Where better to start than in Monaco?
Their cameras when I nodded a greeting. The locals were more circumspect. There seemed to be an optimum inspection time of eight seconds, after which showing further interest was frowned upon. Finally, a group of Monegasque teenagers gave in and came over for a full-on gawp – which was quite something when the square was even more full of Ferraris, Rollers and Lamborghinis than usual, all the cars taking part in a charity run.
Of course, there is more to the Cote d’Azur than Monte Carlo. But as we reached Antibes it became clear there were few people there, too. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s great, grey battleship of a yacht, berthed in the marina, suggested that the summer season had begun. It hadn’t. Cap d’Antibes, which once echoed to the manic laughter of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, now just echoed. The Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc was doing a passable impression of the deserted Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. On the western side of the Cap the weather was perfect only for windsurfers.
That Cannes proved to be just 10 minutes away from the golden crescent of Juan-les-Pins tells you all you need to know about the Riviera in early May. It is a great time to visit because although the weather is starting to pull itself together, the roads are still empty. You rediscover their scenic splendour, all on your own.
In two weeks every hotel room in Cannes would be booked, the beaches packed with wannabees and the road to St-Tropez grid-locked right through until September. But virtually the only traffic
In two weeks’ time, scarlet Ferraris would be screaming around Monaco’s Grand Prix circuit; now the ‘Hot Orange’ Mini had the road almost to itself
we encountered on the way to Cannes was a young dude on a Ducati motorbike who buzzed the Mini for a while before slowly overtaking and giving us the universal sign of approval – thumb and index finger forming a circle – over his shoulder. Which made a change from the hand gestures you get from bikers round my way.
His reaction was typical. In fact, the Mini drew far more attention than I expected. In a petrol station outside Frejus the attendant grilled me for 10 minutes about the car. I told him, with smug nonchalance, that they were not on sale yet (thus implying that I was so important that I received cars before they went on sale to the masses), only to be exposed by the next customer, who blurted, ‘But I just saw another one only a couple of minutes ago!’. It must have been another car from BMW’s press launch in Marseille.
The Ducati accelerated away from the Mini with ease: the latter is no racer. Contrary to what you might expect, chopping the roof off a car doesn’t make it any lighter. On the contrary, convertibles are usually heavier because of all the extra bracing needed. Without that, the car would tremor like a blancmange on a washing machine. Motoring journalists are fixated with the lack of structural integrity inherent in soft-tops, and the condition – called ‘scuttle shake’ – to which it gives rise. For most drivers, though, the scuttle must shake chronically to bother them, and the Mini’s doesn’t.
Of greater concern is the extra 100kg of weight added by the bracing. Any car bearing a Cooper badge should set one’s
pulse aflutter; but the only time this happened was when we pulled out to overtake a tractor and the expected burst of acceleration never materialised. It still handles as a Mini Cooper should, and can dart around corners; but you could hardly call it quick. An extra three grand for the more powerful Cooper S version, which goes on sale in August, should remedy the problem. That said, overtaking with the roof up will always be a chancy affair because you can’t see much behind you. And things get pretty shouty above 90mph with the roof down.
When we arrived in St-Tropez, posing was pointless given the lack of an audience. Bardot’s house, La Madrague, out along a mud road on Baie des Canebiers, was shuttered. Tahiti Plage, the beach she and her cohorts made famous – and where, according to some, the sexual revolution began – was a desert. There was no Johnny Hallyday, no Joan Collins, and definitely no Bardot. So we left the Mini sandwiched