'I did what you can only do in a Mini. I turned the wheel and stepped on the gas. We dropped about three feet, and cannoned off in the correct direction'
After a while, most really good stories merely serve to show how old you are.
The April 29 sale of a decrepit 1959 Austin Se7en Mini (that’s how they wrote the early name) by Bonhams at their Hendon sale for an astonishing £40,250 – that’s $65,382 – is a case in point.
It’s the 8th oldest Austin Mini – the last digits of the VIN are 108 – with an indicated 30,041 miles on the odometer and hadn’t run in 30 years. It appeared to have spent that time in an unheated garage, close to the sea. The Mini was expected to make £12,000-15,000, but blew so far through that, it beat the £37,900 for Keith Richard’s shiny 1950 Pontiac Chieftain convertible that he drove in the south of France, while the band was recording “Exile on Main Street.”
I think the 1959 Morris Mini Minor I owned in London in 1968 was just as old. All I can remember of the VIN was that the last three digits were 113. Up to that point, I’d been driving an Isetta 300 bubble car, working as a reporter for the Kingston Borough News, a scrappy little tabloid in Southwest London, now defunct.
I had rolled my Isetta on Surbiton High Street one Saturday morning, the month before I bought the Mini. I raced for a gap in the traffic, then flipped over and tumbled down the pavement, scattering pedestrians. I stopped, upside down against a shop front. I could see people inside staring out at me, but I couldn’t get out as my door opened upwards. Luckily, a couple of passersby, who couldn’t stop laughing, pushed me upright and I putt-putted slowly down the sidewalk to the side street and hid behind the newspaper office. The Isetta never stopped running. The only damage was that I had squashed both headlights, which was an easy fix.
But I realized how close I had come to rolling “the egg and I,” many times before. So that’s why the steering wheel would flick – the inside front wheel was coming off the ground. It was an epiphany, and I decided to find a new car.
My roommate and fellow reporter John and I moved out of town to Pyrford, near Woking, where we shared part of a huge house built by the Chairman of the Stock Exchange in 1910. I went to Byfleet to look for another car, since a local Vespa kid named Simon also had a dead Isetta and wanted to buy mine. So for £20 he got it, and I went shopping.
The Mini was on the back row of a used car lot, whose front row would have been the back row anywhere else. It was a dark maroon suede color, like a nice handbag, but it looked pretty straight. “How much?” asked. “Twenty quid, but it doesn’t have an MOT.” I drove it, everything worked and the deal was done – I owned my first car that was still in production.
I wasn’t worried about an MOT, because John and I had a friend with a garage in Woking who had already MOT’d John’s 1959 Ford 100E Anglia. Since we had made the rocker panels out of nicely rounded 2-by-4s, covered with aluminum and screwed to the floor, we weren’t worried. The Mini was pretty straight, except for the left front fender which bulged alarmingly behind the wheel. Lifting the carpet revealed a hump in the floor, which suggested it had jumped a kerb at speed. We decided to bang the fender into shape, put a block of wood under the floor and pound it flat. Perhaps that would realign everything? So we did, and Steve passed it. A new license, and I was actually legal. As opposed to “license applied for” notes in the windshield.
The Mini seemed to drive OK, though John said he could see all four wheels from the back, and had I ever noticed how many tracks I left after I ran through a puddle? Nothing would bring the paint back until, in frustration, I borrowed a tin of my mother’s Ajax cleaner. Energetic work revealed a rather nice dark cherry color, which would actually hold a shine – for a while.
have a number of key memories of that car, apart from the floppy “magic wand” shifter and the push-button starter on the floor. First, I bent the shifter, so it would at least appear to come up from the floor. Then I got those little plates that moved the seat back 3 inches, and the ones to drop the steering column. A bonus to moving the seat back was that the little “fingers” at the back of it now rested on a new, stronger part of the floor.
I learned I could get 40 mpg and that I was flat out at 72 mph, a worrisome speed on ancient 10-inch cross-ply tires, whose first inclination after sudden failure was not to revolve at all.
I learned that the big pockets were a great place to stash a sandwich, unless you forgot about it for a few days in the summer, and also a place to discover a cigarette in a pack you thought was empty. The sliding windows were convenient to stick your elbow out of the rear one and flick cigarette ash out of the front one.
I also learned how far you could go on empty. One Thursday at the Slough Observer, we all got paid and transferred to the Bunch of Grapes for beer, darts and weird microwave burgers, whose meat stayed red. At closing time they kicked us out, and on the suggestion of the city editor, we adjourned to the Cygnet Club in Windsor, across the river, where we could also gamble. By 3 a.m., we couldn’t raise enough for a round of drinks.
Eventually stone-cold sober I found myself in the parking lot. Climbing into my car, I noticed with alarm that the gas gauge was on E and I was at least 30 miles from home, cross country on back roads. I hadn’t even filled it up. So I snailed my way home, switching off the ignition on the downhills and I made it. I borrowed enough for a gallon of gas from John and borrowed a week’s wages from my grandmother to tide me over.
Later that summer my brother and I drove the Mini down to Somerset to my uncle’s place outside Taunton. We gave a ride to a colleague, who no longer had a running car, having rolled his Turner through a five-bar gate, during a hill climb. We stopped for lunch at a pub in his home village of Huish Episcopi, and headed cross-country to Langport, about 15 miles away.
It was a lovely day and we were blasting along a narrow lane to a humpback bridge at about 45 mph. Cresting the bridge we noticed that the road took a VERY sharp left. I did what you can only do in a Mini. I turned the wheel and stepped on the gas. We dropped about three feet and cannoned off in the correct direction.
The trip was the beginning of the end of the Mini. It had a light rattle in the engine that I could never pin down, and on the way home at night, the generator light came on. We limped along, watching the temp gauge climb and finally found a village street light. The fan pulley had separated, the tinkling noise was the rivets trying to tell me they were leaving town. Amazingly we found a gas station that was open, got a plastic jug of water and made our way slowly home, having developed a miss.
When I pulled the head, I found a burned exhaust valve, but also what looked like a crack. Still it ran, and didn’t overheat, so I tracked down Simon, who had blown up my Isetta in the meantime, and he and his dad bought the Mini for £20, which was still a pretty good deal. I ploughed the money into the only un-rusty 1957 Vauxhall Victor I ever saw, but that’s another story.
So now I’m one of those characters I recall from the old Bike Magazine cartoon. The Devil says: “Put him in room 212, with the bloke who sold his Vincent Black Shadow for two quid.”