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Mighty Mini: The little car is a big star at Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix

| Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 9:11 p.m.
Jim Wisbon of Bridgeville, left with a 1976, BMW 2002 named 'Otto' he will be driving at Schenley Park during the Vintage Grand Prix, Scott Buriak of Crafton with a restored 1963 Vespa VBB scooter named 'Fabrizio' that  used sat their pit bike at the Vintage Grand Prix and Ian Wisbon of the South Side with a 1961 Austin Mini named 'DuckWorth' he will drive at the Vintage Grand Prix.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jim Wisbon of Bridgeville, left with a 1976, BMW 2002 named 'Otto' he will be driving at Schenley Park during the Vintage Grand Prix, Scott Buriak of Crafton with a restored 1963 Vespa VBB scooter named 'Fabrizio' that used sat their pit bike at the Vintage Grand Prix and Ian Wisbon of the South Side with a 1961 Austin Mini named 'DuckWorth' he will drive at the Vintage Grand Prix.

The Mini is the little car that can.

It's the little vehicle that won three of four Monte Carlo road rallies in the '60s, besting all the better-known competitors. It's the car that is so hip, Vince Longo Jr. of Ross has owned 10 since he bought his first in 2002.

It's even a car that is good for a marriage proposal, as Ian Wisbon from the South Side will tell you.

The Mini will return as the Marque of the Year, the featured car of the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, which culminates July 19 and 20 with races, a huge car show and vendors at Schenley Park in Oakland.

The weekend begins early on July 17 with a Countryside Tour and a Cars & Guitars event at the Hard Rock Cafe on the South Side.

The Mini was the marque 10 years ago and was chosen this year partly because it is celebrating its 50th year of winning its first Monte Carlo championship, says Dan DelBianco, executive director of the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix.

The Vintage Grand Prix, presented by the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Foundation, is in its 32nd year of raising money for the Autism Society of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Valley School. It drew in a record $350,000 in 2013 and has raised $3.5 million in its duration.

The Mini celebration delights those involved with the little car. Most of them talk with a great deal of affection for it.

“Steve McQueen owned one,” says Longo, an Allegheny County detective who also is vice president of the PittStop Mini Club of Pittsburgh, “How cool does that say it is?”

Jarrett Matson talks about the Mini's racing history with pride. He is a motoring adviser for Mini of Pittsburgh, the Shadyside dealer.

“It won in '64, '66 and '67,” he says of its history at Monte Carlo. “It should have won in '65, too, but its competitors had its victory overturned because it was using the wrong headlights or something like that.”

He talks about the Mini offering a great deal of fun to a great deal of drivers. “I worked for Ford once and could tell you who a Fiesta person was. A Taurus person. An F-150 person,” he says. “I can't tell you who a Mini person is. They are all so different.”

Minis range in price from $20,000 to $40,000, Matson says, and include the sporty Cooper S to the Countryman four-wheel drive SUV.

More than 5.7 million Minis have been sold since it was first made by British Motor Corp. in 1959. It disappeared from the American scene in the mid-'70s when it didn't meet safety and emission standards, Matson says, reappearing in 2002 under the current ownership of BMW.

In 1995, Autocar magazine named it “Car of the Century.”

Wisbon says he has been a Mini fan since watching the BBC comedy “Mr. Bean,” who drove one. He, his father, Jim from Bridgeville, and a good friend, Scott Buriak from Crafton, are car junkies who own B&W Autosport, which restores and races classic cars.

They bought a '61 Mini — one marketed by Austin — in 1997 and finally finished restoring it in 2011. In 2012, Wisbon decided the car would be a good site to propose to his girlfriend, Betsy, since she was an auto fan, too.

In a charity lap he paid for at the Grand Prix — at Turn 11 to be precise — he stopped, got out and popped the question.

Matson says it shows the appeal of the car.

“It's not the most practical car, but it is a car for everyone,” he says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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