LANSING, Mich. – Steve Winninger, CEO of State Employees Credit Union, readily recalls the day a Mini first captured his attention. A student at the University of Iowa in the mid 1960s, he was making the 90-mile drive back home to Waterloo when an odd little car soared past him. “I can remember very distinctly I was driving through a curve marked 45 miles an hour,” Winninger recalls. “I had a 1962 Plymouth Valiant convertible my grandfather, who sold Chrysler products, got in (as a trade-in) with very few miles on it. I was proud of that car, and was probably doing 65 miles an hour on the curve. “Suddenly this car blew around me, and I thought, `What was that?’ I found out what it was, and that it was owned by twins I went to school with. Those twins are still friends of ours, and they still have that car,” says Winninger. When the Mini was introduced by British Motor Corp. almost 45 years ago, it reminded most people who saw it of a small car clowns would pour out of at a circus. After all, it was just 10 feet long, had an 80-inch wheelbase and rolled along on 10-inch wheels. But many car buffs will argue the Mini was the first modern economy car. It offered front wheel drive, the engine was mounted sidewise (or transversely in car talk), and the boxlike design provided impressive interior space. Winninger is 6 feet, 1 inch tall and says he has no problem at all getting into a Mini. What draws Winninger to Minis? “I think the thing that fascinates me most about the Minis is they’re something they don’t look like they ought to be. They’re a lot more than what they look like. The first one was made in 1959 and it was a reaction to the Suez Canal oil crisis. They only weigh 1,400 pounds, so they’re light, easy to park and economical. I think the first 850s (Minis with an 850 cc 4-cylinder engine) got 40 miles to the gallon,” he says. “Another appeal is they’re pretty rare – not so much now that the new Mini is out there, but for a long time I had Lansing’s largest collection of Minis. I’d drive down the street and you could tell people had never seen it before. Kids just break out laughing when they see its 10-inch wheels.” Although he fell in love with Minis in his college days, he actually bought his first one in 1975. He saw an ad for a Mini, phoned the owners, bought a one-way plane ticket and drove the car home. After three years he sold the car, but missed it. Eventually he entered “Austin Mini” in his Internet search engine “just to see what was out there.” Before long he was checking pretty regularly. Then he asked his wife, “What would you think if we bought another Mini?” Today if you walk into the barn the Winningers built in the back yard of their home outside Lansing, you’ll find four Minis in various stages of work. There’s a Mini Moke, a Mini panel truck, a Mini Cooper S and a Mark I, scheduled for restoration as a Cooper S. You’ll also see an impressive array of tools essential – or just plain nice to have – for the serious auto collector and restorer. Winninger admits when he first got into the hobby, he had no mechanical know-how. He recalls traveling back and forth to Sarnia, Ont., about an hour and a half from Lansing just across the Canadian border, as major restoration work was completed on a Mini he wanted. “I kept wondering why anyone would want to build a car back up and sell it. For me, it was having the car. For them, it was the process of restoration,” Winninger says. But as he decided to make various adjustments on the car, he found himself writing sizeable checks to people who could do the work. So he signed up for an auto mechanics class at Lansing Community College and began networking with other car collectors. Finding others who share his interest hasn’t been a problem. One neighbor in particular has perhaps 15 cars stored in tiers in his garage. Then there’s another neighbor who does high-end restorations, including some for Ford executives from Dearborn. His portfolio includes work on a Bentley and a Lamborgini. One project involved $10,000 on the paint job alone. “There could be 30 British cars within a one-mile radius of my house,” Winninger figures. Today he talks comfortably about engine displacements and gear ratios. He now does much of his own mechanical work, such as replacing drum brakes with disc brakes. He does call on professionals for some details such as a final coat of paint, but handles his own sanding and priming to prepare cars for their final touches. “Now I’ve got a place to work and I’m buying some tools and books and sort of doing a self-teaching process,” Winninger explains. He’s obviously learned a lot. For example, one of his next projects is to take the engine out of the Mini Mark II, install it in the Mark I then sell the Mark I. At that point he could be in the market for another Mini, although he’s not sure. “I like to pick them up and make them a little nicer than they are. Maybe in retirement I could become an expert on Minis and fix them for people or buy and restore them.” Although emission and safety regulations halted importing of Minis into the U.S. in the 1960s, a new 2002 Mini has been introduced by BMW, which now owns the brand. This latest version is about two feet longer, 1,000 pounds heavier, and comes with a much larger engine and more safety features than were ever envisioned for its predecessor. Winninger figures it’s not a matter of if he’ll buy the new incarnation but when. The only holdup is, with cars for two sons of driving age plus the Winningers’ pickup truck and everyday cars, there are now nine vehicles listed on their insurance policy. Whether attention drawn by the new Mini has boosted the price of the originals, Winninger isn’t sure. “I’m not that focused on market value as on the enjoyment I get out of driving them around,” he says. Driving or trailering, actually, as the trip dictates. Last summer the Winningers trailered one of their Minis to a national gathering of Minis in Charleston, S.C. They also attend three shows a year in Michigan if the weather permits and Winninger isn’t on the road on credit union business, and they’ve traveled as far as Montreal for a Mini gathering involving Canada’s eastern provinces. While working on Minis is currently an after-hours job, Winninger sees some comparisons between credit unions and Minis. “”With a Mini, there’s more than you see on the surface,” he says. “It’s a great performer, even though it doesn’t look like it. I think a credit union is the same way. Credit unions really are America’s best-kept secret. There’s a lot more to a credit union than the general public realizes. “At the same time, the car is so different than the office. You go out there, and it’s just a different world.” -

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