PHILADELPHIA -- Eric Savage floors the accelerator, and the light-blue Mini Cooper S quickly pushes 50. He jerks the wheel right, then left, and the car darts from one side of the street to the other. He jams the brakes and the Mini stops -- abruptly.
"Don't worry, I've been a crazy driver so long, I'm good at it," Savage quips, then quickly adds: "I'm kidding!"
Maybe about his driving, but when it comes to the new Mini, Savage doesn't joke. This one is modified with a carbon-filter intake, high-flow exhaust and high-energy spark plugs, all of which contribute to its peppy performance.
Savage, 35, an erstwhile musician and brewmaster, recently launched Helix Minisports to develop parts for BMW's Mini brand.
The Mini -- whose retro styling evokes the 1960s British original, last sold in the United States in 1967 -- has attracted a lot of buzz among auto enthusiasts. Savage's goal is to improve the Mini's performance, from acceleration to braking to cornering.
His idea is not a new one. Once a car becomes "hot" -- think Volkswagen's new Beetle or Chrysler's PT Cruiser -- so too does the market for performance parts. Savage, who works out of a rented garage in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia, already has several competitors, both established parts makers and new arrivals.
This is not a cottage industry. U.S. retail sales of what are called after-market parts hit $26 billion in 2001, growing 93 percent for light trucks and 83 percent for all other autos since 1994, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, an industry trade group.
"People have always loved their cars, but in the last several years they've had money to do things other than buy food and pay rent," said Rosemary Kitchin, the group's spokeswoman. So they've invested money in boosting the performance of their cars.
One of Savage's competitors, Minimotors of Santa Rosa, Calif., began selling parts for the old Mini about four years ago and earlier this year, it added products for the new Mini.
"Sales are certainly not going to pay the rent yet, but there's so much interest in upgrading parts and trim pieces that it's definitely going to be good," owner Harvey Mendelson said.
The new Mini, produced in Oxford, England, debuted at the Paris Auto Show nearly two years ago and became available in the United States in late March. With a length of 11.9 feet, it is the shortest car sold in America. BMW expects to sell about 20,000 Minis this year, the entire U.S. allotment.
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