[Editor’s Note: After eight years, an extensive blog, and two follow-up books, Jeroen Booij‘s “Maximum Mini” has warranted a second edition with more information on the various Mini derivatives Jeroen documented. On this occasion, we asked Jeroen to elaborate on the Mini’s ability to inspire tinkerers, racers, and the like. To snag yourself a copy of “Maximum Mini,” visit Veloce.co.uk.]
So much has been written and said about the Mini in the past decades, you would think there was nothing new to add. But that the greatest small car in the world brought life to numerous derivatives and specials remained in obscurity for a long time.
Since it’s been 58 years this year that the Mini bounced into to motoring scene; chances are low you missed out on its background. In fact, the Mini’s story has been told umpteen times, including all the sixties’ fashion statements it made and the heroic Monte Carlo-victories of then. The 10-foot ‘brick’ that Alec Issigonis, Jack Daniels and the rest of the BMC development engineers brought to life in 1959 has become a bit of a legend itself. But still then, there is this part of the Mini’s history that seems never to be taken serious and is therefore much undervalued. It is the influence that the great little car had on the kit car industry. Or perhaps we should talk specialist cars and cottage industry, as this is a very British affair. As a matter of fact, the market for DIY sports cars had reached a peak in the UK when the Mini was introduced in August 1959. About a decade earlier British motoring enthusiasts had started offering cheap sports cars in component form for budding racing drivers. The invention of fibreglass – the new wonder material – undoubtedly had a great influence. And it didn’t take long before streamlined bodies were available. You could buy one from companies as Ashley Laminates, Speedex Castings or Falcon Shells from under £100 and turn a tired old Austin Seven or Ford Popular with its straightforward chassis and well-proven power unit, into something that looked somewhat like a C-type Jag or Aston DBR1. That most of them rattled, squeaked, leaked and overheated didn’t seem to care for their owners. Enthusiastic as they were, they loved these cheap and eccentric little sportsters.
The market proved in fact to be so hungry that by the end of the fifties the choice for body styles was abundant. Any owner of a rusty old Austin or Ford dreaming to convert his mundane saloon into something more exotic could choose from well over a hundred different sleek roadster and coupé bodies. But their downfall was soon to come. In fact, the introduction of the Mini in 1959 spelled the end of these sluggish specials. The Mini was relatively cheap and could outperform and out-handle most of them easily, thank to its ingenious cone and trumpet suspension setup and spritely handling. It didn’t take enthusiasts long to find out that Issigonis’ baby proved to be a terrific base for their beloved specials. What could be fun in a heavy steel body shell could be even better in a lightweight fibreglass body. And so it could. With its two subframes – attached with just eight bolts each on the Mini’s steel body – to locate complete power train and suspension, the Mini’s mechanicals lent themselves perfectly to the dreams of the budding car designer. A new generation of specialist cars was underway.
While The Beatles dominated the charts, sports car enthusiasts with a limited budget were exploring the UK scrap yards to find bits and pieces to build up a Mini Marcos, Mini Jem or Mini-based Terrapin race car. It all began somewhere in 1960 when a Mr. Roland turned up with what has to be the first Mini based Special at Silverstone. The car in question was never seen again, but the market for Mini-based specials and -derivatives soon mushroomed. GT’s; coupés; roadsters and fun cars: the Mini proved to be a terrific base for some of the world’s most imaginative vehicles. On the last day of 1961 the first two official Mini-derivatives were launched at the Racing Car Show in London’s Royal Horticultural Halls. On stand 18 the Butterfield Engineering Company showed their Butterfield Musketeer. The two-seat coupé was designed by 21-year old Richard Butterfield, who’d given up his study horticulture to set up a car designing company in his father’s nursery. The Musketeer’s aluminium body was hand-beaten by coachbuilders Williams and Pritchard of North-London and was finished just in time to have the car assembled for the show. Richard Butterfield had kept as much as possible of the original Mini’s mechanicals: “I wanted to take advantage of the handling characteristics and simplicity of the original car. Simplicity was important because I had only limited engineering experience.” Butterfield bolted the Mini’s subframes together by two longitudinal tubes with welded cross members. The front-engine configuration was retained and by moving the radiator to the front of the car it came with relatively low nose. Production cars were to have a fibreglass bodies and were offered from £848.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the halls complex at stand 73, Morgan tuner and racer extraordinaire Christopher Lawrence and his company LawrenceTune Engines Ltd. unveiled the prototype of the Deep Sanderson 301. Like the Musketeer the Deep Sanderson’s aluminium body was done by Williams & Pritchard’s and it, too, was to become available in fibreglass kit form. The main difference was in the layout as this car had its Mini-engine placed behind driver and passenger. The show guide blurb said: ‘The car evolved directly from our last Formula Junior car and is of very advanced design. Suspension is all-independent by Lawrence trailing link; engine is 1,000cc transverse mounting; brakes are disc on the front and drums on the rear. The car is primarily for road use and will be sold in kit form at a very low price.” But road use or not – unlike the Butterfield Musketeer that was just raced once – the little 301 was promoted heavily in racing. It even took on the might of Jaguars, Ferraris and other much bigger machinery in a classic endurance races such as the 500 km’s of the Nürburgring and the Le Mans 24-hours.
And the Deep Sanderson was not the only Mini-derivative that made it to the sacred grounds of Le Mans. There was also the more successful Mini Marcos GT: a tiny terror, launched by Marcos Cars in 1965 to broaden their range of bigger sports cars with a fashionable and cheap Mini-based sport scar. At a very low £199 the ‘Son of Marcos’ came as an easy to fabricate fibreglass monocoque shell to finish off with the running gear & subframes from any Mini. According to the advertisements a customer could build the front wheel drive car in 15 to 20 hours without specialist knowledge or tooling. One of these customers was professional deep sea diver Jean-Claude Hrubon from Paris. He built a car with 1289 Cooper ‘S’-engine and raced in at Monthléry, where he was invited to take it to the Le Mans 24 hours race of June 1966. Drivers were Jean-Louis Marnat and Claude Ballot-Lena. And to the surprise of many it came home fifteenth overall and was the first British car to finish the race that year. Marcos boss Jem Marsh entered an aerodynamically altered works car for the 24 hours race of the next year that managed a cool 141 mph at Mulsanne straight. Unfortunately it did not finish because of a broken timing gear. But by then the Mini Marcos was selling well and a Mk2-version was yet available.
Then there was the Unipower GT, masterminded by Elva racing team manager Ernie Unger and freelance designer Val Dare-Bryan at Goodwood in 1963. The car had a space frame and independent wheel suspension all round that used Mini uprights, modified Mini suspension arms and coils springs and a Mini engine, placed just behind the driver. The striking body was designed by a Ford-stylist who wished to remain anonymous as he’d drawn the car while his bosses where thinking he was working on the GT40. The project was backed by Tim Powell, whose company ‘Universal Power Drives’ manufactured forklift trucks and mechanical winches and could do with an image-boost. Named as the ‘Mini Miura’ in the motoring press it was well received, but development of the car turned out to be problematic. With production finally in full swing Powell sold the company in 1968 to 22-year old playboy racer Piers Weld-Forrester, who moved production to London and launched a Mk2 version. He began to concentrate on a comprehensive racing publicity campaign and had three lightweight works cars built. One was entered for the Targa Florio in June 1969. It was air freighted to Sicily where the car came twelfth in practise, but was crashed by a mechanic at the night preceding the race. At Le Mans that year it lost a wheel at high speed. There was no serious damage but when the engine blew up after three hours practising it couldn’t race anymore. And there were similar troubles with the Gran Premio Mugello, the Grand Prix of Denmark and the 12-hour race of Barcelona. The costly racing activities eventually spelled the downfall of the company after only 15 Mk2’s were built.
Many more Mini-derivatives were born with a racing career in mind. Starting off with the idea to build just something different, their creators thought racing could be a good means of advertising their products once they’d finished the car, and took their baby to the local track. With cars such as the Mini Marcos; Mini Jem; Cox GTM and Broadspeed GT this seemed to work; others sold no more then a handful. Six examples of the sharply styled Camber GT were brought to life; 8 Ferrari Dino inspired Pellandinis; 6 Maya GTs and no less then 31 strangely proportioned Biotas. Others never even made these figures. Production of the Australian Bulanti Mini came to an end when its creator found out how demanding his customers were – one even asking for an ashtray to be fitted! – and no more then three Bulantis materialized. The ultra low Coldwell GT with its space frame construction never crossed the quantity of four and the same went for the Fletcher GT and the ‘miniature Can-Am-racer’ Landar R7. Other Mini-based sports cars remained a one-off, like the pretty Gitane GT; the Boro GT; the Italian ESAP Minimach and Australian Lolita Mk1 and Mk2.
But not all of them were race-bred. One of the earlier Mini-derivatives actually aimed at the luxury car market: the Ogle SX1000. Presented in December 1961 by David Ogle of the design house with the same name, the Mini-based baby GT soon caused a stir. The SX1000 used all of the Mini’s mechanicals – even its complete floor pan, inner wings and part of the bulkhead. It looked completely different thanks to a striking fibreglass shell. From 1962-on David Ogle Limited transformed any Mini into his baby-GT in their Letchworth-factory. And thanks to the good design, excellent finish and relatively sharp price (£550) it was not too hard to find customers. That it cost considerable more to build a car was later revealed by Ogle’s then-chairman John Ogier, who said: “It would have been cheaper to give any customer £300 and told him to go away!” But at the British Motor Company headquarters in Longbridge – who had initially refused to supply new parts – the apparent success of the Mini-based GT did not go unnoticed. They soon agreed to supply new parts, but insisted that no mention of the word ‘Mini’ was used in any of the promotion. Ogle managed to sell 69 cars world wide before tragedy struck and David Ogle was killed in a road accident driving one of his own cars.
Some renowned Italian carrozzerias had their share in the Mini’s derivative story too. Zagato launched their ‘Zagato Mini Gatto’ in 1961 – the same year they came up with the now mega valued Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato and Alfa-Romeo Giulietta SZ ‘Coda Tronca’. The car was built on the base of a new Morris Mini Van and came with an aluminium body over its original steel floor – very superleggera. Under the bonnet a tuned 998cc Cooper engine came fitted with specially developed Dellorto-carburettors. The ‘Mini-Zagato’ as the prototype was called was shown at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1961 but it soon turned out the British Motor Corporation was not particularly happy with the idea. BMC’s Lord Stokes claimed it conflicted with his Mini programme and did not want to collaborate by supplying cars or parts, killing the ‘Mini-Zagato’. Ironically, from 1960-on BMC worked on a few Mini-derivatives themselves, cooperating with another famous Italian name: Pininfarina. The cars they came up with – internally indicated as ‘ADO34’; ‘ADO35 and ‘ADO36’ (for Austin Drawing Office) were Mini based but MG badged roadsters and a GT that never saw production.
Years later Michelotti too, was asked to design and build a Mini-based targa-roof roadster – the ‘ADO70’. That sharply styled proposal never made it because it was feared that the design would not comply with the American safety and emissions standards of that time, while the USA were thought to be the main market. The Mini’s manufacturers never the less kept their eyes on the blossoming market of Mini-derivatives. When Barry Stimson launched his Stimson Mini Bug in 1970 – an idea he’d come up with when seeing a Myers Manx beach buggy in Canada in 1968 – reactions on the cheap little Mini-based buggy were really good. The car even made it to national television. British Leyland, as the BMC-concern was now named, showed an interest too and came over to Stimson’s humble factory to examine the car. Barry Stimson, now resembling an ageing rock star recalls: “They wanted to know all about the stress tests we had put it through. I said we had a fat friend and we got him to bounce up and down on the chassis. If it bent we welded another strut in. We never heard a thing of them anymore.”
The blossoming privateers market for Mini roadsters, buggies and coupé-derivative is the main reason why BMC themselves never offered a car of that kind. Apart from that Sir Alec Issigonis himself always expressed his disliking of any of the sporty Mini-variants. Marcos-boss Jem Marsh remembers how the Mini’s designer disregarded the French-entered Mini Marcos during the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1966. Marsh: “Alec Issigonis wouldn’t even talk about it or look at it, and he left in disgust because it was still running at midnight.” Ironically however, Issigonis, too started his motoring career with a Special built by himself and his friend George Dawson on the base of an old Austin Seven. Obviously with the same kind of enthusiasm that the designers and builders of all those Mini-derivatives had. Issigonis’ ‘Lightweight Special’ actually was his first car to demonstrate the potential of all-independent suspension with rubber springs. And it did well in the hands of it creators just before and after the Second World War. Much later Issigonis described the car as “A frivolity in my life. It was not so much a design exercise as a means of teaching me to use my hands.” But then you could say the same of all the specials and derivatives that were born out of the Mini. At least, they brought some good untold tales to the motoring industry.
After I met Deep Sanderson’s Chris Lawrence in 2005 I decided to write down as many of these tales as I could to write a book about them. When the book – called Maximum Mini – came out in 2009, I’d spoken to many of the people who were originally involved with these cars, quite a few of who have now passed away. I also found back some of the cars that were believed to have gone lost forever. Among them the unique Zagato Mini Gatto that I found with just 4,107 kilometres on its clock in a Milanese shed where it had been parked since 1973. Or, in a French barn, three out of twelve built Quasar Unipowers. Or, on a scrapyard in Britain, the first car that F1-wizzard Gordon Murray built – the IGM Minbug – that I sold through to an emotional Murray the next day. But by the time the first book came out, I also knew there was so much more material that needed further investigation. And so, another book followed in 2014 – Maximum Mini 2 – describing another 60 Mini-derivatives in detail. And even then there was room for more. In 2016 the last in the series came out – Maximum Mini 3 – with another 400 (!) Mini based vehicles. Among them a gyroscopically stabilized two-wheeler made by a rocket scientist and a famous industrial designer, a chain-driven tracked vehicle built for a 1965 Antarctic expedition and a three-wheeler that was built by the chief stylist of Rolls-Royce and Bentley in his spare time. By this time I still find out about new cars and continue to research ones that have been described in the books. It lead me to the holy grail of Mini derivatives at the end of last year, when I tracked down the long lost Mini Marcos that came fifteenth at Le Mans in 1966. I bought the car in Portugal and am now working on its restoration. And I can assure you: there’s enough material for another book from that one alone.
[Jeroen Booij’s “Maximum Mini” is available now through Veloce Publishing.]