A tale of a Mini well past its best…
It may interest you to learn that during the 1960s, BMC Minis were assembled in Ireland. Brittains Group, the Irish importer for Morris, assembled the cars in (CKD) completely knocked down form in a factory on Dublin’s Naas Road to a standard not vastly dissimilar to that at Cowley. Make of that statement what you will.
It was from here that a light grey Morris Mini-Minor emerged in 1966, registered MZI 265 to its first owner in the capital city. Republic of Ireland specification Minis, it would appear, differed slightly from their UK cousins, straddling basic and De-Luxe models, having carpeting, and duo-tone upholstery, if little else by way of creature comfort. MZI was also fitted with the optional heater, which issued an ineffectual warming breeze under duress.
We know little of MZI’s early history other than it had belonged to a succession of close relatives before coming into our lives on the back of a determined campaign waged remorselessly by my younger self upon my long-suffering father. Believing that capitulation might prove the lesser of several evils, a modest sum of money changed hands. The things you do for your kids. The downside of sainted parenthood was the unenviable task of driving the belching contraption the 180-odd miles from Dublin to Cork. Dad recently told me he recalls little of the journey – on balance, it’s probably just as well.
Once home, our initial examination wasn’t promising. The driver’s door was held in place with rope – and probably the occasional decade of the rosary. It refused to stay in third gear without physical persuasion, the engine pumped out expensive-looking blue smoke and the offside door sill, boot floor and rear valance were composed primarily of ferrous oxide and air.
On the upside, it sported a full-width aftermarket dash filled with non-functioning instruments, attractive sports wheels and a home-baked duo-tone paint job. Consumed by fantasies of Cooper replicas, I blinded myself to its more obvious failings and threw myself into a grand delusion, armed with a budget of approximately £1.57. We really should have sourced a better bodyshell, or just started from scratch with something less clapped-out, but very little can hold a candle to the obsessive devotion of a smitten sixteen year-old.
With no budget to speak of, we pulled in some favours and sourced a later-specification 998cc engine, but faced with the prospect of modifying the floorpan to fit the remote gear linkage we had failed to obtain, we were forced to improvise by using an older 850 gearbox and final drive – which did interesting things to the gearing. On the plus side, it made bottom gear somewhat superfluous. The downside however was the unholy racket at anything approaching speed – not that high speeds were MZI’s particular forte.
With the door-hinge panel patch-welded, the driver’s door could be re-attached. It still dropped in a somewhat inebriated manner however – the hinges themselves being knackered. The remainder consisted of blood, sweat, some tears, and epic quantities of fibreglass and plastic body filler. Frankly, it was a death trap, but it is worth pointing out that during the 1980s there was no vehicle testing in Ireland, at a time when a sizeable proportion of older cars were primarily held together with bailing twine. And don’t for a moment think I’m kidding.
Like most skin-deep restorations, it looked fairly convincing as long as you didn’t get too close. However, once you did, Hail Mary experiences came thick and fast. Firstly, the exhaust sheared off from the manifold (on the very day we got it insured), the wiper motor packed up, then the steering column served a formal separation notice with the rack one dark, wet night. The front hydrolastic suspension displacers became chronically depressed, which combined with ancient remould tyres served to make the handling somewhat amusing – to say the least. The full catalogue of disasters and mishaps would take too long to list and frankly I haven’t the heart.
But driving it was always an adventure even if it arrived home on the end of a tow rope more often than I’m willing to admit. But it provided both my brother and myself with amusing and distinctive transport (when it worked) throughout our student days. However, the subsequent arrival of an even more decrepit Alfasud saw all efforts and available funds redirected and MZI consigned to the parental garage, slowly to disappear under gathering detritus. Years passed. I left home and on occasional visits would look in on the poor half-buried thing and quickly turn my shamed face away.
Then one afternoon, dad dragged it out of the garage and as it sat on the driveway, blinking in the daylight on half inflated tyres, a passing enthusiast stopped by and after a brief negotiation, MZI was his. And while I can comfort myself imagining the dedicated restoration that ensued, I suspect the truth was somewhat less romantic – especially once the true state of the bodyshell was ascertained.
All affairs meet their end and as endings go this was not one I look back on without a wince of regret. But such is the nature of formative infatuations. Having said that, given the ensuing thirty-odd years of automotive orphans, waifs, strays and miscreants that at various times have found a home at my door, it is abundantly clear that my Mini misadventure taught me nothing.
An abridged version of this piece originally appeared on Car magazine online.