Tech Tips: Mini Cooper

This article originally ran in our November 2011 issue. Sadly, we're completely sold out of that issue in our store, but hopefully, you'll find some information helpful nevertheless. Curious about pricing? We recently updated prices for Minis in this article. 

The original Mini is one of the most popular classic cars around, and for good reason. This cheap, nimble, simple, comfortable car was produced for decades relatively unchanged–a testament to its brilliant design. However, owning Britain's alternative to the Beetle isn't always as simple as it seems. Here are some tech tips from our favorite classic Mini experts.

Stay Stock

Sometimes the best way to improve a car is to leave well enough alone! We’ve had a boatload of Minis come through the shop over the decades, and by far our favorite drivers are the ones that are completely original.

The overall driving experience of a good, unaltered car is hard to beat, but many people have probably never had an opportunity to drive such a Mini. Perhaps everyone likes to play an “Italian Job”-style boy racer once in a while, but a car that has been significantly modified into a street legal go-kart can sometimes be quite unsatisfactory as a daily driver.

A car that has a cranky, high-strung engine or a harsh-riding, noncompliant suspension is no treat to drive in regular service. I think there may be no car that has a greater range of performance parts available to modify it into something different than what it was originally intended to be, but remember that these offerings are coming from people who are in the business of selling parts. I recommend seeking out a good original example and taking a lengthy test drive before committing to making any radical changes to your car. You may be surprised at how nice a completely stock car can be. -Paul Dierschow

Oil Changes

If you’re only good at one maintenance task with your Mini—automatic or standard transmission—make sure it’s changing oil. That wonderful, space-saving combination of the gearbox and the oil pan/sump under the engine is an oil-killer.

Use a good-quality 20W50 oil, and change it and the filter at least every 3000 miles (2000 miles for automatics) or six months, whichever comes first. If you consistently drive in colder climates, 10W40 will work as well.

You’ll need 5 quarts to do the change, including oil for the filter. If you’re fortunate enough to have a spin-on filter, be sure to fill the filter with oil before installing it on the engine. An oil with a zinc additive (ZDDP) is a good idea.

Radiator Options

The cooling system in the Mini used the same basic style of radiator since its debut in 1959 up until the introduction of the twin-point-injected cars, when the radiator was moved to the front of the car.

The original Mini was powered by an 850cc engine and designed for the little back roads of the U.K., so the cooling system demands were nominal.

As engine capacity and performance demands increased, so did the need for more efficient cooling. All of this had to be accomplished within the limited design space allowed for the side-mounted radiators, and maintaining low production costs was a key factor. (Even plastic header tanks can be found on late-model Minis!)

With the closing of all real factory capacities, the aftermarket industry came to the rescue.

First, they introduced a modern production technique, then offered solutions for improved flow and performance. We’ve found that while some of the later factory parts aren’t bad, aftermarket three- and four-row cores are the best option for keeping the Mini’s engine cool—especially for higher-performance applications.  -Don Racine

Parts Is Parts

Of the 5 million Minis produced, less than 10,000 were officially imported to the U.S. in the 1960s as complete cars. After that, many thousands more cars were brought into the States labeled simply as “parts.” The bodies were shipped separately from the engines to get around import taxes and DOT regulations. 

You can imagine that in this scenario, components were not matched up as they should have been. You may find a car titled as a 1963 with a 1970 body and a 1985 engine. The seller may not even be aware of this issue. It is something for classic Mini shoppers to be aware of, however, as mismatched parts can create problems when it comes time to repair or restore the car.

 To determine a car’s exact age, you can tap into a huge Mini network for advice or take it to someone who knows Minis. Whether or not the parts match does affect the value of the car, so whether you’re a purist or not, you should know what you’re buying. -David Icaza

Check Those Doors

To make use of every available inch, 1959-’69 Minis have wide doors featuring sliding windows and open cavities. I have found that these unique doors can also be a most expensive and challenging part of a restoration project.

After scraping away the paint on my 1962 Mini Cooper, I found the outer hinges had rusted through the door skin due to moisture and the reaction of dissimilar metals and worn-out hinge gaskets. Upon removing the inner door panels and the sliding windows, I found that the door was rusted beyond repair, caused by the two drain tubes in each door either being broken or blocked.

Replacing both doors, the hinges and the paint can easily cost $2500.

Meanwhile, a careful inspection, new door hinge gaskets, and replacement door drain tubes can cost about $25 in materials. -Ken Hyndeman

What Is It?

If you look at any ad for a Mini for sale, you’ll read that it’s a genuine Mini Cooper or a 1960s- or 1970s-era car. Keep in mind that no Minis were imported into the U.S. by the factory after 1967 and that most Minis weren’t Coopers.

Furthermore, a lot of gray-market cars that have been imported in the past 10 to 20 years are newer cars that have somehow been given earlier dates on their titles. Most of the suppliers have good ways to help you identify exactly what year and type of Mini you’re working on. Consult with them—not a seller or even the car’s title—to figure out what you’ve got.

Rust

All cars rust, and Minis are no exception. Look for rust in the floors, the rocker panels, the A-pillars, all seams, and the rear subframe.

A little is okay if you’re ready for a project, but a lot will quickly cost more in repairs than the car is worth.

Brakes

The early four-wheel drum brakes on Minis aren’t very good. The later leading-shoe front drums are better, but they have to be adjusted and maintained very well for maximum performance.

The better setups are the discs from Coopers and later Minis. Fortunately, there are kits available to facilitate this upgrade if you’re so inclined.

Bodges

While Minis have attained icon status and are quite collectible now, for a long time they were just cheap economy cars. It’s amazing how many were repaired with duct tape and bailing wire during this time.

Look for inappropriate repairs and do your best to put the car right. Many of these repairs are harmful to the car—and possibly to you.

Electrics

All British cars are criticized for their Lucas electrical systems, but the truth is that the systems work pretty well as long as corrosion or bodges have not set in. Dirty or rusty connections account for most electrical problems, especially around grounds. Cleaning or replacing components will get things working fine most of the time. Likewise, undoing any bodged “upgrades” or “rewiring” and putting things back to stock is usually the best course of action. -Carl Heideman

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