Aug 13, 2020 update to the Austin Mini Cooper S project car

Project Mini Cooper S | Magazine Series Part 1: Buying Our Mini and Learning Some History

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the May 2013 issue of Classic Motorsports; for more updates, visit here.]

Story by Tim Suddard • Photography as Credited

More than five million Minis were sold over the course of 40 years or so. Its production run continued from 1959 to 2000, amazingly, making the original Mini one of the most successful nameplates in history. While originally designed and built in England, Minis were also assembled or manufactured in such far-flung places as Spain, Portugal, Chile, Italy, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Conceived and designed by Alec Issigonis, the Mini was not the first car to use front-wheel drive—but it did revolutionize transportation because it offered an unheard-of combination of packaging prowess, driving enjoyment, incredible economy and a very low price.

When the Mini debuted, it came equipped with 10-inch wheels, British Motor Corporation’s 848cc A-series engine mounted transversely, and the Alex Moulton-designed rubber cone suspension system that did not use coil springs or traditional A-arms. Also unique was the aforementioned front-wheel-drive layout: The transaxle and differential sat underneath the engine, and the engine oil lubricated all three components. This was not your standard late-’50s car.


Photograph Courtesy Mini

The Mini is built on a unibody structure with compact, pressed-steel subframes bolted to the front and rear ends. When the car was first introduced, tiny 7-inch drum brakes were fitted all the way around. To save space and money, roll-up windows were not used on the early cars. Sliding windows didn’t let in much fresh air, but they were inexpensive to produce and took little space. This also made the doors that much narrower, giving passengers more room.

The Mini crammed all this in a very compact package, with a length of just more than 10 feet—that’s nearly microcar territory. The most surprising element about the car was not its diminutive size, but what Issigonis and his team managed to fit into it. There truly is room for four adults in a Mini, and the design is an absolute delight to drive. In fact, a Mini drives like no other car. The handling is otherworldly and the minimal weight makes acceleration rather brisk as well—despite the small engine.

 

Unprofitable Sales Success?

BMC sold millions of Minis all over the world, but it is unclear if they ever really made a profit on these amazing little machines. Inconsistent accounting and manufacturing techniques are to blame for this car failing to be a financial home run for the now-defunct company.

The one we’re interested in, though, is the version that John Cooper helped make a reality. Beginning in 1961, BMC reluctantly worked with the racing legend to create a performance version of the little car. They called it, appropriately, the Cooper.

That model had a 997cc version of the A-series engine, some nicer equipment, and 7-inch disc brakes with a servo that addressed—but didn’t fully resolve—the braking complaints that customers and road testers had.

Facing increased competition from Ford’s Escort and Cortina in 1963, BMC came out with an even hotter Mini called the Cooper S. Engine displacement increased again to 1071cc, and behind those front wheels hung 7.5-inch brakes that finally impressed contemporary testers. An improved shift mechanism came along for the ride, replacing the rather imprecise “magic wand” shifter of the slower cars. This new unit was in an alloy housing that had an additional brace to restrain the engine’s rocking motion.

The pinnacle of performance for the Mk1 Mini Cooper S came with the introduction of the 1275cc S in 1964. With 75 horsepower on tap (compared to 55 for the original Mini Cooper), this was now a pretty quick car. Its top speed surpassed 100 mph, and zero-to-60 times entered the 10-second range.

Also introduced on all Minis at that time was the hydrolastic suspension system that Moulton had wanted to use from the beginning. Instead of springs and shocks, water and alcohol-filled rubber bags, called displacers, compressed and expanded over bumps. A line ran from each front displacer to the corresponding rear one. When the Mini’s front wheels encountered a bump, the compressing bag pushed fluid to the rear. This filled the rear bag, raising that end of the car and helping keep the car level. The system actually worked well; a hydrolastic car has a great ride considering its small size and light weight.

Mark I production ended in late 1967, as did U.S. sales of all Minis. BMC did not have the wherewithal to make the Mini meet the upcoming 1968 emissions and safety standards.

In total, a few more than 25,000 copies of the Mark I Cooper S were sold from 1961 through 1967 under the Austin and Morris nameplates—identical cars except for the badges. Of these, around 20,000 had the 1275cc engine. And of these, around 9000 were exported around the world, including to the United States.

 

Rallying Legends

The Cooper already had a reputation as a great machine, but the Cooper S became legend when these cars earned the overall win at the 1964, 1965 and 1967 Monte Carlo rallies. They also won overall in 1966, but were disqualified on a lighting technicality that was obviously political in nature.

With these wins in the hands of drivers like Paddy Hopkirk and “Flyin’ Finn” Timo Mäkinen, the “giant-killer” moniker stuck. Sales of all Minis went through the contrasting-white roof.


Photograph Courtesy Mini

 

What We Got

We found our car—No. 1012106A, built in the spring of 1967—in South Florida. A friend told us about the car and assured us it was a rare, originally Tartan Red Austin Mini Cooper S with a late production date and matching numbers. We had to pay the owner a visit.

When we arrived, we took stock of the situation. The car had some rust, had been subject to a repaint in the wrong color, and received the boy-racer treatment sometime in the ’70s. There had only been three owners, and the odometer showed just less than 24,000 miles. Although the car hadn’t moved under its own power in 25 years, we had to assume that it had 124,000 miles on it.


Photography Credit: Tim Suddard

Our project came partially disassembled, but we got most of the pieces. The engine, transmission, differential and interior had been removed and taken apart. We took another trip to visit the seller and gathered all the remaining components.

This wasn’t the ideal situation; we’re always nervous when purchasing an abandoned project in pieces. We also weren’t thrilled about the boy-racer changes. We did collect a fair bit of period boy-racer bits, like a set of super-cool, 6-inch-wide Cosmic wheels that won’t fit under stock bodywork. We may use some of those aftermarket bits on the car. The rest will likely serve as trade bait when we start seeking original pieces. 


Photography Credit: Tom Heath

On the plus side, though, the low mileage and lack of use resulted in transmission and other internals that were in very good condition. The chassis is not nearly as rusty as a lot of Mini projects we have seen, plus the block, transmission, head and virtually every other piece are original to the car. Nothing had been rebuilt or bored out. We paid $5500 for the car, which we feel was fair for both buyer and seller.

 

Benefits of Arriving Late

Our Austin is one of the last 1275cc Mk1 Cooper S models built. In the world of Minis, this is the holy grail. The 1967 cars had every upgrade introduced over the years, from the twin gas tanks to the improved transmission and brakes. Mini enthusiasts will tell you that a 1967 is the one to have, so we were lucky to find this car. Only a few thousand of these came into the United States. 

This is a rare example of what is arguably the pinnacle of Mini production—and in the right color, too—so we’ve decided to return it to nearly original condition. We may keep a few of the period aftermarket additions, like the Minifin alloy rear drums and a cool aftermarket steering wheel, but overall, this one will be a concours-condition car.

From there, we will try to enter it in a big concours event, like Amelia Island or Hilton Head, and then do a long-distance classic car rally, like the New England 1000.

 

Partnering Up

A project like this takes a partner who knows the cars and has the parts and expertise to fix them. While we will need help from several parts suppliers—especially when it comes to finding some of the rare parts that are not available new—we have looked at Mini parts the world over and decided to partner with Mini Mania on this project car.

Mini Mania’s owner, Don Racine, has been a friend of our publications for nearly 30 years. He has raced, restored and modified virtually every iteration of these cars. A recent visit to his home and office convinced us that this is a guy who knows and loves Minis. His garage is stacked full of everything from Mini Mokes to Cooper S race cars, and his office has an incredible inventory of Mini parts.

Mini Mania also offers transmission and engine rebuilding and a host of other services for new and old Minis. Racine founded the company in 1974, and Mini Mania has become the largest parts supplier for these cars in the U.S. They have a topnotch website and reasonable prices. They also provide a forum and technical information for these cars.

 

Getting to Know Our Fellow Maniacs

Unlike fans of many other marques, Mini enthusiasts have a lot of clubs to choose from. We decided to join Classic Minis United.

To own a Mini is to touch history, if only a little. Sure, millions of them were sold over the decades, but that’s because the car is not only iconic, but very capable. Its packaging and engineering innovations let it defeat giants on the race track, and now we own one of the most special versions.

All the components of this car are now in our very excited hands. Soon we will be taking a full inventory and inspecting all the various components we have. We’ll look over everything in detail and decide how we’re going to move forward with restoring this neat little car. It’s the best of the breed, though it’s far from show-perfect shape.

 

Sources

Classic Minis United
classicminis.org

Mini Mania
(800) 946-2642
minimania.com

 

Read Part 2.

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