as well.

The engines in Cooper and Cooper S are pretty much identical apart from the supercharger. The other main difference is that the water pump is driven off the supercharger on the Cooper S, which has caused some issues on some MINIs, but it doesn’t seem to be a massive problem (we will discuss this in more detail later in this section).

With both engines being almost identical, there really isn’t much between them when it comes to one being more reliable than the other. However, the Cooper was fitted with worse transmission options, with the CVT being a ticking time bomb (more on that later).

Beginning Your Engine Inspection

Move to the front of the MINI and lift the bonnet/hood. While you are doing this, make sure that the bonnet hinges and catch are in good condition. If they look like they have been replaced the car may have had some front-end repairs or some sort of other issue. Additionally, make sure the struts hold up the bonnet and have not failed. Once you have done that, do a general check for the following:

  • Cleanliness – Is the engine bay super clean or really dirty? If it looks like a dog’s breakfast it is probably a sign that the owner hasn’t cared much for their MINI. However, don’t be fooled by a spotless looking engine bay as that could be a sign of a person trying to cover something up like a big oil leak.
  • Obvious Issues – Later in your inspection go into more thorough checks for problems, but when you first lift the bonnet, watch out for any standout issues that are immediately noticeable (oil leaks, broken or missing components, etc.)
  • Modifications – We are mainly talking about third-party mods here and not the John Cooper Works kit. While modifications can be okay, they can also cause a whole load of trouble if they are not installed correctly or suitable for the particular car. If you do notice any modifications, note them down and try to find out as much as possible about them.

Check the Fluids

Once you have given the engine bay a good general check over, move onto inspecting the fluids. The condition of the engine oil, coolant and other fluids can tell you quite a bit about the health of a particular MINI’s engine and how it has been maintained. Additionally, make sure the engine oil is at the correct level and check to see if the dipstick is damaged or broken (a common issue on first gen MINIs that is fixed by opting for an aftermarket metal one).

If the engine oil and other fluids have not been changed regularly and/or the wrong fluids have been used it can lead to premature wear and possibly even component/engine failure.

Inspect the engine oil closely, watching out for any metallic particles or grit which could be a sign of major engine problems such as bearing failure. The metallic particles could also be caused by a recent engine rebuild or a relatively harmless issue, but it is always best to ere on the side of caution.

While it is not completely necessary, it may be worth getting the oil analysed prior to purchase to find out whether or not there are any unwanted particles in it. Additionally, by doing this you can also find out whether the car needs more frequent oil changes or if it can go a bit longer between services.

Don’t forget to look for any foam, froth or milky looking oil. These sorts of problems could indicate that the first gen MINI is suffering from a number of different issues from condensation in the oil, to an engine that has been overfilled with oil or possibly even a blown head gasket.

When Does the Oil and Oil Filter Need Replacing on a First Gen MINI?

BMW never really stated a recommended service interval for the oil and oil filter on these cars. It is supposed to be what the onboard computer (OBC) calculates based on fuel usage. However, relying on the OBC can lead to some pretty long durations between changes, with some owners finding that it has let them go well over 48,000 km (30,000 miles) before recommending a service.

With that being the case, many MINI owners recommend replacing the oil and filter at least every 16,000 km (10,000 miles) with many doing it earlier at something like 12,000 km (7,500 mile mark). If the car doesn’t get much use, it is typically recommended that you carry out servicing every 12 months.

Check with the owner and in the service history to see when the MINI was last serviced and how often it was serviced. If servicing has been very infrequent it is a sign that the car has been owned by somebody who doesn’t care much for it.

What are the Common Oil Leaks on R50/R53 MINIs?

Unfortunately, leaks do seem to be quite a common issue on the Tritec engine inside the R50 Cooper and R53 Cooper S. Some years are more prone to leakage issues than others, but do watch out for the following issues on any first generation MINI you go to look at:

Crank sensor O-ring – This is the leak that most owners experienced first, and it is still probably the most common leak to occur on first generation MINIs. The crank sensor has an O-ring on it that likes to fail around the 48,000 km (30,000 mile) mark and allow oil to leak past it (leak can occur earlier or later as well). If the O-ring has failed, oil can leak down the front of the block and motor before collecting in the pan before being blown off when driving.

This leak seemingly never leads to drips and oil stains on the ground, but you may find oil deposits on the front face of the block and around the pan. Sourcing and replacing the part is relatively inexpensive, however, it does require the removal of the front bumper cover.

Front crank seal/gasket – This is an issue that has affected all model years and versions of the first generation MINI (One, Cooper and Cooper S). The seal can eventually dry up and allow oil to leak out as it is right at the oil pump behind the crank damper. If this seal has gone on the MINI you are looking at, you will probably notice that the front cover and the oil pan gasket is covered in oil. This can make you think that the pan gasket has failed when in fact it has not.

Replacing the crank seal is not too much of a major problem and should take an experienced mechanic an hour or two. The crank seal can fail surprisingly early, with a small number of owners finding that their new cars started to leak as early as 20,000 km (12,000 miles). However, most leaks seem to occur at the 160,000 km (100,000 mile) mark or later.

Oil pan gasket – As mentioned before, this leak can often be confused with a crank seal leak and sometimes a crank sensor leak (although that shouldn’t lead to oil drips and pools of oil on the ground), so check for oil deposits around the pan. Dealers will often charge quite handsomely for this job as they claim that the engine has to be lifted. A third-party mechanic or specialist should be able to fix this leak without lifting the engine and will often be half the price of a dealer. However, replacement cost can still be quite expensive as the job requires the removal of the belts, A/C compressor and other major components.  

If you notice a leak around the pan, most owners recommend replacing the crank sensor O-ring and crank seal before the oil pan gasket as they are cheaper to do. If that doesn’t stop the oil, the pan gasket should be the next step. Leaks from the oil pan gasket can also be quite slow, so some owners just leave it and top up the oil as required.

Rear main seal – Leaking oil from the seam between the bell housing and the engine could be a sign of a rear main seal leak. This sort of leak is a major problem as it requires the removal of the gearbox to get to the seal (think big labour costs). As the gearbox needs to come out it is generally recommended that you replace the clutch at the same time if you need to replace the rear main seal.

This leak can sometimes be confused with the oil pan gasket and crank seal leaks mentioned above, so be very cautious if you notice any leaking oil and try to find out the exact source of the leak before purchase.

Valve/timing cover – This is a common issue on many cars and isn’t a major problem to fix (but still worth bargaining on). You are most likely to notice this problem at the rear of the valve cover.

Oil filter housing gasket – A leak from the block to the oil filter housing (between the axle and exhaust manifold) is usually caused by the oil filter housing gasket. Viewing and fixing this leak without lifting the car will be pretty much impossible, so keep that in mind. Mod MINI has a great video on fixing this leak, which you can view below.

Make sure you check for oil leaks both before and after a test drive. Inspect the ground for any leaks or signs of past leaks. When you return from a test drive, park in a different spot and recheck for any signs of a leak or puddles of oil on the ground. If you are unsure of where the leak is coming from you are probably better off moving onto another R50/R52/R53 MINI (although keep in mind that a lot of these cars suffer from some sort of leak).

Ask the Seller About Their MINI’s Oil Consumption

While you probably won’t get a completely honest answer here, we still recommend that you ask the seller. MINI states that around 1 quart (950 ml) per 1,600 km (1,000 miles) is completely fine. Unfortunately, with the mileage that many of these cars are now at, a good number of them chew through their oil, with some owners even finding that they need about a quart per 400 km (250 miles).

If you get an inkling that the MINI consumes a lot of oil it could be down to a range of different issues from a leak somewhere to a completely different problem.

Rumbling Sounds

Watch out for a rumbling sound that seems like it is coming from the bottom of the engine as this could be a sign that the main bearing has gone bad. This can happen if the engine is run low on oil and is majorly expensive to fix.

Checking for PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation Issues)

Keep an eye out for the following symptoms as it could be a sign of a bad PCV valve:

  • Rough/lumpy idle (this could also be spark plug issues, etc.)
  • Hesitation during acceleration
  • Excessive oil consumption and worse fuel/gas mileage (probably not going to be able to tell during a short test drive)
  • Leaks from the PCV hose assembly

Below we have listed some steps you can take to check the PCV system:

  • Try remove the oil cap with the engine running – the oil cap should be easy to remove
  • Check how the engine is running – with the oil cap off the engine should start stumbling due to there being a vacuum leak. If the engine starts surging immediately it could have a PCV issue.
  • Put a rubber glove, plastic/cling wrap or a post-it-note over the valve cover – If the glove inflates or other item you are using gets blown off forcibly or sucked in, the car probably has a PCV issue. A normal functioning system should provide some light suction against the valve cover.

The PCV valve is located at the top left of the engine, just next to the MINI logo. Replacing the PCV valve isn’t a major problem as it is cheap to source and easy to access (see the video below).

However, if you suspect that the R50, R52 or R53 MINI you are looking at has issues with the PCV valve, proceed with caution. While the part may be cheap and easy to replace it can lead to a build-up of excessive crankcase pressure.This can eventually lead to more serious problems such as failure of the engine seals (rear main seal, etc.). It can be a good idea to check when the valve was last replaced as if it was over 50,000 km (30,000 miles) ago, a precautionary replacement could be a good idea.

Does the First Gen MINI Have a Timing Chain or Belt?

Luckily, the Tritec engine inside the Cooper and Cooper S uses a timing chain and not a belt, so you don’t have to worry about replacing it at a specified interval.

However, while it is claimed that the timing chain will last the lifetime of the car/engine, it will probably have to be replaced at some point given the mileage (we are talking about hundreds of thousands of miles here). If the car you are looking at has had a replacement, it is probably more likely due to an engine rebuild or some other sort of work than an actual chain failure. This sort of major work often requires significant disassembly of the engine, so many owners go ahead and replace the chain for better peace of mind.

If the chain or more likely chain tensioner has failed/gone bad, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Rattling/clicking sound (especially if it is very loud) – The timing chain is located on the left side of the engine on both the naturally aspirated and supercharged engines in the first gen MINI, so pay particular attention to that area. This is probably going to be the main symptom to watch out for and is commonly referred to as the “Timing Chain Death Rattle”.
  • Tensioner assembly bouncing around – This often leads to the noises above.
  • Check Engine Light (CEL) – Can illuminate due to a vast array of different faults, including problems with the timing system.
  • Metal shavings in the oil – More likely due to other things but can also be a sign of timing chain wear.
  • Engine runs poorly/misfires – This can happen if the timing chain has stretched, but once again there are a number of other faults that are more likely to cause this issue.

We really wouldn’t be too worried about timing chain failure, but tensioner failure is a distinct possibility and MINI likes to charge handsomely for the job. Third party specialists or mechanics with MINI experience are usually a bit cheaper and if you are feeling a bit brave the tensioner and even chain can be replaced by yourself.

If there is a problem with the timing chain or tensioner it is important to get the problem fixed as soon as possible as it can lead to more serious damage if not sorted.

The first video below from Mod MINI explains and shows what a timing chain tensioner failure sounds like, and the second video explains how to replace the timing chain.

Noisy Rocker Arms

As mentioned above, a rattling/tapping noise is often the timing chain tensioner. However, this sort of noise could also indicate problems with the rocker arms/hydraulic tappets. Fixing the problem isn’t too much of an issue, but MINI dealers may charge you quite a lot for the job. Project Mini has a good video on this problem which we recommend that you check out:

Bad Battery and/or Alternator

If you notice that the MINI’s engine struggles to turn over or won’t do so at all it is probably a sign of a bad battery. Try to find out how old the battery is as if it is quite new it may be a sign of another problem such as failing alternator, earthing issues and more (new batteries can fail, but it isn’t that likely).

If the alternator has failed it can also lead to the illumination of the battery warning light and in some cases other warning lights as well (ABS, etc.). Another thing to watch out for are any strange growling, buzzing or whining noises that could indicate a problem with the alternator (could also be something like the water pump).

Cooling System

It is always important to make sure the cooling system is working as intended as a problem here could spell major trouble for the engine. Here are some things to check:

Coolant Level and Condition

The coolant tank is located at the rear of the engine bay. When the engine is cold, remove the lid slowly and check the coolant in the tank (Do not do this when the engine is warm and/or running!). Make sure it is in good condition and not muddy/brown in colour as many owners forget to change it.

While you are doing this, don’t forget to check the coolant level as well. The stock tank has a bunch of squiggly lines at the bottom and if the coolant is below these lines it needs to be topped up. If the coolant level is low, it is most likely due to a leak somewhere in the system.

Coolant Leaks

Coolant leaks are quite a common problem on first generation MINIs, especially those produced before 2004. The most common area to find leaks is around the coolant reservoir tank (once again, mainly on 2003 and earlier cars). The tank usually splits or cracks along the seam in the middle, so keep an eye out for any crusted coolant or white lines around this area. If you do notice any crusted coolant, the tank needs to be replaced as soon as possible.

This generation MINI (especially 2003 and earlier) can also suffer from coolant leaks from the top inlet of the radiator (front left-hand side of the engine bay when looking from the front). Replacing the O-ring inside the connection can sometimes fix the problem, but a lot of the time it is due to the plastic sides becoming unbounded to the metal middle. If this is the case the radiator will need to be replaced (many owners recommend trying to find an all-aluminium one as this problem will keep on happening with the OEM radiator).

Another common area for coolant to leak from is the thermostat, so check around the right side of the engine next to the oil filler cap. The problem is usually down to a failed O-ring/gasket, but it could also be due to a deformed thermostat housing as well. Replacing both components isn’t a major job, but it needs to be done as soon as possible (somebody with a bit of mechanical knowledge should be able to do it in two to three hours).

After you have come back from a test drive, switch the MINI off and let it sit for around 10 to 15 minutes. Following this, recheck for any coolant leaks. If you don’t notice any but smell a sweet aroma, the car probably is leaking coolant from somewhere (especially if you notice a drop/change in the coolant level).

Failing Water Pump

As we mentioned at the start of this section, the water pump on Cooper S models is driven off the supercharger, while the standard R50 Cooper’s engine uses the crank to drive it. There isn’t a problem with how the Cooper S drives its water pump, but at some point, the PTO gears in the supercharger may go, which will prevent the pump from turning (not something to be too worried about, but it is good to keep in mind if you run into a problem with the pump in the future).

Remember to check when the water pump was last replaced as if it was a long time ago you should budget for a new one. While some first gen MINI owners haven’t had a problem with failing water pumps others have experienced very frequent failures (some reported they were on their fourth within 120,000 km/75,000 miles).

If the water pump has gone bad, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Coolant leaks – could be a slow or fast leak
  • Whining and/or chuffing sounds
  • Overheating – It is a good idea to go for a reasonably long test drive as you may not notice the S3 Mk1 overheating during a short test drive.
  • Steam or smoke – Be on the lookout for any steam or smoke from the front of the car. If you notice this problem, it is best to walk away.
Testing the Water Pump

It is possible to test a used MINI’s water pump by switching on the heater as high as possible. The heater core requires proper function of the water pump for it to work correctly. If the pump isn’t working, fluid won’t be forced through the system.

When you switch on the heater you should feel a blast of hot air. This hot air should continue to come out of the vents if the first gen MINI’s water pump is working correctly. If the warm air stops/gradually reduces it is a sign that hot fluid is not being cycled through the system and the Cooper/Cooper S’s water pump is not functioning correctly.

Thermostat Failure

As we already mentioned above, leaks from the thermostat are quite a common issue on R50, R52 and R53 MINIs. Another sign of thermostat failure is an erratic temperature gauge. If it sits on the cooler side it is probably due to a bad thermostat, whereas if it is on the warmer end of the gauge the MINI may be overheating.

Look for Air Bubbles in the Coolant

It is a good idea to check for bubbles in the coolant (once again, do not open the coolant tank when the car is running or when it is hot). A few bubbles when the engine is warming up is quite normal, but there should be none once the Cooper or Cooper S is up to temperature. Bubbles indicate that air has entered the system at some point, which can lead to overheating.

Air can get into the cooling system through several different ways from something like a bad radiator cap to air pockets in the radiator and possibly even a blown head gasket, so be cautious if you notice this problem.

Head Gasket/Cooling System Failure

Head gasket failure is a possibility on these cars, so it is important to keep on eye out for the following issues:

  • Overheating
  • Bubbles in the radiator or coolant expansion tank
  • White and milky oil
  • Spark plugs that are fouled (if you or a mechanic can get a look at them)
  • Low cooling system integrity
  • Smell of coolant from the oil
  • Sweet smelling exhaust
  • White smoke from the exhaust pipe (especially if you see lots of it)
  • Steam from the front of the first generation MINI

Supercharged Cooper S models tend to suffer from cooling system problems and head gasket more frequently than naturally aspirated versions of the car. This is because the PTO gears in the supercharger introduce another point of failure and if they go the water pump stops turning.

Exhaust System

Credit: MINI/BMW

Have a good look at the exhaust system and make sure it is in good condition. The normal exhaust has two mufflers, so if the Cooper or Cooper S you are looking at only has one it is a sign that the car has been modified. This is a popular modification as it gives the car a better exhaust note.

Make sure the welds are in good condition and the pipes have not rusted. Rust problems on exhausts usually occur due to corrosive unburnt fuel or exhaust gases mixed with water vapour in the system. This is why cars that are driven on shorter trips tend to suffer from rusted exhausts more than those that do a lot of highway miles. The moisture and corrosive substances remain in the muffler as they are not burnt off during a short trip, leading to rust formation from the inside out.

A good quality aftermarket stainless steel exhaust shouldn’t really rust, but we would still look for the problem. 

Check to see if the tailpipes hang straight, especially if the exhaust has been modified to have only one muffler. If the car only has one muffler, the tailpipes will only be held on by one hanger. Check that the rest of the exhaust is secured firmly as well.

If you hear any low rumbling, scraping or rattling noises it could be a sign of exhaust issues. Ticking noises are often a sign of a leak, especially if they change with an increase or decrease in rpms.

Catalytic Converter (CAT) Issues

Replacing the catalytic converter can be quite expensive depending on who you take it to. If the MINI has been on lots of track days or experienced regular spirited driving it can lead to premature catalytic converter failure, so keep that in mind. Here are some signs of CAT failure:

  • Smell of sulphur or rotten eggs from the exhaust
  • Reduced acceleration and sluggish engine performance
  • Excessive heat under the Cooper or Cooper S
  • Dark smoke from the car’s exhaust
  • CEL (Check Engine Light)
  • Emission test failure

Decat systems aren’t as popular on first generation MINIs as some other cars from the era as the CAT on these cars isn’t too restrictive. Still, plenty of them are running about with a decat exhaust. If the catalytic converter has been removed on the car you are looking at, be cautious as depending on where you live in the world the vehicle may not be road legal.

Be cautious if the MINI you are looking at has a sports CAT as many of them are known to fail much earlier than the original OEM one. If you want the benefits of a decat system without the worry of failing emissions tests, something like the 1320 Tomcat comes highly recommended by owners. The Tomcat is a stock OEM catalytic converter that can easily installed or removed via a number of bolts.

Aftermarket Exhaust Systems

There are a good number of brands/manufacturers that offer aftermarket exhaust systems for the first generation MINI (Stratmosphere, Milltek, etc.). If the Cooper or Cooper S you are looking at is running an aftermarket exhaust, try to find out the brand or manufacturer and check any reviews. A poorly reviewed or unsuitable exhaust system could cause a whole load of problems. Additionally, if the owner or a previous owner has cheaped out on upgrades/maintenance on the exhaust you should be asking yourself what other components are substandard.

Supercharger (Cooper S)

As mentioned earlier, the supercharger on the Cooper S can fail. What usually happens is the supercharger develops a leak and dries out. The gears inside then fail and the supercharger is toast. This then causes the water pump to stop turning and the engine overheats.

The first signs of a failing supercharger is low oil level. As low oil can be caused by a whole range of different issues, many owners do not suspect the supercharger is the cause. If the supercharger is not fixed and starts to dry out it can lead to a nasty rattling or clacking noise that makes the car sound much like a very loud diesel (noise should come from the left side of the intercooler). Stop driving the MINI if you notice this sort of noise. Once the supercharger completely fails you will start to notice the car overheating.

There are a couple of options if the supercharger has failed. The most expensive way to fix the problem is to buy a factory one from MINI (will probably run you into four figures). If you are a bit shorter on funds you can get a third party to rebuild the supercharger or buy an already rebuilt one. The third party rebuild option tends to run anywhere from about 50 – 75% cheaper than a factory rebuilt one.

If you suspect the Cooper S you are looking at has supercharger issues we would probably walk away. This is not only due to the cost of replacing the supercharger, but also because you don’t know if the car has overheated to the point where damage occurred.

Supercharger Service

Every 160,000 km (100,000 miles) the supercharger needs to be serviced (along with a whole load of other things). This involves draining and refilling the oil reservoirs with fresh fluid, which requires the removal of the supercharger from the engine. MINI/BMW dealers will charge a lot for this job and the 100k service, but it is possible to do yourself (see the video below). If the MINI you are looking at is coming up for its supercharger/100k service we would try to get a big discount on the vehicle.

Pulley Upgrade

Pulley upgrades are quite a popular modification on first generation Cooper S models to get a bit more power (usually around 12 to 20 horsepower) and performance out of the car. The modification doesn’t usually impact reliability and most owners feel that it is worth the price, so we see it as a bit of a benefit if the car already has this mod.

A 17% pulley upgrade tends to be the best balance between power and supercharger longevity, with 15 and 19% pulleys being a popular choice as well. However, be mindful that 19% pulley upgrades will increase heat significantly for a minimal increase in power (essentially more wear for little more gain), so they are often recommended for lower rpm driving where the extra bottom-end torque will be beneficial.

What Should the Idle Speed Be on an R50 to R53 MINI

Both the supercharged and naturally aspirated engines inside the different versions of the MINI should idle around the 750 – 850 rpm mark. Don’t worry if the idle is around 1,100 to 1,200 rpm when the car is first started as this is perfectly normal. However, it should soon drop to 750 – 850 rpm once the car is warm. When you turn on the air-conditioning expect a slight increase in idle speed.

If you do notice any particular issues with the car’s idle (hunting, low engine speed, etc.), you are probably not going to be able to work out the exact cause of the issue during a short inspection. If the idle issue was a simple fix, the owner of the MINI Cooper/Cooper S probably would have got it sorted before putting the car on the market.

Bad Engine Mounts

The engine mounts will eventually fail, so watch out for the following:

  • Engine movement – Rev the engine and see if it moves excessively. Also check how the engine is at idle and check for any movement while looking from underneath the car.
  • Excessive vibrations/shaking – Often most noticeable at idle. In some cases, you may even notice the body of the car moving.
  • Clunking, banging or other impact sounds – These sorts of noises could indicate that the engine is moving slightly due to a failed mount

Replacing the engine mounts isn’t too expensive, but remember to use the problem to get a bit of a discount. Keep in mind that the engine vibrations could be caused by other issues as well.

Aftermarket options from the likes of Vibratechnic are available as well. While aftermarket mounts can bring some benefits like more responsive shifting, they can also make the ride a bit harsher and introduce more cabin vibrations. Vibratechnic mounts are often recommended for the upper mount on a first generation MINI, while power flex is good for the transmission.

Smoke from a First Generation MINI Cooper

Lots of smoke or steam from the tailpipes (or anywhere else for that matter) is never a good sign and is probably your cue to walk away. Don’t be concerned about a small amount of vapour when the engine is first switched on as this is perfectly normal. This is just condensation in the exhaust and will be more noticeable during colder weather.

It can be a good idea to get the seller to start the MINI for you for the first time. This way you can see what comes out the back as the engine starts up. Additionally, if the seller revs the Cooper/Cooper S hard when it is still cold you know they are probably not a good owner. Below we have outlined what the different colours of smoke can indicate:

White smoke

As we have already mentioned above, a small amount of white vapour on engine start is usually just condensation in the exhaust.

If you notice lots of white/greyish smoke it is usually a sign that water/coolant has made its way into the cylinders due to a blown or leaking head gasket. Give the exhaust a good whiff and if it smells sweet, it is probably coolant. If the smoke is very thick and doesn’t dissipate quickly it could be sign that the block or cylinder head is cracked/broken.

Blue/Grey smoke

This colour smoke could be caused by a whole range of things including warn pistons rings, valve seals, and more. To test for this colour smoke during a drive, get somebody to follow you while you are driving the MINI. Take the engine through its rev range and see what comes out the back. If you don’t have a helper, get the owner to drive for a bit while you look out the back (good chance to see how they drive as well).

Black smoke

This sort of smoke is usually a sign that the engine is running too rich and burning too much fuel. There are quite a few things that could be causing this issue from something like dirty intake components to incorrect spark timing, problems with the injectors, and more. If the exhaust smells of fuel, the engine is almost certainly running too rich.

If the MINI Cooper is modified it is not uncommon to see a few puffs of black smoke from the exhaust during acceleration. This is usually because they are running ricker and/or the new ECU mapping isn’t quite right.

Buying a First Gen MINI With a Rebuilt or Replaced Engine

A good number of these cars are now running about with rebuilt or replaced engines. We don’t have a problem with a rebuilt or replaced engine as long as the work was done by somebody who knows what there were doing. A rebuild is probably preferable for us as there is a greater chance of knowing the history of the engine. A replacement engine could have been pulled from any old MINI and you probably won’t be able to find out its history.

Be very cautious of home rebuilds as many home mechanics have more ambition than skill, however, there are some very good ones out there. If the work was done by a business/specialist, find out exactly who did the work and check any reviews (give them a call as well if you are really serious about the car as they may be able to tell you a bit more about it).

Radical engine swaps can be okay, but they are more likely to be an absolute nightmare and you don’t want to buy somebody else’s unfinished project.

We tend to recommend that you avoid fresh rebuilds or engine swaps with only a couple of hundred miles on the. This is because a Cooper or Cooper S that has travelled 10,000 km (6,200 miles) on a rebuild is more of a known than one that has only travelled a short distance since the work was carried out.

Compression/Leakdown Test

If possible, we suggest that you get a compression test done prior to purchase. A compression test can help you determine whether or not there is problem with the engine, however, it won’t necessarily tell you exactly what the problem is. If the owner doesn’t want a compression test to go ahead it could be a sign that they are trying to hide something from you.

Some owners will get a compression test done before sale and put the results in the advertisement. The most important thing with the results is to make sure that they are all roughly the same (within around 10% of each other).

Transmission

Credit: MINI/BMW

Both Cooper and Cooper S models were offered with a few different transmission options. The standard Cooper (R50) came with either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a CVT, while the Cooper S (R53) received either a 6-speed Getrag manual or a 6-speed Aisin automatic transmission. Let’s start this section by looking at the MINI’s manual options first.

Manual Gearbox

R50 MINI Coopers produced until around June/July 2004 were fitted with the Rover R65 5-speed manual transmission, while facelifted models produced after this date (2005 model year onwards including the convertible R52) were given a Getrag GS5-52BG 5-speed gearbox. The R53 Cooper S was fitted with a Getrag G285 5-speed manual transmission for the entirety of its production.

Issues With the Rover R65 (Also known as the Midlands gearbox or GS5-65BH)

Unfortunately, the Rover R65 is one of the biggest weaknesses when it comes to the R50 Cooper and plays a part in why many owners recommend getting a facelifted car rather than a 2004 and earlier one. The facelift model’s Getrag GS5-52BG also has different gear ratios that provide better acceleration.

One of the most common failures on the R65 is bearing failure on both the input shaft input bearing and the secondary shaft pinion bearing. A failure of the input bearing will usually create a noise at idle in neutral as well as while driving. However, the noise should decrease when higher gears are selected.

If the pinion bearing goes bad it can lead to a noise that gets louder with an increase in vehicle speed. No noise should be present at idle if the pinion bearing has failed.

Replacing both the pinion bearing and the input bearing on the Rover R65 isn’t too bad as long as it is caught early. However, if the problem is not fixed and left to get worse it can lead to complete transmission failure and a very expensive repair bill.

Reliability of the Rover R65 transmission can be greatly improved with good maintenance. While BMW claims the R65’s transmission is a “lifetime fill”, many owners feel the opposite. Regular servicing is believed to help reduce failures on these gearboxes, so see if the fluid has been changed on the Cooper you are looking at. It is generally recommended that you replace the transmission fluid at no longer than 80,000 km (50,000 miles) with many owners doing it around the 48,000 km (30,000 mile) mark.

If the R50 MINI you are looking at has never received a gearbox fluid change and is getting up there in terms of mileage, it is generally recommended that you avoid flushing the fluid as this can dislodge debris that may cause damage. A fluid change should be okay, but some of the old fluid will still stay in the transmission.

Modifications and the Rover R65

Power mods and the Midlands gearbox don’t go well together. The stock power figures of the R50 MINI Cooper’s Tritec engine are just at the limit of the R65, so if the car you are looking at has more power be mindful that reliability could be impacted.

Additionally, the R65 doesn’t get on well with bigger wheels. Anything over around 17-inches can cause trouble, so check to see what wheel size the R50 is running.

Issues With the Getrag GS5-52BG (Facelifted Cooper)

While the Rover transmission is often regarded as the least reliable of the two gearboxes fitted to the R50 MINI Cooper, the Getrag used in the facelifted model also has its own issues.

Pinion wear on the main shaft is arguably the biggest issue here. The bolts that secure the diff carrier on to the crown wheel can come loose, which can lead to a knocking noise and eventually total transmission failure. Sometimes, this problem also leads to a droning or high pitched whining sound in first and second gear due to the design of the gearbox (this can be normal as well, so keep that in mind).

Like the R65 BMW stated that the transmission came with a lifetime fill, but many owners actually recommend servicing it every 48,000 km (30,000 miles) or so.

Other Transmission Issues to Watch Out For

On all three versions of the manual transmission (both 5-speed and the 6-speed) it is important to watch out for the following issues.

Grinding/notchiness on both upshifts and downshifts could be a sign of synchro wear, especially if the MINI has been owned by somebody who likes to give it a good thrashing. Modified MINIs running more power are more likely to suffer from this problem due to increased power levels and the fact that the owner is probably more likely to drive fast (hence the modifications).

Don’t be too concerned if the transmission feels stiff when the Cooper/Cooper S is first started. It should start to loosen up as the car warms but still remain relatively firm.

When shifting, make sure that the gearbox is not overly loose or sloppy. Remember to test the gearbox at both low and high engine speeds. If any one of the gears pops out during acceleration it could be a sign of some of a range of different issues. A simple fix may be all that is needed, but it could also be something much more serious and expensive.

It is a good idea to see how the clutch and transmission performs during a hill start. Additionally, lift off after accelerating hard in second, third and fourth. If you notice any strange rattling noises it could be a sign that the gearbox bearings are in a bad way.

Clutch

The clutch on both first gen Cooper and Cooper S models is going to be one of your biggest areas of concern. Replacing a clutch on one of these cars can be painfully expensive, especially if you take the car to a dealer. The big cost is not only down to the price of the parts but also the labour as much of the front needs to be removed and the gearbox needs to be pulled forward. Depending on who you take it to, you could be looking at quotes for anywhere from around 4 to up to 10 hours to do the job. If you do have to replace the clutch, make sure you get a few different quotes.

Clutches should last anywhere from around 100,000 to 160,000 km (62,000 to 100,000 miles), however, this does largely depend on how the first gen MINI has been treated and driven. A Cooper/Cooper S that has been repeatedly thrashed and is running more power is much more likely to experience early clutch failure than one that has been babied.

First gen MINIs have quite a stiff clutch and it tends to get stiffer with age. If it feels really stiff, it could be a sign that the clutch is close to the end of its life. Here are some other things you can do to check the condition of the clutch:

Clutch Engagement – The first step is to make sure the engagement is good. To do this put the MINI you are inspecting into gear on a level surface and let the clutch out slowly. It should engage around 7 to 10 cm (2.5 to 4 inches) from the floor. Engagement that is early or too late indicates a problem.

Clutch Slippage – The best way to test for this problem is to shift into a gear that is too high for the speed you are going. You should notice that the engine bogs down a bit (don’t do this on a regular basis). The next thing to do is to accelerate. If you notice that the tachometer goes up out of relation to the speedometer and/or you notice jerkiness it suggests that the clutch is slipping.

Clutch Drag – Get the MINI on a flat surface and press the clutch pedal to the floor (do this while you are stationary). Rev the car hard (once it is warm) and see If it moves. If the car does move, the clutch is not disengaging when you shift and parts will wear prematurely.

Clutch Shudder – This is usually noticeable when you accelerate from a stop. A small amount is perfectly normal, but an excessive amount is a sign that the release bearings need to be lubricated.

As replacing the clutch is quite expensive, we would definitely check with the owner and in the service history to see when it was last replaced. If it was quite a while ago we would definitely factor that into the price and try to get a discount on the vehicle.

Clutch Slave Cylinder Problems

A leaking clutch slave cylinder is a common problem on all versions of the first generation MINI. The slave cylinder is located just behind the skid plate, so watch out for hydraulic fluid around that area (although you probably won’t be able to see the leak unless you remove the skid plate).

Another sign of slave cylinder problems is an inconsistent feeling clutch pedal that may even go all the way to the floor without engaging properly. Replacing the slave cylinder isn’t too difficult and we suggest that you check out Mod MINI’s video below for more on the process:

CVT (R50 MINI Cooper and R50 MINI One Only)

The CVT gearbox that was fitted to R50 models is widely regarded to be the least reliable transmission of the bunch. What makes this worse is that they can be excruciatingly expensive to fix when they do go wrong, and the replacement cost will probably be more than the value of the car (BMW dealers quite thousands of dollars). As this is the case, many owners recommend that you avoid the CVT transmission and go for a manual Cooper or MINI One.

Problems with the CVT transmission were so bad that there was a class action lawsuit against BMW of North America which resulted in around 1,200 owners getting the transmission replaced in their R50s.

If you do plan on buying a CVT equipped first gen MINI, here are some things to watch out for/keep in mind.

Make sure that the transmission fluid and filter has been changed religiously at 48,000 km (30,000 miles) – The vast majority of CVT failures seem to be on R50 MINIs that have not received regular servicing. If there is no service record for the CVT transmission you should be extremely cautious and only purchase the car if the transmission seems to be working correctly and you can get it at an exceptional price (even then we wouldn’t be so keen).

Be extra cautious of 2002 to 2003 models with the CVT transmission – These two model years seem to be the most affected when it comes to CVT issues (and many other problems as well). If you are looking at one of these model years with a CVT transmission it may be worth checking to see if it has been replaced at any point. 2004+ model years are still impacted by CVT failure issues, but at a lesser rate.

Watch out if the CVT equipped MINI is sitting around the 130,000 km (80,000 mile) mark and above – CVT failures on these cars seem to occur around 130,000 to 160,000 km (80,000 to 100,000 miles), so be cautious if the MINI you are looking at is sitting around this mileage range (especially if maintenance has been lacklustre as we mentioned).

CVT Failure can happen at any point – Many R50 owners have reported that there were no warning signs when the CVT transmission failed on their cars. The transmission simply gave up the ghost and left them stranded.

Listen out for any strange noises – While the CVT transmission can fail at any point without warning, any strange whining, growling or grinding noises could also be a sign of trouble. These sorts of noises will often change with a change in road/engine speed.

Watch out for any jerkiness, stuttering, lurching, or stalling – If you notice any such problems, it could be a sign that the CVT transmission is on its way out. Some owners have found that a simple fluid change smooths things out, but we wouldn’t count on it.

The CVT transmission can sometimes be rebuilt – While some will have you believe that the CVT transmission is unfixable, this isn’t always the case. Yes, most of the time a complete replacement is needed and if you take the car to BMW they will always do a replacement, but some owners have had luck fixing the transmission for a much lower cost.

Automatic (R53 MINI Cooper S)

Unlike the R50 versions of the MINI, the Cooper S was fitted with a more conventional automatic gearbox. The 6-speed Aisin 6F21WA/TF60SN automatic gearbox is regarded as pretty reliable, but once again maintenance is key with many owners recommending fluid changes every 48,000 km (30,000 miles) or so, despite BMW claiming it is a lifetime fill. Changing the filter is also recommended, so see if that has been done.

Watch out for any slipping between shifts as this is often one of the first signs of failure on these transmissions. If you notice this problem, try to use the paddles to shift when the transmission is slipping. If they don’t work it is a sign that the transmission issue is probably quite serious.

Some other signs of trouble from the Aisin automatic transmission are any harsh shifts or serious clunking when shifting/changing gear positions. Remember to check all transmission positions for any issues and see how the engine performs at both low and high engine speeds.

A good number R53 owners who experience issues with this transmission find that the problems are more noticeable once the gearbox warms up, so make sure you go out for a good length test drive if possible.

Most owners who experience problems with the 6-speed auto seem to find that they develop around the 100,000 to 160,000 (60,000 to 100,000 mile) mark. However, faults and failures can occur at any mileage so keep that in mind.

Another thing to watch out for is malfunctioning shifter paddles. Some owners have no trouble with the normal automatic function of the transmission, but the shifter paddle won’t shift up/down regardless of engine speed.

One benefit of buying an automatic Cooper S is that that it is far less likely to have been thrashed to bits.

Suspension & Steering

Credit: MINI/BMW

The strut towers deforming/bulging is one of the biggest problems here. It isn’t usually too much of an issue if it is not severe, but if the mounts have torn and the deformation is bad, the strut tower will need to be replaced. If you have to replace one, it is usually recommended that you replace the other as well, so factor this into the price.

The best way to check if the strut towers have deformed is to look at the three bolts that stick up from them. They should be parallel, so if they are diverging the MINI has a problem.

Some owners recommend getting strut tower defenders/plates from the likes of Cravenspeed or VIP to reduce/prevent mushrooming. If the MINI you are looking at does have these defenders, it shows that the owner probably knows a thing or two about maintaining these cars.

The control arm bushings are another common problem area. You can check if they are worn by kicking/pulling the wheel from the front side. A slight bit of movement is to be expected, but if there is quite a bit it is a sign the bushings are worn.

Check the rubber on the strut tower bearing as this can crack with age, making the car less safe to drive.

If you can jack the car up pull vertically and horizontally on the wheel to check for any play. If you notice play when pushing and pulling vertically the wheel bearing is probably on its way out. Horizontal looseness indicates a bad ball joint or tie rod.

The stock suspension usually needs to be replaced around 110,000 to 130,000 km (70,000 to 80,000 miles), but it can go on longer or need to be replaced earlier.

Make sure you visually inspect as many of the suspension and steering components as possible.  Use a torch/flashlight and a mirror to get a good view of hard to see areas. If the components are different or much newer on one side than the other it could indicate that the vehicle has been in an accident.

Suspension Component Checklist

Here is a bit of a checklist when it comes to the steering and suspension components on an a first generation MINI. If you notice any of the following it is a sign of a problem:

  • Dipping and swerving when the brakes are applied
  • Excessive Rear-end squat during acceleration and rear end wobble over bumps
  • Tipping during cornering
  • High speed instability or floaty/nervous feeling through the steering wheel
  • Delayed or longer stopping distances
  • Uneven tyre wear
  • Excessive bounce after hitting a bump or when pushing down on the suspension (suspension should only rebound once when pushed down otherwise it may indicate that the shocks are worn)
  • Sagging or uneven suspension
  • Knocking, clunking or creaking sounds during a test drive – usually the bushings or wheel bearings. Sometimes these sorts of noises can also be a sign of bad shock absorbers as well.
  • Rattles – drive over some bumps – there should be no noise from the suspension components (however, you may hear some rattles from something in the cabin).
  • Clicking sounds (especially at full lock)

Power Steering Pump

Failing power steering pumps were and still are a very big issue on first generation MINIs. The problem was so bad that MINI extended the warranty on the pump and cooling fan for 2002 to 2005 cars to 13 years or 240,000 km (150,000 miles). However, these extended warranties are now all expired, so you are almost certainly going to be on your own if the pump does fail.

Intermittent operation is usually the first sign of a power steering pump failure. Some owners find that the power steering will work all the time during one drive and then not work for the next. If the pump has failed or it is showing signs of a problem, we would walk away as the cost to replace it will be a significant percentage of the purchase price of the car (especially if you are looking at lower priced Cooper and MINI One versions).

A leak from the power steering pump is also a fairly common issue. This tends to originate from the inlet house.

Check the Wheel Alignment

Remember to check the wheel alignment on every first gen MINI you test drive. Find a nice flat and straight section of road and see if the car pulls to the right or left. Poor wheel alignment can lead to problems such as excessive and/or uneven tyre wear, leading to more frequent tyre changes. Additionally, it can even make a Cooper’s driving experience less safe and enjoyable.

If the wheel alignment is really bad it is a sign of an owner who probably doesn’t care much for their first gen MINI as they probably should have got it sorted before putting the car on the market.

Most of the time a simple realignment is all that is needed, however, in some cases bad wheel alignment can be a sign of serious suspension/steering issues or even accident damage.

Wheels

Inspect the wheels thoroughly for any curb damage. With the age of these cars we would expect to find a bit, but a load of damage indicates that the car has been owned by somebody a bit careless. If the MINI has only done low mileage and has been garaged its whole life we wouldn’t expect to find much/if any damage on the rims. Wheel damage can generally be repaired, but if its really bad a new rim may be required.

Along with curb damage, make sure you watch out for any dents, cracking or buckling on the wheels as these problems often require a new wheel. This is more likely to be a problem if the MINI is running larger aftermarket rims.

If the Cooper or Cooper S you are looking at is running aftermarket wheels, check to see if the owner still has the originals as they will only add value to the car. This is especially so for the John Cooper Works GP model that came with special wheels.

17 and 18-inch rims are workable on the first generation MINI, however, they do come with some downsides. Both rim sizes can lead to a stiffer, more uncomfortable ride and they weigh a bit more (this is especially so for 18-inch wheels).  

Tyres

There are now a whole host of different tyres you can choose from that can improve the feel and handling of a first generation Cooper/Cooper S. If the car is running different sized tyres to the originals, try to find out what size they are and check to see if they are suitable online. Apart from that check the tyres for the following:

  • Amount of tread – If there is minimal tread left try to get a discount as you will need to get the tyres replaced in the near future.
  • Uneven wear – Wear should be even between the right and left tyres on the MINI. Additionally, make sure wear is even across the tyre itself.
  • Brand – They should be from a good or well-reviewed brand – if they are from a poorly reviewed brand it suggests that the owner has cheaped out on maintenance.
  • Same tyre – In terms of tyre make, type and tread pattern on each axle (preferably on all four wheels) – mismatched tyres can lead to poor handling performance, increased wear and may even be dangerous.
  • Pressure – It can be a good idea to check tyre pressures when conducting an inspection. If the tyre pressures are wrong it can cause the car to pull to the left or right during acceleration. Incorrect tyre pressures can also lead to increased wear and fuel consumption as well.

Suspension Modifications

There are far too many different suspension upgrades available for the first generation MINI to go into in this already very long guide. What we recommend that you do is try to find out what suspension modifications the car has and then check if they are suitable (brand is good, etc.). Additionally, make sure you are happy with the ride quality as performance suspension can often be quite hard and uncomfortable for regular everyday driving.

Brakes

Credit: MINI/BMW

There isn’t too much to worry about when it comes to the brake, apart from the usual used car related things. You should find that the standard brakes are more than adequate for regular road driving. If the brakes feel weak or spongy it is a sign of an issue, which could be anything from a bad bleed, pad problems and more.

A shuddering or shaking through the MINI’s steering wheel when the brakes are applied is probably a sign that one or more of the discs are warped. This usually becomes first apparent under high-speed braking and is more likely to occur if the MINI has been regularly tracked/driven hard.

Make sure the handbrake works as intended and see how it performs on a steep incline (if you can find one).

Seized calipers are a possibility, so watch out for the following on the Cooper/Cooper S you are looking at:

  • Car pulls to one side (may even happen when the brakes are not in use)
  • Car feels low on power as if the parking/handbrake is on (could also be a sign of diff issues)
  • Brakes get extremely hot and produce a distinctive acrid smell and in some cases smoke
  • You find that the MINI doesn’t want to move at all
  • Loud thud-like noise when pulling away for the first time

Remember to do a general visually inspection of the brakes, looking out for disc damage, pad life, corrosion, modifications, etc. A small amount of surface corrosion on the discs is perfectly normal and should go away with a bit of use.  If the pads and/or discs need to be replaced make sure you get a discount (especially if the discs need replacing).

Don’t forget to check the brake fluid. If it is dark it is a sign that it hasn’t been replaced in a long time. The brake fluid reservoir is located at the back right of the engine bay when looking from the front.

Aftermarket/Upgraded Brakes

The best and simplest way to increase braking performance is to fit some good quality brake pads. EBC and Carbotech pads both come highly recommended and don’t produce too much dust. Some pads are better for regular road driving (EBC Green for example), while others are better for track days.

More extensive brake upgrades are available with a conversion to the R56’s front brakes being a fairly popular choice to get a bit more performance. You can read a bit more about it here.

If the MINI you are looking at has aftermarket brakes, note down the brand/manufacturer and check to see if they are suitable for the car. Also ask the owner to see if they still have the original brakes as well. More powerful aftermarket brakes could be a sign that the MINI has been on regular track days/thrashed a lot.

Bodywork & Exterior

Credit: MINI/BMW

Bodywork problems can be a major issue on any used car, so keep an eye out for the following issues:

Rust

Rust is quite a big issue on these cars. Rust can occur pretty much anywhere on the body, however, we would pay particular attention to the following areas on an R50, R52 or R53 MINI:

  • At the back around the tail lights – Water makes its way into the tail lights and can’t get out. This moisture then leads to rust, especially if there are any paint chips. Even if you don’t see any signs of rust, check for moisture as if it is left to sit it can eventually lead to corrosion.
  • Around the base of the rubber stops for the hatch/trunk
  • Area behind and above the rear license plate – This can often be very bad as it goes unnoticed.
  • Around and under the fuel filler cap – Rust is also common around and under the fuel filler cap. If it gets bad enough here the whole rear quarter panel will need to be replaced.
  • Left and ride side door under the bottom of the doorway’s rubber sealing – This can be seriously bad as once again it is often left unnoticed before it is too late. If you do buy a first gen MINI it can be a good idea to check and dry this area regularly.
  • Bonnet/hood – where the bottom part of the chrome trim for the headlights meets the bonnet.
  • Rain gutters on MINIs with sunroofs – A problem with the rain gutters can also lead to water leaking into the footwell due to how the gutters drain.
  • Rear subframe and bodywork around the fuel tank
  • 2002 US Models under the bonnet – most US cars from this model year came without the protective plastic panels that prevent the rubber stops from rubbing away the paint. This eventually leads to rust formation

Rust problems are often more serious than they first appear on the surface, so don’t buy the car unless you can get a quote on what it will be to repair the rust (or just move onto another MINI).

Factors That Can Make Rust More Likely on a First Gen MINI

  • The MINI has spent time in countries or areas with salted roads (UK for example)
  • The vehicle has spent time in countries or areas with very harsh winters (often linked with the above)
  • Vehicle is often parked/stored by the sea for significant periods of time
  • Always kept outside (never garaged)
  • The MINI is regularly driven in winter (garaging the car and not driving it in the winter will reduce the likelihood of rust issues)
  • Accident damage (stone chips or more significant damage)
  • Rubbing body parts
  • Old or no underseal

It is a good idea to check with the owner to see if rust protection has been applied at fairly regular intervals, especially if the first generation MINI is located in a country with salted roads.

We also recommend that you ask the seller/owner if regular washes of the underbody have been carried out during winter if you live in a country with salted roads. This can go a long way to prevent rust formation and if they have done it, it shows that they probably care quite a bit about preventative maintenance

Looking for Rust Repairs

It is not only important to look for present rust, but you should also keep an eye out for signs of past rust repair (mismatched paint, paint overspray etc.). Watch out for any areas that may have been resprayed or cut out and replaced. You should also check the service history and with the owner (however, don’t trust what the owner says completely as they may be trying to hide something from you).

Use a magnet on steel sections of the car (cover it with a cloth so you don’t damage the paintwork) or a coating gauge thickness tool such as this one to find any areas that may have been repaired.

Accident Damage

Credit: MINI/BMW

As with any used car, a good number of first generation MINIs have been involved in accidents, so keep an eye out for the following things that may indicate that the vehicle you are looking at has been in a crash:

  • Misaligned panels or large panel gaps – Inspect around the bonnet/hood and make sure everything lines up correctly. Check the door, bumper and boot/trunk panel gaps. If the panel gaps on one side look quite different to the other side, it could be a sign that the Cooper/Cooper S has been in an accident.
  • Doors that drop or don’t close properly – If the doors drop or don’t open/close properly the MINI you are looking at may have been in an accident or there may be some other sort of other issue with the door hinges.
  • Inconsistencies such as waving, rippling or different coloured panels – Indicates a respray which may have been conducted as a result of accident damage or rust.
  • If the bonnet/hood looks like it is popped when it is not – This may indicate that the MINI you are inspecting at has been crashed into something (even a light knock can cause this problem).
  • Damage to the mounting supports for the headlights or surrounds of the taillights – This can be very difficult to fix on any car and is a good place to check for any accident damage.
  • Bent or broken parts underneath the car – While inspecting the underside, check to make sure everything is straight. Look at the suspension and steering components as well. If the parts are different on one side compared to the other or much newer, it may be a sign that the MINI has been in an accident.
  • Rust in strange locations – Can be a sign of accident damage.
  • Paint runs or overspray – Could be a factory issue but is far more likely to be caused by a respray job. Check the seller’s shoes as well as we went to look at a used car once and the terrible respray job matched the specks of paint on the owner’s boots (more of a joke, but once you’ve seen it once you can’t help yourself during future inspections).
  • Missing badges or trim – Could be due to repair work (body shop couldn’t find replacements) or a number of other things (stolen, etc.).

Be cautious of sellers who try to cover up accident damage. While most people will try to downplay an incident and the resultant repairs, some may even claim their first generation MINI hasn’t been in a crash when it clearly has.

If there has been some accident damage and/or repairs, try to get an idea of the severity of the incident. Light to moderate damage that has been repaired by a skilled body shop/panel beater is normally fine. However, if the Cooper or Cooper S has been in a serious incident and received major damage it is probably best to walk away.

If the owner can’t tell you much about the accident/damage it may have happened when a previous person owned the vehicle.

Other Bodywork Things to Check

Check that all of the jacking points are still present and correct. If there are not or they are deformed it is a sign that somebody hasn’t lifted the car properly. This is a major issue and can lead to rust formation around the area as well.

The front bumper cracks around the two bolts at the top (check when bonnet is open). Lots of bodyshops or mechanics who don’t have experience with the first gen MINI will over tighten the bolts/screws, making them crack.

Interior

Credit: MINI/BMW

While the interior is generally pretty hard wearing in these cars, they are getting on a bit so expect to find more than a few with tatty insides. Do a general check-over on all of the interior components for any rips, stains, tears or general damage.

BMW offered the first generation with a whole load of different trim options. If the car was fitted with leather seats or a leather/cloth combination they should have lumbar support, otherwise the car probably has leatherette seats. Proper leather seats also don’t fit as snug as leatherette at the rear.

Proper leather can sag and crack with age and mileage, so make sure the material on the MINI you are inspecting is in good condition. If the cracking isn’t too bad, you may be able to get the leather material back to looking good with some repair compound.

Pay particular attention to the seat bolsters for wear and make sure the seats have not collapsed. If the seats move during acceleration or braking it is incredibly dangerous and will be an MOT/WOF failure.

Make sure you check the carpets and rest of the cabin for any dampness or signs of a leak. Water can play havoc with the electronics if it gets in the wrong place and can lead to a nasty smell as well. Feel around the carpets and turn over the floor mats. If you see water residue on the bottom of the floor mats it could be a sign of a past of present leak. Make sure you check in the boot/trunk under the floor as this area can fill up with water if there is a bad leak.

Make sure you have a look at the headlining above the driver’s seat. If it is a slightly different colour it may be a sign that the MINI you are inspecting has been owned by a smoker. A smell test will also help you determine whether or not this is the case as well. While you are looking at the headlining, check to see it is firmly attached and hasn’t started to droop.

Have a look at the speaker grills and bottom of the door cards for damage due to people climbing in and out. See if the complete toolkit and spare tyre parts are present as many Coopers are now missing them.

Electronics, Locks and Other Things

Credit: MINI/BMW

Failed central locking is something to watch out for and is usually down to broken solenoids in the door. If you notice problems with the central locking it could also be down to a bad battery in the key fob, but we wouldn’t count on it.

Apart from that check that all of the other electronics and features work. If the windows rise or lower particularly slowly it is probably down to a failing motor.

If no warning lights appear during start-up it may be a sign of an issue or that they have been disconnected. Alternatively, if they stay on you need to investigate the issue further and possibly take the car to a BMW/MINI specialist to find out what is causing the warning light before purchase.You can also use an OBD2 scanner to read the codes as well if you have one on hand.

Don’t forget to check that the air conditioning works as intended and that plenty of cold air comes out of the system. If it doesn’t, don’t let the seller convince you it just needs a re-gas as it may be something like the compressor (expensive fix).

General Car Buying Advice for a First Gen MINI

Credit: MINI/BMW

How to Get the Best Deal on an R50/R52/R53

This information applies to both dealers and private sealers. Knowledge is power and it can save you a lot of money when purchasing a vehicle.  

1. Research heavily –  Prior to starting your search for a MINI, figure out what specs and condition you are happy with. Do you want a low mileage, last year Cooper S or do you not mind an older MINI One that has travelled a bit further.

2. Shop around – It is always best to shop around a bit before you make a purchase. BMW/MINI sold a fair few of these cars, so there are plenty out there in different levels of condition and mileage, so don’t limit yourself to one seller, dealer, area or auction platform.

3. Go look at and test drive multiple MINIs if possible – While good first gen MINIs are getting harder to come by, It is a good idea to test drive as many cars as possible This will help you determine what makes a good and what makes a bad R50/R52/R53.

4. Adjust your attitude – Never rush into a purchase. If you are desperate to buy a car you are more likely to get ripped off. Take your time when looking for a first gen MINI for sale and only go for promising looking cars (unless you are looking for a project vehicle).

5. Use any issues with the car to your advantage –  Take a mental note of any issues you find with the vehicle. When it comes to discussing the price, use these problems to try and drive down the price. For example, if the car needs new tyres or brake pads make a point of it and try to get the seller to reduce the price.  

6. Don’t trust the owner completely –  While some owners/sellers are honest about their cars, many will lie to get a quick sale. Take in what the owner has to say but back it up with a thorough inspection.

7. Go between sellers/dealers –  If you are looking at multiple MINIs, let the owner/seller know. This way they will know that you have other options and they may try to undercut the price.  

8. Be prepared to walk away –  If you are not happy with the deal, simply walk away. You may miss out on the car or the seller may get back to you with a better offer.  

Mileage vs Condition  

Mileage vs condition is always a hot topic for debate, but we feel that it is always better to buy on condition and then on mileage. Lots of owners make the mistake of believing that they are preserving their car by not driving it. In reality, this is completely false and not driving a vehicle can actually do more damage than good.

Short distance trips do not allow the engine to warm up properly, which can lead to increased component wear and reduced engine life.

Rubber seals and plastic parts will fail regardless of mileage and can even deteriorate quicker on cars that don’t get used often. Letting a car sit will not prevent rust or stop the electronics from failing.  

Service History and Other Documentation 

It is incredibly important to check any vehicle’s service history and any additional paperwork that goes along with it. While the servicing doesn’t need to be done at a dealer, it should be carried out by a competent BMW/MINI specialist or mechanic (especially for major repair work). Home mechanic work is okay, but it is much harder to gauge the competence of a home mechanic than checking reviews for established businesses.

The service history will give you a good idea of how the R50/R52/R53 you are inspecting has been maintained. In addition to this, receipts and paperwork for modifications (if the car has any) can help you determine whether they have been done by an experienced tuner or a bad one.  

If the owner can’t or won’t let you see the service history, you should probably pass on the vehicle. A complete service history will only add value to any vehicle your purchase and will make it easier to sell the car in the future.  

Additionally, you can check websites such as CarFax (USA) and CarJam (NZ) for more information about the car you are thinking of purchasing. These sort of websites can be incredibly useful, but there is usually a cost associated with them. 

Questions That You Should Ask the Seller/Owner  

  • How often do you drive the car? 
  • When was the last service and who was it serviced by? 
  • How much oil does it use? 
  • What oil do you use in the car? 
  • What parts have been replaced?
  • When were the coils, spark plugs, leads changed?
  • What’s the compression like?
  • What modifications have been made to the vehicle? 
  • Has the vehicle overheated at any point or has the head gasket failed? 
  • Has the car been in any major or minor accidents? Is so, what repairs were made? 
  • Is there any money owing on the car? 
  • Have you got any information on the previous owners and how they treated the vehicle? 
  • How are the speakers
  • Is there any rust? 
  • Has rust been removed at any point? 
  • When were the brake pads replaced and have the calipers seized at any point in time? 
  • Where do you store/park the car usually? 

There are loads more questions you can ask the seller, but we feel these are some of the most important. 

Things That Would Make Us Walk Away from an R50/R52/R53

Credit: MINI/BMW

Here are some things that would make as walk away from one of these cars. While you may be happy with a vehicle with these problems, we are not.  

  • Overheating problems or blown head gasket
  • Significant Crash Damage or poorly repaired roof 
  • Money owing on the car  
  • Stanced  
  • Modifications with no paperwork or carried out by a poorly reviewed tuner  
  • Excessive amounts of power
  • Bad compression 
  • Bad resprays 
  • Significant rust problems  
  • Engine swaps with non-standard engines  
  • Significant track use
  • Major engine or transmission issues  
  • Owner who is not forthcoming with information (could be trying to hide something) 

Notes on the Owner  

The owner is one of the most important things to think about when viewing any vehicle. You need to ask them plenty of questions when inspecting their MINI Cooper (however, don’t trust their answers completely). Remember, it is your problem if you wind up buying an absolute lemon. Here are some things to watch out for.  

  • How long have they owned the vehicle? If it is less than 6 months it tends to suggest that the car needs major work done to it that they can’t afford. It also could be a sign that they deal cars as well. 
  • Do they thrash the car when it is cold or continually launch the vehicle? If so, you are better to walk away. 
  • Why are they selling the vehicle? Could be a genuine reason or they may be trying to offload their problem onto an unsuspecting buyer. 
  • What sort of area do they live in? Is it a good area or a complete dump? 
  • How do they respond when you ask them simple questions? 
  • Do they know anything about the first gen MINI and the model they are selling?
  • What can they tell you about previous owners? 
  • Do they have lots of cars on their drive? If they do it may mean they are a dealer. 
  • What is their reaction when you ask them about money owing on the car? Tell them you are going to do a check and see how they respond. 
  • What is their reaction to you asking for details for HPi check?  
  • How do they react if you ask to do a compression test on the vehicle?
  • How do they respond when you ask them to show you the service history and paperwork for the car? 

If you get a bad feeling about the owner, you are better off moving onto another R50/R52/R53.

First Generation MINI Buyer’s Guide Conclusion

Credit: MINI/BMW

Overall, the R50, R52 and R53 MINIs are excellent cars, but they do seem to suffer quite a few problems. Try to avoid cars pre 2004 as the later models are definitely better and BMW had more of the issues ironed out. If you get a good one it should provide you plenty of miles of motoring enjoyment.

References

Milpol (15/07/2015) – Supercharger service – Supercharger service | MINI Cooper Forum (mini2.com)

BMW (30/09/2020) – The MINI – for 20 years the original in the premium segment of small cars. – The MINI – for 20 years the original in the premium segment of small cars. (bmwgroup.com)

MINI – THE CREATOR OF AN ICONIC CAR: ALEC ISSIGONIS. – The creator of an iconic car: Alec Issigonis. (mini.com)

Men and Motors (03/10/2013) – Richard Hammond Reviews The 2001 Mini Cooper – Richard Hammond Reviews The 2001 Mini Cooper – YouTube

FleetNews (29/05/2003) – MINI One D – MINI One D | Company Car Reviews (fleetnews.co.uk)

Jeremy Korzeniewski (07/08/2008) – Final first-gen MINI convertible rolls down the line – Final first-gen MINI convertible rolls down the line (autoblog.com)

MINI   – THE (SHORT) POWERFUL STORY OF MINI. – History of MINI – Story, Heritage & Origins – MINI USA

BMW Group (24/02/2006) – MINI Cooper S with the John Cooper Works GP Kit: Limited to just 30 Units. – MINI Cooper S with the John Cooper Works GP Kit: Limited to just 30 Units. (bmwgroup.com)

Nick D – 2002 MINI Cooper S Works – 2002 MINI Cooper S Works | Review | SuperCars.net

Paul Horrell (01/10/2006) – Newcomers: 2006 Mini Cooper S Works GP Newcomers: 2006 Mini Cooper S Works GP (motortrend.com)

James Day (06/09/2012) – 2006 MINI GP vs. 2013 MINI JCW GP – 2006 MINI GP vs. 2013 MINI JCW GP | Library of Motoring – An online collection of MINI information

MINI Wiki – Identifying a MINI by VINIdentifying a MINI by VIN | Mini Wiki | Fandom

ScottRiqui (03/04/2009) – R50/53 Maintenance schedule R50/R53 Maintenance schedule – North American Motoring

MINIAC (23/06/2010) – How to check for a crank seal oil leak – How to check for a crank seal oil leak | MINI Cooper Forum (mini2.com)

Cancicker (12/05/2019) – R53 with oil leak – worth buying? – R53 with oil leak – worth buying? – Page 1 – New MINIs – PistonHeads UK

Minione2002 (24/06/2015) – The midlands/r65 gearbox – Gertag 5spd issues. – The midlands/r65 gearbox – Gertag 5spd issues. | MINI Cooper Forum (mini2.com)

agranger  (18/01/2018) – My Aggressive Maintenance Schedule For An R53 Or R50 – 1st Gen “How To” – My Aggressive Maintenance Schedule For An R53 Or R50 (motoringalliance.com)

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