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On The Road To Cult Status

The Ford Mustang, Volkswagen Beetle, heavy American iron such as the Pontiac GTO or Plymouth Fury and even the Yugo -- the quintessence of Serbo-Croatian engineering -- have achieved a marketer’s dream: cult status.

1967 Ford Mustang
1967 Ford Mustang

Global automakers spend millions of dollars a year to grab the hearts (and wallets) of buyers. The automakers’ goal: generate a buzz to move the metal.

It’s a tough task underscored by the cult following a range of cars have developed, including some notorious clunkers and glorious flops. This suggests that marketing is sometimes more mystery or dumb luck than genius and building a loyal following for a car can be independent of all the flapdoodle generated at auto shows. And the MINI, a product of BMW, may have joined the cult club.

“A cult car is one that you’ll never forget,” says Craig Cheetham, author of several books on cars, including Hot Cars of the ‘50s: The Best Cars From Around the World and The World’s Worst Cars: From Pioneering Failures to Multimillion Dollar Disasters. “Whether that’s for a good or bad reason doesn’t matter – if it stays in your memory or fires up nostalgia, it’s a cult car.”

Carving out a niche in the hearts of car-lovers isn’t necessarily based on price, style, performance or even quality. Instead, cult status, like love, is a matter of the heart and therefore irrational. That explains how the Yugo can match the Lamborghini in the hearts, if not the minds, of car aficionados.

But the auto industry demands rationality. Investors, analysts, dealers and just plain drivers want to see if General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group can compete with Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and spiffy British cars.

The MINI Cooper is deftly marketed -- and that will be evident at the auto show in Chicago -- but like your funny Valentine, probably found its way into the hearts of car lovers simply because it’s endearing.

2007 Mini Cooper
2007 Mini Cooper

It was prominently featured in the 2003 movie “The Italian Job” and a dose of Hollywood magic never hurts in creating cult status as evidenced by an outpouring of affection for the long-scorned AMC Pacer after it appeared in the comedy “Wayne’s World.”

“The Mini Cooper is embraced because it has a personality of its own,” says Cheetham. “A car either achieves cult status or it doesn’t – anything mediocre won’t make the mark.”

There’s nothing modest about the Mini's image. When introduced to the U.S. market, ads noted that owners would be “motoring” -- to use the English term -- rather than merely “driving”, a droll task that gets one to work or the supermarket and an apparent dig at Volkswagen’s “Drivers Wanted” tagline.

“I think there is a very enthusiastic customer base bordering on the evangelical,” said Greg Stern, chief executive officer of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, the Sausalito, Calif. advertising agency that handles the MINI's advertising. “Cult interest in a car may be fleeting, and may only last for one model.”

Andrew Cutler, a spokesman for Mini USA in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., said most customers spend about $5,000 to customize their cars. Many owners name their cars with the monikers splitting about 60-40 male to female. Names include Spike, Scooter, Mini Me, Pepper, Peaches and the inevitable Coop. Many dealers use the car’s name on work orders for routine maintenance.

1966 Pontiac GTO
1966 Pontiac GTO

“It’s like taking the family pet to the vet,” Cutler said. “Many owners want to be present when their car is worked on.”

BMW bought Rover in 1993 and kept the MINI brand. The British company made the cars from 1959 to 2000. In 2002, BMW launched the brand in the U.S. and now sells 40,000 to 45,000 cars a year without customer incentives. The Minis list for $18,700 to $26,050, including destination charges.

While the MINI's folklore is still developing, passion for now classic cult cars endures.

When the love of Glenn Zack’s life – a 1968 Buick LeSabre convertible with a 350-cubic inch engine -- blew a head gasket climbing over the mountains to Los Angeles, he did the logical thing: He listed for sale it on eBay.

“A guy from Sweden shipped it home in a container,” said Zack, a resident of Palos Verdes, Calif. “He fixes up old American cars and re-sells them. I got $1,000 for it.”

2006 Lamborghini
2006 Lamborghini

Zack isn’t a collector and drove his faithful clunker as much as he could for 15 years, spending about $5,000 on maintenance and upgrades, including several coats of “sea foam green” paint.

Naturally, he denies any cult-like behavior in liking old cars that can easily seat six, get less than 10 mpg cruising around town and come with a trunk about the size of Rhode Island. He’s looking for a replacement – no luck yet.

“I like those big, old bombs,” Zack said. “Loved that car -- it was like driving a cloud.” Others loved it, too. Zack said people often took photos of the car as he drove among the sub-compacts of Southern California's freeways.

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