Since turning 17 my transport had consisted of a Landrover (albeit with a V8 in) and a MkIII 1.1 Fiesta Ghia, neither of which had satisfied my craving for a car that actually handled. Moving from South Leicestershire to London for university, with my girlfriend still stuck living in the Midlands, the sensible purchase for my frequent motorway trips was obviously a 20 year old Austin Mini….
Considering the number of Minis produced, it is difficult to find a good one for sensible money. After trawling the country wasting many hours looking at poor examples, one turned up within walking distance of my old school.
An unmolested 1979 1275GT in Pageant Blue with fetching 70s brown striped seats. The only non standard items were a set of 12″ ‘alley cat’ alloys and a ¾ length Webasto opening roof, completing the 70s theme.
I knew that it was the car for me, but it was £500 above my budget – if this seems trivial, put yourself in the position of a 19 year old student that had just spent most of his spare cash over 5 weeks touring Europe in a borrowed Mercedes. Although generally an excellent negotiator, I cave in when presented with something that I want; the following day I brought along someone emotionally detatched from the transaction (my father) and a deal was struck at the fitting price of £1275.
On the 30 mile drive back to my parents’ house, three things struck me:
I had bought an iconic car (albeit with the ‘wrong’ front end) with legendary cornering prowess,
Was this really a wise idea moving from a sensible, reliable hatchback to a classic car built by a nationalised company when a bi-weekly 200 mile trip was necessary?
It’s incredibly quiet and refined in here cruising down the motorway – why didn’t I do this sooner?
However, even after the back road blast between the motorway and home I didn’t really feel the character and ‘chuckability’ that this car is known for. With hindsight part of this was a result of being wary of searching for the limits in what felt like a fragile old car, but I also knew that the chassis didn’t feel that it was set up to be exploited.
I spent the remainder of the summer doing what everyone else does when they buy their first Mini; going to shows and buying accessories of dubious value (but having a lot of fun and making new friends in the process).
On went a stage one kit giving a massively increased noise factor and fuel consumption with a small gain in power and a headache after an hour behind the wheel.
Then a set of Cobra buckets seats so that I no longer had to brace myself against the door on every enthusiastic corner. Finally, and most significantly, I spent the last of my cash on negative camber front lower arms, Group A tie bars and adjustable Avo shocks.
The car was transformed! To this day I have not driven a front wheel drive car that simply refuses to understeer in the same way as my Mini. Friends in far more modern and respected machinery were amazed at the way my car could be hustled around bends.
Completing my first track day at Mallory Park before going back to London finally allowed me to bond with this little car and understand what all the fuss is about…the fact that it lost the ability to steer the following week in a multi-storey car park when the steering column splines sheered however made others question my sanity…
Interesting steering moment aside, I finally had a car sitting outside that made me want to get up early on a Sunday morning and go for a drive, making me smile every time I entered a bend without touching the middle pedal.
Autumn and winter brought with them a turbulent time in our relationship. Four breakdowns on the M11 on cold, wet Sunday evenings with various maladies, culminating in a blown head gasket and the discovery that I had a Friday afternoon engine. British Leyland had a problem for a short time in 1979 with porosity of their a-series engines, so rectified the problem with fitting liners. They also failed to fit the gearboxes correctly to many of these engines. This meant that on inspection, my block and gearbox were scrap. I suppose 20 years wasn’t a bad innings though…
What to the average motorists seems like an expensive problem is actuallymerely an upgrading opportunity to the petrol head/tinkerer.
M.E.D. and an engine built to my specification were only a phone call away…