The morning sun rising over a beautiful corner of the Adriatic is what eventually wakes me. Even at this early hour, the warmth tells me it's going to be another sensational day - Europe has been sweltering under a prolonged heatwave for weeks now - but I'm bleary-eyed, probably from one beer too many at last night's beach barbecue, making the rays of 5am sunlight none too welcome.
In this delicate state, it takes me a moment adjust to my canvas surroundings, and there's a moment of genuine shock when I look out of my tent accommodation and see the nose of a Mini Countryman protruding from beneath my bed. Then I remember - I'm sleeping on the roof of a car!
You see, europeancarweb.com is one of very few outlets given a chance to sleep in one of three special Mini 'camping concepts'; vehicles that adapt standard models for the benefit of sleeping under the stars.
We've bagged the amusingly named Countryman Camp model, which sees a tent-in-a-box added to an All4 model of the Countryman. And the location for this night in the fresh air is the Dalmatian coast in Croatia, just north of Zadar - it might seem like the less fashionable side of the Adriatic when Italy is across the water, but Croatia has all the scenic beauty of its neighbor and less of the crowds, meaning it's well worth a visit...
What's also noteworthy is the five-star hotel 500 yards away, with a room in it for me with all the luxuries I could want. I can chicken-out of sleeping in the Mini any time I like, but in the interest of critical appraisal, I opt to sleep outdoors. Besides, it seems a bit curmudgeonly to bed down in a hotel when there's sensational scenery and a real Mini adventure down on the beach.
Adding a tent to the roof of a Countryman hardly spoils the lines of the mini-SUV. In fact, you could suggest it gives the car a more purposeful, outdoors look. The roof box is a slimline item when folded, and Mini even mounted a tire on the roof of it, Dakar-style.
The box is barely wider than the car, and about the length of the Countryman's roof, so it doesn't overhang the cabin in an ungainly manner.
In terms of the bed, setting it up at your campsite is simplicity itself. Just pop the catches on the roof box and using fabric handles, pull the top half of the clamshell upwards to allow the heavy-duty hinges to extend. The tent is fixed inside the solid parts of the roof box so is automatically set up in seconds. And the base of the box is filled with foam, meaning it's a comfy bed capable of sleeping two average-sized adults with minimum hassle. And you can pitch this anywhere the Countryman All4 can physically drive.
Of course, the car itself is as practical as ever, retaining five seats and a decent trunk; when you eventually decide to settle down for the night, you can use it as a closet by slinging all your belongings in there.
Luckily, the Countryman Camp is the concept that drives most like a Mini, given that the donor car is structurally unchanged by the addition of the roof box. As a 184hp Cooper S model, it isn't short of punch on Croatian mountain roads, which is welcome as the roof box/tire combo adds weight up high. However, there isn't an abundance of roll as a result, and the Countryman generally behaves as it should - it has good grip, a decent chassis, and a ride that's good on the super-smooth surfaces of two-lane freeway between Split and Zadar, but less impressive on the broken blacktop of urban roads negotiating their way through Zadar's outskirts.
The Other Models
Alongside the Countryman Camp were two other methods of getting your head down for the night, the first being a tiny trailer called the Cowley - named after the plant in Oxford, England where the majority of Minis are made - and two Clubvan Campers.
The Cowley is a gorgeous teardrop shape, painted red with black stripes as an inverse of the black-with-red-stripes Clubman that's towing it. There's a short double bed inside as well as a DVD and full sound system. Out back, accessed by a large hatch, there's a kitchenette with a gas stove, wash sink and small refrigerator powered by a 230V connection, while a solar array charges the onboard battery. The trailer is 6" wider than the Clubman and weighs about 660 lb, meaning any Mini can tow it.
As good as the Cowley is, the Clubvan Campers take the prize for the most ingenious use of not much space. Probably the smallest RVs ever created, these take a Clubvan (Mini's Clubman without side windows, available in Europe and aimed at small businesses needing a economical van) and remove the passenger seat for a bed running the length of the vehicle. This means the left-hand drive version is more practical, since the Clubvan's side door arrangement is next to the bed, helping ingress and egress.
Behind the driver's seat is a slide-out kitchen featuring a two-ring stove and small refrigerator, plus a mounting point for a parasol, or somewhere to clip the shower. That's right, with a water tank in the spare wheel well, there's a shower in the Camper.
Will Mini Build Them?
At the moment, the response from Mini is "there are no plans to put the camping concepts into production." This is obviously a shame, because they're definitely appealing products, but should provide inspiration for anybody looking to build their own mini-RV, since many of the parts are available to buy from camping and outdoor stores.