What do veteran glam rocker David Bowie, Queen Elizabeth II and Hollywood bad-boy Mickey Rourke have in common? Stumped? Then let's give you a jump start by adding the world's first supermodel Twiggy, king of cool Steve McQueen and shagadelic international man of mystery Austin Powers. Still stalling? Then squeeze in Michael Caine, Madonna, the Beatles, Paul Newman, Brigitte Bardot, Dudley Moore, Cliff Richard, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Clint Eastwood and 25 British students (all at the same time). Still haven't got your brain in gear? How about Commercial Radio DJ Sammy Leung Chi-kin and former singer and actor Eric Kot Man-fai? And a Tuen Mun physiotherapist, a Mong Kok car-spares dealer and a Hong Kong jewellery salesman. Cutting to the chase, all have, at one time, fallen bonnet over big-end for the Mini, the humble British car that has captured the world's imagination since the late 1950s. John Lennon had one painted in psychedelic swirls of red, green and white. Peter Sellers had his trimmed in wicker. One-time Formula One world champion James Hunt's first racing car was a Mini. And his great rival, Austrian driver Niki Lauda, also enjoyed his first racing success in one (now he owns two). Fashion designer Mary Quant said a Mini parked in front of her studio in 1965 prompted the name of her own great invention: the miniskirt. Although more than five million of the cute cars were produced, the classic Mini was never big in Hong Kong. Here size has always mattered, hence the popularity of the more prestigious BMW and Mercedes-Benz marques. According to Cecil Yau, senior marketing officer at Rover, which owned the Mini brand in the 1990s, the local dealer sold just 200 new Mini Coopers, priced at about HK$180,000, from 1990 to 1997. But for a small group of motoring enthusiasts, there is only one car that really gets their engines running. 'We're all die-hard Mini fans,' enthuses Ted Wong Chi-yin, 33, president of the Hong Kong Mini Fan Club (HKMFC), which gathers twice a month for barbecues, treasure hunts, cruising and much posing. Cornered at a recent gathering of 20 proud owners in Tai Po, the Tuen Mun-based physiotherapist says it is the classic Mini's iconic status that gets members really revved up. Wong himself owns five Minis, which he houses in a rented New Territories warehouse. His favourites are a British racing green 1996 Mini Cooper 1.3i from the last batch of a Hong Kong Rover dealer, a modified black body-white roof 1991 Mini Cooper S with a 1,275cc engine, and a midnight-blue 1969 Australian Mini convertible with wind-up windows. And he's after another, if only to keep it in the HKMFC family. 'It's a white 1960s Mini that a member plans to sell. I've known the car for some time. I don't want to see it land in the hands of somebody not familiar with it.' Talking of families, Wong's enthusiasm for the Mini has even infected his ebullient wife, Vanessa Wan, and their two daughters, aged six and two. 'The Mini ties our family together,' says Wan, who wears a delicate pair of red Mini Cooper drop earrings for the club's big Sunday out. 'We all visit Japan and Britain to attend Mini events and search out spares like brake cylinders, shock absorbers and door hinges.' Alex Liu Lik, 52, affectionately known to HKMFC members as Brother Lik, set up and registered the club with just 10 enthusiasts in February 1993. Since then it has motored ahead and now boasts 140 members. Liu finds this surprising, saying that classic Mini drivers are generally the type of people who like to set themselves apart, to stand out from the crowd rather than belong to one. Liu runs an auto-spares shop in Mong Kok and bought his first Mini in 1982. He was soon hooked and at one time owned six. Today he restricts himself to just two. His favoured steed is a 1972 Mini Cooper S with a 1,275cc engine. Painted British racing green with a white roof, the car boasts a green leather interior and custom-made instrument panel. A DECIDEDLY BRITISH ICON, the Mini confirms that national necessity is the mother of patriotic invention. In 1956, the Suez Crisis led to fuel shortages in Europe and car sales plummeted. Sir Leonard Lord, chairman of the British Motor Corporation, hired Alexander 'Alec' Arnold Constantine Issigonis (later knighted), the engineer responsible for the popular Morris Minor, to design a small, cheap and fuel-economical car with safe handling. Lord wanted to rid the nation's roads of the popular but, to his eyes, ugly German-made bubble cars. 'Small outside, bigger inside' was the brief - the compact car needed to accommodate a nuclear family of four. Rising to the challenge, the Greek emigre incorporated many innovations: the gearbox was placed under the engine, the wheels shrank to 25 centimetres, and a front-wheel drive was modified so the power unit was placed transverse. Other space-saving modifications included a central speedometer, sliding windows to create large door pockets, and a suspension system using rubber springs instead of the more typical steel variety. Legend has it that the maverick Issigonis, who famously claimed 'a camel is a horse designed by committee', sketched his first designs on the corner of a restaurant tablecloth. Released to much Union flag-waving on August 26, 1959, the basic Mini hit the streets for #526. Immediately, the famous and the influential snapped up the loveable motor, making it the grooviest must-have fashion accessory of the Swinging 60s. But the Mini quickly became more than just another 'runaround'. John Cooper, of the World Championship-winning Cooper Formula One team, suggested souping up the engine. The result was the Mini Cooper. When it became available to the public for #679 in 1961 it was an immediate smash. Entered on the international rally circuit, the Mini Cooper S took its first victory in Holland's Tulip Rally the following May. It went on to win the British and European Saloon Championships in 1967 and 1968, as well as the Monte Carlo rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967. To top it all, the Mini Cooper became a movie star, stealing the limelight from Caine and Noel Coward in the classic 1969 crime caper The Italian Job and cementing its reputation as an automotive celebrity magnet. Recently released on DVD, the movie follows a British gang planning to steal gold bullion in Italy. The highlight is a car chase through chaotic Turin traffic as the gang escape in three agile Mini Coopers - one red, one white and one blue, obviously - while running rings around the Alfa Romeo-driving Polizie. 'The three Minis steal the show,' says Wong, who has seen The Italian Job five times. 'It's a classic movie for all Mini lovers.' The 60s were the Mini's era of glory, but the brand continued to be popular in the following decades. British Leyland took over production in the 70s and 80s. In 1990 Rover snatched the baton, successfully expanding into virgin markets like Japan, where it sold 11,000 cars a year. But, alas, all good things come to an end and the brakes were put on the production of the classic Mini on October 4, 2000, the year John Cooper succumbed to cancer aged 77. Today, Britain's Heritage Motor Museum in Warwickshire displays Issigonis' original Mini. BUT THE APPEAL OF THE LITTLE CAR continues. Locally, Commercial Radio's Leung says owning a Mini is like having a temperamental girlfriend. 'Every time I think of selling her she breaks down,' he says. But it was love at first sight. Leung met the object of his affection in Festival Walk car park two years ago. The seductive white convertible, a 1977 manual Leyland Mini Cooper with a walnut dashboard and round wing mirrors, leaks when it rains and has a faulty air-conditioning system. But destiny drew them together when Leung discovered the car was owned by a friend of a friend and that it was for sale. They finally tied the knot a year ago at a cost of HK$30,000. Leung spent a further HK$20,000 on his dream car, strengthening the body with a welding job and finishing with a crimson respray. Graphic designer Elly Chow Siu-ping bought her 1995 automatic Mini, yet another painted in the popular British racing green, in May last year for HK$66,000. 'Driving a Mini is hard,' she says of the stiff, unassisted steering column. 'After my first few days of driving I could not even work a computer mouse, my arm muscles were that sore.' Chow's Mini not only provided her with an upper-body workout, but also severely exercised her patience. 'You really need understanding to tolerate a Mini's defects, otherwise you will go crazy and give up on it.' So what's the attraction of owning a troublesome, temperamental, tiny car that leaks, belches and breaks down? Well, in troubled economic times, there are always the advantages of low initial outlay, and the promise of recouping that outlay - and possibly even making a profit - when it comes to selling the car. 'When I was in primary six [age 11] I always checked Mini prices in the newspapers,' says graphic designer Chan Chung-yin, 29, from Aberdeen, who bought his crimson Mini 30 last year via a newspaper's used-car classifieds. Previously a vocalist and guitarist of a dissolved underground band Distribution, he was inspired by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, who had an Austin Mini Cooper S with a modified boot large enough to hold his drum kit. (Starr's Mini disappointed auctioneer Sotheby's when it was snapped up for just #12,500 at a London sale in 1998. It had been expected to make at least #25,000.) 'Back then you could get a 998cc model for about HK$30,000 to $40,000.' Officially unveiled at the Paris Motor Show last year, the new BMW-redesigned Mini - in which Cooper's son, Michael Cooper, had a hand - is set to steal the thunder from the classics. Madonna was one of the first to snap up a sporty new Mini Cooper (in blue, with a satellite navigation system) for #20,000. Revving sales further is a new marketing campaign, Mission Mini, a competition in Barcelona based on a story by author Val McDermid. It's another caper, building on The Italian Job image, this time involving six paintings that have gone missing from a local museum: teams are being invited to travel to the city in November, pick up a Mini Cooper S and race to solve the crime. (If you hold a manual driver's licence and want to join in, visit www.minihk.com .) Despite the hype, and the look-alike styling, strictly speaking the new Mini is not a chip off the old block. 'Basically, the new Mini is a new car entirely different from the old Mini,' says Stephen Chan, marketing officer of BMW Concessionaires (HK) Ltd. 'It uses BMW's modern, state-of-the-art technology, far superior to its predecessors in every aspect.' Locally, demand has been exceeding supply since its arrival in Hong Kong in March (a year after the marketing campaign began). Ricky Li ordered his manual Mini Cooper (in silver with a black roof) in March and finally picked it up last month. It cost him HK$148,000, but he's a happy man. 'The new Mini's handling and speed are quite good. But its look is no longer as cute as the original,' says Li, who has joined the Mini Fan Club. He wanted the BMW version, he says, because he'd heard it cost a lot to maintain the older models. 'The new one is completely modern. Its body is quite high and heavy compared to the old one. So I treat the old Mini and the new Mini as two individual units.' It is a distinction that doesn't please the purists. Eric Kot Man-fai considers the older Mini as a design classic, rather like the original glass Coca-Cola bottle, and has no desire to upgrade to the new. 'It has history and background,' he says of his baby. 'I don't need Diet Coke or Coke Light. Classic Coke is fine by me.'