History in Cars: Ten Feet of Trouble

A tale of a Mini well past its best…

All images (c) The author

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.

Work in progress [1] The missing driver’s door (not visible in photo) provided a tremendous sensation of speed… Image: The author

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.

Work in progress [2] Driver’s door reunited. Image: The author

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.

(c) The author

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.

Always advisable to park on a hill… Image: The author

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

6 thoughts on “History in Cars: Ten Feet of Trouble”

  1. This little car became somewhat of an obsession in our family for contrasting reasons. I remember being tasked with filing and priming a large dent on the bootlid, by my younger brother (rather abruptly as I recall as he was in his McLaren Formula 1, Ron Dennis mode of “Don’t talk to me ….I’m thinking, I’m working” mode) Now, being the older and clearly the superior sibling here (in my mind at least) I was not keen to comply but for the sake of the common goal, (ie. me driving it around!) I mixed the filler and got on with the job, mumbling expletives to myself periodically in a cold suburban garage.
    The end result of all our toil (and my father’s mentally and physically health) seemed splendid to us and even though the wipers failed on me half way through a rainy journey from Blarney, as did the steering, requiring my entire body weight to be applied to the wheel just to get it to turn in, it was a very cool way of getting around in Cork in the 1980s. Everybody loved it and it was great fun to drive. In its retirement years, it also served as a fabulous hiding place when pretending to go to mass of a Sunday (This really is for another group meeting!) but it was eventually usurped by a more sensible, reliable and straightforward project, the aforementioned Alfa Romeo Alfasud.
    Oh Holy Mother Of Christ!!

  2. God, and I thought we were the back of beyond. No car inspections in the ’80s? My new to me 1960 Volvo 544 failed its MOT equivalent in September 1967 due to the usual for any car in those days -a rotted out silencer. I had bought the car in Ontario during the summer where I had what we used to call a summer job between “years” at a university, but to register it in Nova Scotia, the new-to-that-jurisdiction car inspection had to be passed. The dreaded red windshield sticker and three days to comply or off the road it went. That was annoying for a 20 year-old uni student. No beer, women or movies for a month to maintain the budget from my summer work, the saved-up minor pile of loot had to be conserved. Just to buy and instal a bloody muffler affected my life that much.

    At least the inspection station hadn’t discovered the seized handbrake cable! It seized in the ON position fully pulled up. You drove the car away after the test or being stopped by police (three times in total for me), because being ON didn’t impede motion all that much until the rear linings heated up and stank, followed by massive shudder. Stopping and flailing away underneath on the rusty cable released it. After that you just didn’t use it until the next emergency and put it on the list for fixing sometime, like the driver’s side rear shock absorber whose rubber lower bushing was shot, clankity-clank.

    With the Mounties, an older car was an invitation to check all lights, horn etc., and prove the parking brake worked. My solution was to waggle the foot and a half long gearlever about and select third, which looked like bottom to the uninitated, then release the clutch pedal sharpish. Killed the engine every time – their police cars were automatics like most even then, and they had no idea I was pulling the wool over their eyes. To them, the killed engine meant the parking brake was working! Then one motored gingerly on as described above until out of sight, then stopped and released the cable from underneath. A feeling of triumph I remember to this day.

    But I won a scholarship for the winter term beginning of 1968 several months after the new muffler, so swaggered about a hundred bucks ahead for a while factoring in the depletion caused by the muffler replacement. I dunno, that $100 didn’t seem to last as long as I had expected. Youth and all. My entire residence room and board and tuition fees were only $1400 from September through April, so any extra was spending money. Beer was the culprit, I think and pizza. (a rather advanced kind still not available in England in the 1990s — what was called pizza in England reminded me of chewing cardboard from empty cereal packets. And 1970s Italian pizza was no better, more like watered down bruschetta on flat bread with a hint of parmesan . They reinvented pizza years later along the North American model and pretended it had been that way since forever – cunning)

    A few years later in London from 1969 as a grad student, I learnt all about Mini problems that other students had. Subframe rot was what they muttered about the most. Mini sales peaked here in about 1961, shortly before folks discovered they dissolved after two winters, and the word spread. VW Beetle sales remained robust. They lasted two to three times as long, about the same as the domestics, although tending to have dissolved panels under the rear side windows and looking tatty. The Volvo, as you may well gather, was an altogether different kettle of fish. It was still on the road in 1973, after two further owners following me.

    1. Compulsory vehicle testing began in the Republic of Ireland in 2000, largely on the basis of a European Union directive which compelled all member states to test the roadworthiness of private motor vehicles. Prior to that, you were pretty much on your own – and certainly, while I was a permanent resident, there was no roadworthiness testing of any description. You can only imagine what was on the roads…

    2. I’d like to recommend a holiday trip to Greek islands, preferably Νομός Δωδεκανήσου where you can find wonderful vehicles like this

      usually transporting goats, donkeys or waqter melons

    3. I remember holidays in France in 1987, that was also before any testing was enforced. Cars looking a bit like the Greek pick-up were very common back then. My dad photographed a particularly ‘beautiful’ 2CV consisting mainly of rust and adhesive tape, roof in rags, seats as well. To our surprise when we saw it drive by one night, it still had one working light at the front and one at the back. Totally sufficient (and a true homage to the first 2CV prototypes).

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