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Classic Café Racer


What is it about Minis that has captivated so many people around the world for over sixty years?
Words: Lindsay Kerr
| Photos: Jeffrey Docherty

I have thought about this a great deal since starting what is my fourth NZ Classic Driver feature on a Mini. My conclusion is that it’s all about the size, particularly of the early ones, the varieties that have been produced and the multitude of uses they have been tested with.

My first Mini encounter recorded for NZ Classic Driver was with Kevin Hocken who had been successful on the club motorsport scene, winning national Motorkhana and club sport championships with his Mini Moke. Doug Drake with his Mini 7 followed, then Denis Moore and his shed full of Minis and in particular the 1275 car he used for classic racing.

The story of Mike White and the 1966 Mini featured here represents yet another different aspect. In Mike’s words “it’s a café racer” – a car that has evolved after a period and is very much influenced by his late father. It also relates back to Mike’s teenage association with Minis.

In Brian Laban’s book, The Mini: The Making of a Modern Icon, he states, “The Mini has stood the test of time because it was so new when it came out and didn’t rely on any gimmicks. It has always been associated with the right people and places.”

Indeed, many of the stars in the Swinging Sixties owned a Mini at one time or another, including Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers (The Goon Show); Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison of The Beatles; Mike Nesmith (The Monkees): Lulu, Britt Ekland, Princess Margaret’s ex-husband Lord Snowdon and Princess Grace of Monaco.

Mini 101

Since rolling off the factory floor at the Longbridge factory in 1959, various versions of the Mini have been produced – the much-loved Coopers, the timber enhanced Countryman, the back-to-basics Moke and the Clubman amongst many ‘unofficial’ variations such as the Kiwi-designed and built de Joux Mini. When discussing ‘people’s cars’ the Mini has often been compared to the VW Beetle and in 1999 the car so brilliantly conceived by Alex Issigonis was voted as the second most influential car of the 20th century behind the Model T Ford.

The first Minis came fitted with an 850cc engine with the capacity slowly being increased as 997, 998, 1071 and 1275cc powered models followed.

The British Motor Corporation (BMC) produced the first Minis with the final ‘classic’ Mini rolling off the Austin Rover Group’s production line in 2000, the company having endured several name changes and mergers in the intervening years.

During its 41 year production run from 1959 to 2000, the Mini concept remained virtually unchanged and by the time production ceased, 5.3 million examples had been sold, making it the most popular British car of all time.

In competition the Mini won the Monte Carlo Rally three times – 1964, 1965 and 1967 – and would’ve won a fourth time in 1966 but they were disqualified over illegal lighting issues. Closer to home, Andrew Cowan won the 1972 Heatway Rally of New Zealand (from Auckland to Wellington) in a 1275 Mini Clubman GT. New Zealand Motor Corporation had initially wanted Cowan to drive a 1275 Marina, but he preferred the Mini. Angus Hyslop, also in a Clubman, was fifth. And, of course, Bruce McLaren also famously campaigned a Mini Cooper in local races in the early ‘60s.

As well, purpose-built Mini 7s with predominately 998cc engines have been around the New Zealand racing scene for around 40 years, as have Minis that competed in the days when national saloon car racing provided class competition (sadly those days have gone).

At the movies a trio of Minis starred in the classic 1969 film, The Italian Job, while the Mini featured in New Zealand’s own Goodbye Pork Pie is now housed at the Bill Richardson Transport Museum in Invercargill.

Interestingly, following BMWs adoption of the Mini brand in 2000, both of the above-named movies were remade using BMW Minis.

Mini-based clubs are active worldwide and here in New Zealand there are around ten clubs catering to the needs of Mini owners.

Continue reading in our September/October 2023 issue of Classic Driver Magazine - Out Now!

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