Would you blow £35,000 on a luxury version of a Ford Ka? Back in the Sixties someone did the equivalent and others followed.
There’s a partial myth about British class barriers finally breaking down in the 1960s. Yes, this was a time when working class kids like David Bailey could make it without having to go to elocution classes and when satire suddenly made the establishment seem less intimidating. But beneath the veneer, and outside the world of ‘creativity’, for most it was business as usual.
The Mini is presented as a classless vehicle. Because it was so different, you didn’t need to apologise for it. You bought it for what it was, not because it was all you could afford. But, for some, that wasn’t enough. There are entire books covering the huge range of cars spun off from the Mini platform but, of these, the ones that more or less kept the appearance of the original interested me most.
In 1962 the actor Peter Sellers commissioned a special Mini to be built for him. The work is ascribed to coachbuilders Hooper, whose roots stretched back to the early 19th Century, but it’s a bit hard to know what their set-up was by then. After the fiasco of the Docker Daimlers, by the 1960s Hooper had become more of a service company than coachbuilders.
Based on a Cooper, the car was fitted with Reutter seats, trimmed inside with Connolly leather and had a wooden dashboard, full instruments and electric windows. Outside it was finished in a dark purple, and a final clever touch were the ‘wickerwork’ sides, real wickerwork cut down to a veneer, lacquered and applied over the paintwork. These were a long-established part of the coachbuilder’s repertoire but, applied to the side of the tiny Morris they had a certain wit, particularly by making use of the Mini’s wing seam as a border. The cost of the car to Sellers was nearly four times that of an ordinary Cooper.
After this, a second, similar car, but left hand drive, was commissioned from Harold Radford & Co for the Peter Sellers film ‘Shot In The Dark’. Certainly, post War, the traditional coachbuilders were having a hard time. Unitary construction meant that rebodying was no easy thing. They were looking around for suitable projects, such as estate car conversions, so the idea of employing their skills to produce an affordable ‘luxury’ car would have appealed.
In 1963, Radfords introduced the Mini De Ville, in three versions, which aimed to offer a Bentley like ambience. Depending on the model, you got all or some of the following – sunroof, recessed foglamps, cowled headlamps, timber dash, cigar lighter, additional instruments, reversing light, badge bar, whitewall tyres, two-tone paint with coachline, full door cards, armrests, leather trim, maplights, lambs wool carpets, electric windows, dipping mirror, air horns, electric window washers, reclining seats and Sellers-like wickerwork sides. Much of this sounds pretty ordinary, but back then you found few of these touches in an everyday car.
Some later Radford Minis were further distinguished from the mass by incorporating stacked headlamp units, as used by Facel Vega, which fitted rather well, and Radford even did some hatchback conversions. Another company, Wood & Pickett, formed by two ex Hooper employees in the late 1940s produced another luxury Mini, the Margrave, which also later used the stacked headlamp trick, this time with the vertical units off the new Mercedes 200.
For those who wanted something more sporty, there was the Minisprint. Poor old Issigonis laboured to provide all that space in such a small package, then Neville Trickett came along and chopped and sectioned the body by 75 mm. The seams were removed and the Stuart & Arden version took the restyling even further, incorporating square headlamps.
Much later, when it was the done thing for an ageing model, the production Mini was offered with special editions, but these never appealed as well as the ones produced by independent specialists in the Sixties. By then, the Mini was no longer the transport of choice for those who could afford something more expensive. The luxury Minis had been particularly popular with celebrities. They said that you’d made it, but they weren’t pompous. Apart from Peter Sellers, Mick Jagger and each of the Beatles had them. However, by the end of the Minis painfully long life, the fun was rather too forced.