May 28 2004   Story: Bryan Joslin, Photos by Author

Anyone who has ever watched Cribs on MTV knows that rock stars love to spend their money on bling. Big houses, trendy clothing, flashy jewelry; they all rate high on the list, but the crown jewels of any rock star reside in the garage. We have all seen the Bentleys, the Ferraris, the Mercedes S-Classes that seem to be part of the recording contract. And no self-respecting music man is complete without at least one Hummer on chromed Dubs.

There's no doubt that success in the music business can afford one the ability to buy a lot of nice things, even if taste isn't one of them. But what we see on Cribs are the biggest names in the business, the ones who have made it to the top, even if only for the proverbial fifteen seconds of fame. Easy come, easy go is often the case in this fast-moving business, so you have to get it while the gettin's good.

We've probably all sat down for at least one episode of VH1's Before They Were Stars. Where else can you see high school yearbook pictures of your favorite grunge rocker with captions that read "Chess Club, LaCrosse, Mathletes"? It's always amusing to watch clippings of their early auditions and such, but you never get to see what the would-be celebrities drove when they were delivering pizzas to pay the rent.

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What if the two shows were combined into Cribs: Before They Were Stars? You could be looking at the first episode right now, starring Charlie Deets, lead guitarist and lead singer of the soon-to-be-famous band, Sally. He's also the proud owner of the car featured in this article.

We'll skip the tour of the actual "crib" and focus on the real object of desire, the car. As we make our way to the garage (and we won't say whose garage it is), we come upon his rock-and-roll ride, a black 2003 MINI Cooper S. Of course, in true rock star fashion, Charlie's not actually available the day of the photo shoot (some BS about band business or something). Instead the car shows up with the band's drummer, Jeff. Yeah, somehow we get the feeling Charlie's going to be a star.

As an aspiring musician, the MINI makes perfect sense. What other $25,0000 car says that you're on your way with such style and confidence? The original Mini was always popular with celebrities and seemed to transcend the class lines typically drawn by small and inexpensive cars. The new MINI, especially the Cooper S, is the kind of car that can make the transition from starving artist to superstar, and no one would think twice about it.

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In the fall of 2002, Charlie set the plan in motion, placing an order for his new Cooper S. Unlike many aspiring performers, Charlie was lucky enough not to have to deliver pizza for a living. Instead, he was working at a local performance accessory shop that specialized in European cars, where he was able to carefully plan all of the modifications he would perform on his new Cooper upon its arrival. After all, Charlie was used to being surrounded by some pretty nice cars, so this had to be one special MINI.

Charlie planned to create a subtle screamer, but one that would make a statement nonetheless. A "less is more" approach was adopted, with attention focused on enhancing the existing components rather than simply adding to the car. The finished ride is fast, fun, and still functional, offering few visual clues as to the changes beneath.

The first priority for Charlie was to clean up the appearance of his MINI. When it left the dealership, it had already been fitted with the optional Aero front grille. The rear badging was removed and the "S" specification side gills were replaced with standard Cooper items, which were painted body color for a more integrated look. With the help of a graphic artist friend (can you say groupie?), the chrome window moldings were covered in black vinyl. Tinted side and rear windows further enhance the shadowy theme.

Long before his Cooper S arrived, Charlie made his first accessory purchase for the car, snatching up a set of BBS RGR alloy wheels. A brand new wheel at the time, the RGR is a lightweight, one-piece forged wheel offering exceptional strength. It's also a great looking wheel thanks to its diamond black finish and classic BBS styling. The 7.5 x 17 size requires 215/40-17 tires, and Charlie insisted that they be Michelin Pilot Sports.

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With the visual effects handled, attention was turned to the powerplant. The 163 supercharged horses that come from the factory were adequate, but didn't give the little Cooper that certain "edge" that Charlie was hoping for. To accommodate his power needs, he started with a free-flowing intake system from Turner Motorsport. While this added a few horsepower, the biggest change was to the intake sound, which instantly became more aggressive, snorting like a boar as the throttle was blipped and sounding mean under load all the way through the revs.

To achieve a serious increase in performance, the next step was changing the supercharger pulley for higher boost. Charlie chose a pulley with a 15% reduction from Perfect Power. The corresponding increase in boost requires the ECU to be reprogrammed, and this was also done through Perfect Power. The new chip not only deals with the added boost, but also reworks the ignition timing and fuel maps to make the most of higher-octane fuel.

All the extra breathing up front needed to be complemented by better breathing on the backside as well. A performance exhaust from Borla was installed to handle this. The sport system eliminates the bulky middle muffler on the standard Cooper S, creating not only a better flowing system, but also a lighter one, by approximately 15 pounds. Its stainless construction means it will likely be the last exhaust system the car will ever need. The polished stainless tip is tasteful, looking almost like the factory had intended it to be there, and it eliminates the "beer can" tips originally fitted all Cooper S's. As for the sound, well, it's everything you expect from a sport exhaust: deep, rich, and mellow without being louder than necessary.

The combination of intake, chip, pulley, and exhaust had a definite effect on the performance of the MINI. Where before it felt like a small motor doing a big job, it now feels as though the engine is about 20% bigger. It still works hard to pull the 2700-pound car along, but it seems much more comfortable doing that now. In reality, it's quite a slingshot, and it's amazing how strongly the little engine pulls up to its 7000 rpm redline. Though Charlie has not had a chance to get his own car on a dyno, other owners running the same setup are returning consistent outputs of about 215 bhp, an increase of over 40 hp from stock.

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Keeping tabs on all the happenings under the hood is important, so Charlie opted for a boost pressure and oil pressure gauge from BMP. The kit features not only the gauges, but also a very cleverly-designed mounting pod, which integrates perfectly with the interior styling of the Cooper S. The 2-gauge pod mounts around the center tachometer, and provides excellent visibility of the gauges, far better than the gauge kit offered through the MINI parts department.

Both gauges are full electric, which means the only thing to run into the cockpit are the wires, allowing for a very clean installation inside. Under the hood, the oil filter flange is tapped to receive the sending unit for the oil pressure gauge, while a vacuum line is installed inline to feed the MAP (Manifold Absolute Pressure) sensor for the boost gauge. The resulting installation looks as clean as if the factory had installed it.

The classic Mini Cooper was legendary in the handling department, even though it rode on wheels that measured a mere 3.5 x 10 inches. The new MINI was expected to live up to its forebear's reputation, and most would agree that it succeeded. But there's always room for improvement, right? Charlie felt the car could benefit from a slightly lower and more aggressive stance, so he set about tuning the suspension to his taste. He originally fitted a set of H-sport lowering springs from Hotchkis, retaining the factory sport struts. While this looked great and rode well, the combination understeered considerably.

Not happy with this arrangement Charlie ordered a set of H&R's RSS coilovers, taking delivery of the first set in the country. For those not familiar, the RSS kit is essentially a racing coilover setup designed for occasional street use. In other words, it's harsh. But Charlie fancies himself as hardcore, so it works for him. In reality, the H&R suspension achieved the more neutral feel he was shooting for, especially when H-sport sway bars were added. This new setup also allowed for height adjustment so the proper amount of "attitude" could be dialed in.

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All of these modifications conspire to create a very well rounded, very capable, very attractive little car that is, quite simply, loads of fun to drive. As a musician, Charlie felt there was only one area left to improve: the stereo. He wisely ordered the factory's best audio system, featuring Harmon Kardon components. Satisfied with the sound quality of the factory system, Charlie instead opted to expand his choice of listening options considerably by hardwiring the head unit to accept output from his favorite musical companion, his iPod.

As for Charlie and the band, things are moving along well. Their CD is in the hands of college radio stations throughout the Midwest, where it is getting considerable play. Sally can be seen and heard almost every weekend in and around Chicago. Their gritty, urban, neo-Smashing Pumpkins sound is developing a strong local following. You can check it out for yourself at www.sallymusic.com.

Time will tell if they make it big, but one thing is for sure- Charlie already knows how to live like a rock star. At least you won't be surprised if some day, flipping through the channels, you happen to recognize a particular MINI Cooper S on MTV. No, instead you can say you knew Sally before they were stars.