"And you will be sleeping here..." A phrase I'm not unfamiliar with. Spend a few years travelling around test driving cars and you soon become used to strange rooms, new hotels and beds that are only yours for tonight. This one is a little different though. This one appears to be a roof box for extra luggage strapped to the top of a Mini. "Are you sure about this?" I'm tempted to ask. No queen-sized divans available?
Well, I guess it just wouldn't be a proper festival without staying in a tent, and it's kind of neat that, instead of hammering pegs into the ground and faffing around with a ground sheet, this one just pops up from its folded position on the roof of a MINI Countryman, and sleeps one comfortably, two at a squeeze. At €2,000 as an optional extra, it's a pretty pricey tent, but still a lot cheaper than the likes of a Volkswagen California or Mercedes-Benz Marco Polo.
Parked amid a sea of tents, caravans and really quite small cars, our rooftop encampment was just a tiny section of the International Mini Meet (IMM) 2017, a vast gathering of Minis, their owners, their owners' partners, their owners' partners' children, dogs... you get the idea. It all began as a three-day gathering of German Mini fans in 1978, but has since ballooned both in terms of size and geographical location, and is now the biggest gathering of little cars and their fans in Europe. This year, on a weekend that promised but reneged on sunshine, it came to Westport House in County Mayo, the first time that the event has come to these shores.
Described, officially, as an ‘Electric Picnic for Minis' it certainly has the feel of a music festival - there were at least as many tents and caravans as there were cars (and there were around 1,200 of those) and they are mixed in with stalls selling Mini memorabilia, spare parts (and given the sheer strength of the sweet tang of hot oil in the air over the event, there must have been a roaring trade in those), posters, tea towels, the lot.
And of course, there were the cars. There's an interesting and ever-shifting divide between those who love the original 1959 Mini as designed by Alex Issigonis, and those who appreciate the charms of the modern, BMW-owned, version (styled MINI in all caps). Certainly, there has been some tension in the air betwixt the twains at times, not least because, as one BMW executive put it, "we tried, when we relaunched Mini in 2001, to stay as far away from the old one as possible, because the quality of the original was so bad..." Such things bred animosity for a long time, but its seems that these days at least some of the wounds have healed.
Our presence at the event was as part of a group of Mini Ireland and Mini Germany guests, and the event as a whole has a partner in Colm Quinn, a major MINI (and BMW) dealer with premises in Galway and Athlone. "It's not every day a festival like this comes to Ireland and we are delighted to get the opportunity to be involved. Congratulations to the Irish Mini Owners Club for securing Ireland as the host country for the established International Mini Meeting, it is a great honour for us to be involved" said Colm Quinn, the eponymous boss of the dealer group, but it was noticeable that, while Quinn's brought along a gaggle of modern MINIs, there was an original Cooper, in a fetching shade of dark blue, taking pride of place amongst them.
For those of us with a bit of Mini history (I'm on my second; one original, one modern) the sprawling fields were just chock-full of unusual delights. You might think that the Mini Moke, a stripped-down beach buggy-style device based on a Mini and mostly famous for being used in the classic sixties TV series The Prisoner, would be rare. And they kind of are. Yet we were constantly tripping over them at IMM. Let's try for something a little rarer.
How about a Mini Marcos, using a Mini Cooper chassis and engine, topped with a wedge-shaped aero-friendly body by the Marcos Sports Car company, and a model with genuine Le Mans 24 hours racing pedigree? Yup, saw three of those at the show. Rarer still?
How about the Foers Nomad, a tiny, boxy, Land-Rover-esque device, a kit car built on a Mini chassis by a company in Yorkshire. Saw one of those there too, and it clearly pre-dates the SUV stylings of the MINI Countryman upon which rested my tent by a good couple of decades. Let's try for something more rare again...
We bumped into a nice chap called Graham, who spends his life modifying Minis and had brought along his own intriguing contraption - a 1970s Mini Clubman body (that's the one with the Ford Cortina-style grille and lights) stretched and pulled to fit onto the chassis and four-wheel-drive running gear of a nineties Suzuki X90. "At last, someone's done something good with an X90" chimed in one onlooker, but Graham himself, clearly a Mini nutcase, was staring wistfully at another car. "That's a Phoenix" he said, pointing at another modified seventies Clubman, this one with a fibreglass body that seemed half way between an estate and a proto-crossover. "The Phoenix kit car company made them, and that's the only one I've seen on the road..." I think we've found our rare car.
As evening, and the steady, dripping rain, drew in, the party got really started. An opening ceremony, attended by Mini racing legend Mervyn Johnson, got started with an honour guard of all the flags of attendees and was lead into the hall by a troop of Irish dancers. That kick started an all-night party that seemed to consist largely of too much beer and lots of U2 covers (apparently some local residents were rather unhappy about the loudness of the music on successive nights - sorry about that).
Finally, it was back to my tiny rooftop home. Now, I'm a chap on the larger side, and this was essentially a fabric rabbit hutch perched on the roof of a car, but after a minor struggle with the slightly flimsy clip-on ladder that comes as part of the kit, it was actually surprisingly comfortable. In spite of being right in the centre of the vast Mini jamboree, I slept soundly and happily, lulled to sleep by the staccato chatter of rain on my pop-up home. Next year's Mini Meet will be in Portugal, just north of Lisbon. Wonder if they do one of these tents with its own roof garden...?