My first new car was a 2004 Mini Cooper S. I did a factory order and waited three months for it. Three years later it was declared a total loss due to flooding, but the terminal water damage inside wasn’t a result of the usual causes.
Long before I came up with the idea of becoming a professional car shopper, I was a kid fresh out of college making “real job” money. It was nothing too impressive, as the starting salary for an English teacher was about $45,000, but it was more than I ever earned. Naturally, I wanted to spend a chunk of my income on a car payment. This was not the smartest financial decision, since my 1995 Prelude Si was running just fine, but I wanted to treat myself to a “grownup” purchase — and having recently seen The Italian Job remake didn’t help.
I placed an order for a 2004 Mini Cooper S in Indi Blue with a white roof and stripes. With the Premium Package, Cold Weather Package and a six-speed manual, the car had an MSRP of $23,500. That seems pretty reasonable by today’s standards, as a new Cooper S stickers for about $28,000. At the time Mini Coopers were pretty hot, and if you wanted an S model it had to be ordered at full sticker price. When the car finally arrived, I thought I was a cool dude with my new wheels.
The Cooper treated me pretty well, and I even invested in a set of winter tires since I had a 40-minute commute and my school district was notoriously reluctant to cancel classes due to snow. The biggest downside to the long drive was the morning radio fare. I don’t understand why radio stations, especially rock stations, insist on hiring people to yap about nonsense in the morning instead of...actually playing music. I was sick of hearing what seemed like 20 minutes of talk, 10 minutes of commercials and only about 10 minutes of music during my drive. I decided to jump on the bandwagon of satellite radio. In the early 2000s, XM radio was essentially commercial-free and fairly affordable.
My ’04 Cooper’s radio wasn’t compatible with XM, so it required me to get a little box just for the XM that would clip on my air-conditioner vents. A cable would be run to the antenna attached to the top of the car. I bought the XM unit and had it installed at a local radio shop.
Several months later, there were serious rainstorms for several days in a row. When I hopped in my car to go to work, the floor was soaked. “Maybe I left the window open?” I thought. I sucked the water out with a shop vacuum and figured that would solve it. Another few days of rain come through and the floor got soaked again. This time I was positive that all the windows were closed. And now I’m also getting some warnings on the dashboard, and one of my headlights won’t work.
I made an appointment with the dealer, about an hour and a half away, to have it checked out. I nade the long drive up after work, and the dealership was nice enough to give me a loaner to take home while they investigated the problem.
The next day I get a call: “This is Mini service. Who cut the sunroof drain in your car?”
My Mini Cooper had the panoramic sunroof option, which had channels in the roof that would direct water into a rubber drain tube. The tube ran down the B-pillar and dumped the water out the bottom of the body. Apparently, the installer found that the sunroof drain was in the way of the wire attached to the XM antenna — and cut the tube to make room for it.
Since the tube was no longer able to direct water outside the car, the rain would run down the interior of the B-pillar and fill up an empty cavity under the rear seats. For months water was building up in this space until it soaked into the carpet and then made its way to the wiring harness — the cause of the electronic glitches. My insurance company didn’t discover this until the shop had basically gutted the entire car.
I get a phone call from the insurance adjuster. “We are declaring the car a total loss and we will issue you a payment for $23,000.”
That generation of Mini Coopers had incredibly high resale value when they first came out. While I was sad the car wasn’t going to come back, getting a payout of $23,000 for a car that retailed for $23,500 was pretty sweet. I was also contacted by the dealership, which told me that the car was sold with salvage title, and the new owner planned to leave it gutted so he could race it. He was interested in the stock wheels, which were still in the shed since the winter set was on the car at the time.
The Mini was replaced by a 2005 Subaru Legacy GT wagon. It also didn’t last as long as I wanted it to, but that is a story for another time. The Mini will always be one of my favorite cars, and given that they had a history of being fairly unreliable as the miles added up, I consider myself lucky in how things worked out.
I suppose the obvious lesson here is to be careful of who works on your car. Even something that seems as simple as a radio upgrade can turn into a total loss if done by a corner-cutting technician.