English, small, open, two-seater, inexpensive, sports cars… Need one say anything else?
From 1958 to 1979 these little cars appeared in 5 different versions from the nifty Frogeye Sprite to the rather ugly rubber-bumpered MG Midget 1500. For my sins, I have owned, wore out, crashed, rebuilt, and restored a few of these fairly practical little cars ~ and I would rebuild / restore another at the drop of the proverbial hat. Mostly, the whole car comes apart using only a couple of 1/2 inch A/F spanners, (wrenches), and you can’t get much simpler than that.
By modern measure this is not a fast car, especially in any of its standard versions. However, perhaps with the exception of the original mini, (and the Lotus / Caterham 7), there are more spares, tuning parts and options available for the Sprite / Midget than for just about any car you can think of.
For a road trip, with a cute girl, these cars are utterly brilliant. On a really good road trip the destination and how fast you can get there is not the point. To me, the whole ethos of a road trip is enjoying the journey.
The Sprite / Midget is of unitary / monocoque steel construction, with the main strength being in the box-section sills, the facia / windscreen hoop, and the whole of the back end. Of course, these areas are where you’re likely to see rust appearing, or bodged repairs.
The doors and front end all bolt onto the facia / windscreen hoop. And, if you’ve ever owned one of these things you can first tell what kind of condition it’s in by the unmistakable clunk the doors make when you close them hard.
Engines are the venerable A-Series 3 bearing straight four ranging in size from 948cc in the Frogeye to 1275cc in the last of the good-looking cars. In the Midget 1500, the 1493cc engine was lifted from the Triumph Spitfire. (In all honesty, the 1500 isn’t the world’s best engine.) Twin SU carburettors are the usual fitment, and what you want. A better exhaust than the clunky cast iron manifold will pay a lot of dividends.
As standard, none of the engines used in the Sprite / Midget was in a very high state of tune, which is maybe just as well as the gearbox isn’t the strongest unit in the world, (no synchromesh on first gear either). The gearbox used in the Midget 1500 is better.
Suspension is by semi-elliptical at the rear, and lever arm shock absorbers and lower wishbones at the front. Amazingly, it works brilliantly.
You would be crazy to pay more than £5,000 for one of these cars, but people are crazy at times. Personally I would buy a wreck and rebuild it the way I wanted it. Face it, it’s just a pile of tin held together by a few 1/2 inch bolts.
As a gentle touring sportscar, the Sprite / Miget has a lot going for it. It’s inexpensive, reliable, has good roadholding and great handling. There’s a decent amount of room in the cockpit, (as compared with a Lotus 7 that is), the hood is easy to operate on the later versions, (terrible on the earlier cars like the Frogeye, which also don’t have wind-up windows), the luggage space isn’t so bad, and the things are just so much damn fun.
EVERYONE WHO STILL LIKES THE STONES OR THE BEATLES ON VINYL HAS PROBABLY OWNED A MINI
In a poll of 10,000 readers of Autocar magazine the original Sir Alec Issigonis designed 1959 Mini has been voted the best car ever to be manufactured in Britain. In a bizarre headline the results of the poll are said to show that; Original Mini voted best British-built car of all time. For those of us who have lived with a Mini, (including one of its various siblings, Wolsey Hornet, Riley Elf, Cooper, Moke, Van, Traveller, Pick-up, K, Innocenti, & etc…), that headline is a bit of a joke. The original mini was an incredibly well thought out little car, but owning one could be a nightmare. Everything on a Mini went wrong, all the time. When the little coolant pipe between the head and the block failed you were in for some fun. The electrics went wrong if you drove through a puddle. Then it all fell to pieces. Meantime, any Mini was simple fun.
The original Mini famously starred alongside Michael Caine, Benny Hill, and Noel Coward in the 1969 caper movie, The Italian Job. The film shows three Mini Cooper S’s running rings around Italian police cars among the streets of Turin, (and a tunnel, river ford, & etc…). Which is how it would have been. On tight roads and city streets the Cooper S was one of the fastest point to point road cars of the time, (of all time?). Introduced in 1961 the Mini Cooper S won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967. (The Cooper S also placed 1st 2nd and 3rd in 1966 but the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys got their judges to disqualify them because of a dimmer switch in the headlamp circuit. The eventual ‘winning’ Citroen DS also had non-regulation headlights, but they were French headlights.)
If anyone is thinking about buying an original Mini Cooper S, then don’t. It will cost you a fortune, especially if it has any competition history. The investment value of classic cars all depends upon fashion. The Mini Cooper S would have been a very good buy 20 years ago, these days I’m not certain that I wouldn’t be buying at the top of a trend.
The Cooper S was very little different to the standard Mini of the time, other than a tuned 1275cc four pot A-series engine and twin fuel tanks. And, by all the Gods, they are noisy little beasts inside. Your Lady will not like wearing her best Little Black Dress in the thing because they leak rainwater through various holes in the floor. The smell of hot coolant and oil can pervade the interior, the seats are middling uncomfortable, and getting in and out of a Mini in a short frock is a lost art. (Unless the young lady in question is trying to show a lot of leg.)
For those with any mechanical engineering expertise, (and if you don’t know what 1/2 inch AF means you shouldn’t even think about owning an original Mini), then you can build yourself a perfectly good Cooper S replica using a new body shell from British Motor Heritage. That will set you back about £6,500. The rest of the bits are very available and about as basic as they come, including a tuned A-series engine and gearbox. The A-series was first used in a car in 1951. It’s a three main bearing, five port, cast iron unit and in 1275cc form with twin SU carburettors can be made to reliably produce 78 bhp and 78 ft pounds of torque, still with decent fuel economy. For road use I would not recommend fitting a close ratio gearbox, but wide wheels and some decent brakes are a good idea.
While even a fast Mini will struggle to top 100 mph, the original brakes were tiny drums. Front discs are available as are special cast alloy rear drums. The best wheels are still the original Minilite, although you’d be looking at aluminium rather than magnesium alloy. First port of call Minspeed http://www.minispeed.co.uk
The BIG thing about Mini’s is that they are small and light. The whole car was only 120 inches long, 55 inches wide and 53 inches tall. It ran on ten inch wheels. (The spec called for a complete car that could fit in a 10 x 5 x 5 feet box, allegedly.) At the kerb, even a hot Mini would only weigh in at 1,400 lbs. A new Mini could be had for £679. In comparison a brand new BMW-Type Mini Cooper S hatchback has an high-technology 2 litre engine, weighs in at over 2,500 lbs and will cost upwards of £20,000. The New Mini is not a good comparison against an original Mini. A Citroen C1 is far similar to an original 1961 Mini than is a new (BMW) Mini Hatchback.
For those classic car enthusiasts the rest of the Best of British top 10 from Autocar are;
- McLaren F1
- E-Type Jaguar
- Range Rover
- Yamaha Motiv.E
- McLaren P1
- Jaguar XJ220
- Aston Martin DB5
- TVR Griffith
- Ford Escort Mexico
The full Top 100 Autocar list of the Best of British is at http://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/motoring/top-100-best-ever-british-cars
Of the above, anyone with any ounce of sense would only consider owning the; Mini, E-Type, Earlier Range Rover, Ford Escort Mexico. Of these I would consider building myself a Mk 1 Escort. I am informed that original manufacturers Gartrac ( http://www.gartrac.com ) can make you a new bodyshell, I have no idea what that would cost. Crossflow engines and 5 speed gearboxes are readily available, in states of tune up to 150 bhp. A more modern Ford Twin-Cam engine could also be made to fit. However, the more work that’s done on any classic car, the quicker enormous bills are run up, and the less original the car becomes. Some collectors prize originality, but for real road use I’d want as many new, (and more modern), parts as I could afford.
The Yamaha Motiv shouldn’t be on this list as the Gordon Murray designed car hasn’t even gone into production. I would replace it with no. 14 from the Autocar list, the even more brilliant Lotus Elise.
The bottom line is; The original Mini is a brilliant little car, if you want to experience anything like it, then buy a Citroen C1, (Peugeot 107)