Allied Press Magazines Logo
Classic Driver Logo New

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.

Mike’s 850

Let’s get back to Mike and his special Mini. When visiting him in Rolleston I found the little car taking pride of place in his home garage.
On my arrival, a modern BMW version just happened to drive up a neighbour’s driveway. “That’s not really a Mini,” said Mike laughing, “my mates and I refer to them as a BINIs!”
There was certainly no argument from me as BMW’s take on the Mini is a totally different car to the humble British machines that preceded them, although perhaps there remains a tenuous link through each version’s DNA.

Again, if I can quote from Brian Laban’s book; “The BMW design was evolution not revolution. The car was still unique so why fix it when it wasn’t broken? It was time for it to grow up without forgetting its heritage, quicker, stronger, safer, more reliable and comfortable.”
However, here we’re dealing with the classic Mini – and it is these cars that Mike’s long association is with; indeed, it dates back to his childhood.

“My first car was a Mini, more recently and with a young family, there was no more Minis as they were sold to purchase a more suitable family car,” he says. “That was until my old man (Duncan) asked me if I’d like another Mini. My reply was, yes sure, I would definitely get another.

“Dad actually grew up liking the MkI Cortina and rallied one with his older brother. My uncle was into Minis. He died two days before I was born, and my middle name (Eric) is taken after him. Dad believed I was destined to like Minis and loved that I had a special link to his brother.

“Several years ago, when Dad was ill with cancer, he said if he was to leave me a little money, he didn’t want me to waste it but wanted me to enjoy it. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ he asked. I told him straight up I would buy a Mk1 Mini and that I wanted to get a little bit of his ashes in a capsule and have it in the car so we can go for drives just like we used to over the years. We both used to love going for a cruise together and he was very happy and excited about the plan. He was chuffed,” said Mike.

Prior to his father’s passing, when in a Hospice, he used to look at Trade Me with Mike to see what was on offer online. “I showed him this grey Mk1, and he told me to buy it. At the time it wasn’t important given his health situation, we checked it the next day but found but it had been sold.”
Sadly, Mike’s father subsequently passed away.

“Fast forward a few weeks,” said Mike, “and the day the money he had left me hit my bank account, the same Mk1 Mini he had wanted me to buy popped back up for sale on Trade Me. I rang the seller in Auckland and he explained how a sale had fallen through with the previous buyer and he was happy to have the car freighted to me. I was absolutely stoked. You could say it was meant to be.

“Although I’d bought the car sight unseen, the Mini was everything I wanted it to be and means so much to me, Dad would be proud. Over the years I’ve been offered a lot of money for it, but it’s priceless to me - I’ll never sell it.”

1966: A Good Year

The coincidence of the money coming to Mike the day the car came available again is not lost, and it is a link that involves three things – England famously won the World Cup in 1966, the year this Mini was manufactured in England. His grandmother was born in England and Mike is a great supporter of the English football club Liverpool and he has its slogan “you will never walk alone” tattooed on his arm in memory of his father. The car had its ownership origins in London where females owned many of the 850s, the boys probably preferring the gruntier Coopers. A lady in Christchurch, England, had also previously owned the car.

The stars lined up the day Mike purchased the car!
As an aside, football has been a big factor in Mike’s life. Although born in Wales, he has represented New Zealand and played professionally.

Upgrading the Mini

“The little car was stock standard when I bought it, and it still has the same Morris Mini 850cc engine, but I have done a few things to it,” he says. “Some are performance upgrades. It now has a British Heritage certificate that wasn’t with the car when I bought it and this confirmed the car’s matching numbers – the shell, engine – along with the original exterior/interior colour, hydrolastic suspension and drum brakes. Even the glass is stamped.

“I’ve loved seeing the Minis racing in the early days and this is what I’m trying to replicate in a correct way. The car is a café racer. It’s not a restored car – it’s very tidy and can be used in any weather condition. When I get a few issues sorted I will definitely be putting it in a few more car shows around Canterbury.”

Old school and football friends still ask him if he has a Mini and he delights in telling the story about his latest acquisition, something he describes as “hitting the jackpot.”

Modifications made to the car are now extensive, but period correct. Alexander Engineering in the UK (a company that produced performance parts and, for a time, also ran their own racing team) have played a significant part getting the car to where it is today, and the theme of the car is based on tuning accessories they developed during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The company no longer trades, and their parts are hard to find and today are highly sought after by Mini enthusiasts. Predictably many of the parts Mike has sourced are hard to find.

The Mini’s 850cc engine is now fitted with twin H1 SU carburettors with an Alexander inlet, Cooper filters, exhaust extractors and centre-style exhaust. This has given the car a significant power boost from its original 30bhp (22.4kW).

“I still have plans to modify the head,” said Mike, “and maybe a different cam. But apart from that, I’m happy with how the car looks and performs. I have a few mates with Coopers, but as long as they’re still behind me in the mirrors when we go for cruises, I’m happy!”

Not surprisingly the little car is immaculate. It still has its original tartan red interior but with a few period modifications, including a rev counter, key fob, gear knob, Alexander side mirrors and a John Alley half-roll bar. It also has a Lucas rear vision mirror and an S1 Jaguar E-Type petrol cap.

“It’s cool that in those days (the 1960s) many parts were interchangeable. The changes are subtle and nothing like customising but adding them still keeps the car in period and helps keep it looking unique.”
Mike did have a fling with customising a Mini, but it was only brief. That car featured flared guards, but he quickly decided that those kinds of changes were not for him. A photograph on his garage wall is his only reminder.

As promised, a reminder of his father is also in the car – a small cloth bag containing some of his ashes is attached to the heater control knob.

While Mike’s car does not have a name, it is often referred to as ‘Alex’ due to the many Alexander parts that it is fitted with.

The project for Mike has been one filled with passion, sadness, laughter and a desire to do the job properly.

“I’d like to give a huge shout out to some of my family and friends; my wife Jamee and my kids, Maddie, Harlow and Willow for putting up with my hours spent on the car,” he says. “Also, to my close friends who are Mini obsessed – Orrin McKay and Paul Costin of Costin Revival who has worked a lot on the car. Also, to Jeffrey Docherty and his camera. It’s always nice to have people I can talk to about Minis and bounce ideas off. The most important person of all however is my dad, Duncan White. Without him it wouldn’t have been possible for me to own this cracker of a car, and, in spirit form, I look forward to going on plenty of drives in the car with him.”

© Copyright 2016 - All Rights Reserved
Allied Press Magazines Logo
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram