Samantha Sylander and Brian Dallas were married June 27, 2014 in Reno, NV. Not far away sat Brody and Brooklyn, the pair credited for bringing the newlyweds together. But unlike most how-they-met stories, Brody and Booklyn aren’t relatives, old college roommates or co-workers. They’re the couple’s two Mini Countryman SUVs.
Sylander and Dallas met through the Mini Countryman owner’s lounge on Facebook. Although they shared other commonalities, it was their mutual love of Mini that sealed the deal. After just two months of dating, Dallas proposed and Sylander said yes. They decided to get hitched during Mini Takes the States, a cross-country rally sponsored by Mini USA, designed for Mini owners to strengthen their sense of community and show off their love for their vehicles.
“We wanted to include our cars in some way,” says the new Mrs. Dallas, who goes by Sami. “We figured Mini Takes the States would be the perfect way to do that.”
Dallas and Sylander were part of a group of about 250 cars and 375 people at the official start in San Francisco. The next day, the couple wed at the rally’s first stop in Reno. Their mutual friend, also a Mini owner, was ordained a minister so he could perform the ceremony.
The passion the Dallas’ have for their cars isn’t unusual. In fact, it seems de rigeur among Mini owners. The brand loyalty amongst the Mini community seems unrivaled in the car world, meeting or even exceeding that of Harley Davidson owners. And yes, most every car is given a name by its owner.
The 2014 Mini Takes the States (MTTS) rally is the fifth of its kind. It’s grown from about 275 people at the first event in 2006 to nearly 3,000 registrants for the most event, not including dozens of dogs, and even a lizard. Some drive the entire way from San Francisco to Boston, others join in for only a leg or two.
And it’s not just a drive, it’s a veritable parade. Cars are as individual as their owners, set apart by different colors, logos and decals. One Mini convertible is a gleaming gold-and-red tribute to the San Francisco 49ers football team. Another sports a giant faux key mounted to the back, making the car look like a wind-up toy. Drivers and passengers are decked out in Mini regalia, including hats, jackets and t-shirts. One woman even made her own Mini-logo earrings out of phone charms. There’s the pair of Germans who are nearing their goal of driving their 2014 Mini hardtop all the way around the world, complete with sponsors and their own blog. And the group of four guys traveling cross-country stuffed into one Mini hardtop (never mind where they’ll put their luggage). Plus many more, each with his or her own heartwarming story of the dreams and sacrifices that revolve around their Minis.
Even famed skater Tony Hawk counts himself among Mini owners and fans. He drives a Countryman, which is big enough to fit his four children.
“I love it because it sets you apart,” he says. “By default it makes you different.” Tony Hawk currently has a partnership with Mini brand, and kicked off the MTTS event with an impressive show just across the bay from San Francisco, sailing over a giant gap between two vertical skate ramps as Minis drove through beneath.
The cross-country rally is major investment for Mini USA, with the cost of the 2014 event estimated at around $2 million, according to Mini Communications Manager Nathalie Bauters. Each morning owners meet at a designated “Rise and Shine” location and drive a pre-set itinerary, with Mini picking up the tab for morning gatherings, an evening activity with dinner, and sometimes a pit stop in between. Drivers pay for their own travel expenses (gas, hotels, any meals not included) and only a $45 registration fee.
“It’s a way to say thank you to the people who drive our cars,” says David Duncan, Vice President of Mini of the Americas. Duncan says the Mini community is unique because it welcomes every owner, regardless of background or which model he or she drives, unlike other car clubs, which may look down on people who own entry-level models rather than top-of-the-line trims.
Every Mini employee takes part in some way, along with support from multiple agencies and contractors, from staff bloggers and photographers to ushers waving flags in the parking lot. Some dealers along the way also pitch in, hosting pit stops at their dealerships. Sponsors contribute prizes to give away at daily raffles. While many car companies might cringe at investing so much in existing owners, the management at Mini understands that brand loyalty is just as important as the initial sale. These owners tend to have more than one car, and they eventually will buy more.
Andy and Jen Limon are perfect examples. Another couple that found love through their Minis, they met in 2004 through the SoCal Mini Maniacs, a regional Mini owners group, and were married six years later. The Southern California residents now own five Minis between the two of them: A 2003 Cooper S, a 2004 Cooper hardtop, a rare 2006 Mini GP, a 2013 Countryman and a 1969 Mini Classic they’re restoring. Even their dog is named Cooper. When the Limons were searching for a larger family vehicle, they test drove other brands of Crossovers and SUVs, but ended up getting the Mini Countryman. “We didn’t like the way the other cars drove compared to the Mini,” Andy Limon says. “The agility, the way it drives – we love it.”
Mini’s fun, casual vibe extends to its North American headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, NJ, which is curious considering it’s owned by BMW Group, one of the most button-down car companies in the industry. However, BMW management recognized early on it was important to keep the Mini culture intact, and separate from the stuffier world of BMW. Mini and BMW executives share office space in the same rooms.
“Even though we share the same building, the cultures are totally different,” David Duncan says. “At lunch, you could see a BMW guy in a suit sitting next to someone from Mini dressed like this,” he says, motioning to his jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes.
But don’t mistake Mini’s casual attitude for indifference. Selling cars is serious business, and the Mini team keeps a keen eye on things like demographics, sales numbers and market share. In order to keep expanding, Mini needs events like MTTS to create buzz in communities that might not otherwise be exposed to the Mini culture.
“It’s about what happens when people see it or hear about it,” Duncan says. “It becomes something they want to belong to.”
That sense of belonging is perhaps the secret to Mini’s continued success. The bonds made and strengthened on events like MTTS have led to friendships, marriages and even pet adoptions that transcend sheet metal, rubber and transaction prices. Like summer camp for grownups, the relationships formed in the Mini community on these adventures will last long after everyone’s gone home.