When momentum meets Mini, bad things happen


John Kelly's Mini Cooper lays totaled after a freak car accident on September 26, 2012. (John Kelly/TWP)
John Kelly
Columnist December 9, 2012

In the grand scheme of terrible things — war, rising ocean levels, the Kardashians — the loss of a single, 10-year-old car isn’t worth shedding a tear over. And yet I feel I must eulogize A MINI.

That was the vanity license plate we picked out: A MINI. Mini Coopers were rare on these streets when we bought it in 2002. BMW had recently resuscitated the classic British compact, and people kept asking us what the funny little red car with the white roof was.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“A Mini,” My Lovely Wife and I would answer. The name stuck.

It was her car, really, and it fit Ruth perfectly. Like her, it was small and cute. Like her, it had a low center of gravity and handled well.

Over time it lost its new-car smell and new-car shine, collecting miles along with stone chips and supermarket dings. We sunk $7,000 into a new transmission when we should have just junked the car. We went through one D.C. summer without air-conditioning before deciding to fix that at great expense, too.

We forgave its faults. Where, we asked ourselves, could we find a car that was so much fun? And even when Minis proliferated, people still stopped us in parking lots to ask what we thought of it.

Then, while Ruth was overseas on a business trip at the end of September, I received frantic calls at work from a neighbor and a contractor who was doing work in our house.

There’s been an accident with your car, they said.

Can you call it an accident if neither vehicle has its engine running at the time of impact? If neither vehicle even has a driver?

We live on a hill, and a neighbor a few houses up had gotten out of his Honda without putting on the parking brake. His car rolled down the hill, picked up speed, then smashed into A MINI, which was parked in front of our house. The Honda pushed it along the street until it collided with the contractor’s truck. That collision forced our car over the curb and into the bushes.

It was a sad sight that greeted me when I got home from work that evening. The Mini looked forlorn, its shiny grill snaggletoothed, the hood crumpled, a crease along the passenger-side door, one door mirror hanging limp. Fluid from some punctured organ dripped on the asphalt.

Cars may not have souls, but looking at A MINI I knew that whatever life spirit it had once possessed was gone. A tow truck took it away, and a few days later the insurance company called to confirm it had been totaled.

Goodnight, sweet Mini. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. . . .

Loss leaders

Doesn’t it seem like merely sneezing on a car these days totals it? My neighbor’s Honda was totaled, too. What’s wrong with cars today? Where are the hardy steeds of our youth?

“Back then we had frames underneath them,” said Torchy Chandler, who runs Chandler’s Collision Center in Columbia with her husband, Robert. “Now we have unitized bodies instead of frame rails. That unitized body is a square. The minute you hit it anywhere, that square comes out of alignment.”

Cars are more complicated than my 1973 Mercury Comet, too, with lots of pricey components.

“Whenever the air bag deploys it’s very expensive, if not a total loss,” Torchy said. “And when newer cars come out, there’s more and more air bags.”

Also, a law was passed in Maryland in 2010 that if the cost of repairs exceeds 75 percent of the value of the car, the insurance company must declare it a total loss. (The estimator who looked at our Mini stopped counting when he got to $8,000. The car was worth $8,500.)

Jordan Hendler, executive director of the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association, said the law is good for consumers, since it keeps damaged vehicles from entering the used-car pipeline under false pretenses. (There are some exceptions to the law if the damage is largely cosmetic.)

Jordan said surrounding jurisdictions already had the 75 percent threshold, meaning cars wrecked in other states would often be sold in Maryland so they could keep a clean title. Our Mini now has a salvage title — it’s “branded,” in the harsh nomenclature of the used-car world.

Couples therapy

Torchy and Robert have run their business for 35 years. People sometimes ask her how they can work together every day and still stay married.

“It’s very simple,” she told me. “I told him, ‘I’ll talk business with you at home on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you start talking business on the weekend, I walk out and go shopping. That means I’m spending money. The choice is yours.’ ”

That’s worked so far.

Children’s Hospital

Can I count on your help for Children’s National Medical Center? Your tax-deductible gift will help pay the bills of poor, sick children. Donate by going to www.childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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