Al Mini

In vehicle dynamics, weight is an important consideration. Weight affects a car’s dynamics unlike any other, making its presence known from the purely subjective measure of “driving pleasure” to the cold numbers of fuel economy. With legislation requiring ever more safety equipment, and consumer tastes demanding ever more comfort, space and better fuel economy from their cars, it’s a mad dash to keep vehicle weight in check. Different materials are now being employed towards this end, and aluminum has been working wonders, with early mass-market adopters Jaguar and Audi preaching its weight saving benefits.

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Of course, racers have been gracing intricate frames with shapely aluminum bodies, shedding weight without the fatal consequences of setting magnesium alight.

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If you remember the ingress for the Mini 80 Club’s celebration of the Mini’s 55th anniversary, this is the Mini that came on a trailer shod with Minilites.

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Before we start on the Mini, I first want to spend some time on the trailer. Rick, the Mini’s owner, designed the trailer himself, so it carries Minis in perfect security. Helping to that end are the multitude of locks that keep the car in place.

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Two pairs of anchors front and rear help keep the Mini in place, and the ramps slide in and out of the trailer for easy deployment.

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At the front is room for a spare tire and some beautiful metalwork to form a robust hook-up point.

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Now for the car the trailer was built for. If it seems ordinary, that’s only at first glance. The story of this car is the story of one man’s education in the ways and joys of low-power, high-momentum driving.

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Don’t be fooled by the plain bodywork and plain paint colour, this is actually an excruciatingly rare car. Of all the Minis in the country, this is one of two that sport a complete set of aluminum body panels, and the only one of the classic Mini body; the other full-aluminum Mini is a Clubman. Welcome then, to the only full-aluminum Mini in the Philippines. One of one.

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But this little number doesn’t just sit around, no. This rare, one-of-one Mini sees track time, and in fact just the week prior to our visit was racing wheel to wheel with other Minis at the Clark International Speedway.

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We are, however, getting ahead of ourselves.

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This Mini has long been in the ownership of Rick’s father, but it was some time before Rick took an interest in it. Rick actually mildly despised the Mini, because in his eyes these were powerless little cars that could be no fun at all. Rick was a staunch believer in the letters “STi”, and to him it was all about tire-shredding four-wheel drive monsters.

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The car was put in storage some time before Rick left for the United States, and it was only in 2010 when the car was pulled out of storage and under the knife for a full nuts-and-bolts restoration. Even then, it wasn’t completely under Rick’s volition. An old friend had come back from the 1990s asking if the aluminum Mini was still around. After a bit of cajoling, Rick was convinced to start the restoration.

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Honestly, it would have been a true shame not to go through the restoration. Aside from the aluminum body panels, this is a legitimate Mk 1 Cooper S, first registered in 1964 as told by the registration papers. But far from a back-to-factory restoration, Rick decided to go the period route, building the car to capture an era.

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When we shot it, the car was riding on these rare 10-inch ATS Classics shod with Yokohama Advan A-008s. These are the Mini’s usual wheel and tire combination for off-track travel.

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Off to one side were the Mini’s race wheel and tire combo. These are Advan semi-slicks on 10-inch Rose Petals. The Rose Petal is the “other” traditional racing wheel for the Mini, the other being the Minilite. As far as period goes though, you can’t go wrong with either Rose Petals or Minilites; it’s all up to your individual preference.

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All by itself with the semi-slicks was this forlorn-looking wheel. I’m not entirely sure what this wheel is, and neither is Rick, citing it as a giveaway from another friend.

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On the leading edge of the white roof is a GoPro mount. As far as cameras go, the near-indestructible GoPro line has loyal followers in thrill-seekers. Light, powerful and relatively cheap, it’s become the go-to brand for cameras meant for treacherous mounting.

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Along the bottom edge of the rear window is a series of stickers that should all be familiar names to those in the historic racing scene. It is but a hint at the pedigree built into this car.

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Open the very light aluminum-skinned door via a mechanism that feels like well-oiled weaponry…

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…and your treat is a stripped interior every bit as clean as the exterior.

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The central instrument binnacle is correct, with an additional panel to house the auxiliary gauges and switches, plus a map light.

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A beautiful wood knob tops the long, slender shifter. The handbrake handle is a simple affair, as it should be.

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The module for the MSD ignition system sits inside the car, most likely for easy access.

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Right where the passenger’s feet would be – if there was space for one – sits a small fire extinguisher. Such a thing is basic safety equipment on a race car.

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Further on the safety front, you’ll probably have noticed the lurid red roll cage by now.

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Clever bit of kit, this cage. It’s an FIA-approved cage, which mean this car should pass safety scrutineering at FIA-sanctioned events. The FIA certification also means that this is a safe, strong design backed by actual racing experience.

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A single Sparco seat finishes off the interior. The seat looks faultlessly at home because it’s also a period item. Going for a more modern seat would have been a much easier choice, but who can argue with this seat in this car? A four-point Sabelt harness works in conjunction with the deep seat and thick bolsters to keep this Mini’s pilot in place.

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Just imagine looking down a fast series of sweeping curves over that steering wheel. Small and thick-rimmed, there’s a beauty in the symmetrical crudeness of the drilled spokes, and the allure of history in that worn centre crest carrying the BMC ribbon.

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The panel carrying auxiliary gauges and switches is typical race-car business, all low-gloss black and with simple printed labels. Over on the right is a Stack tachometer, tantalisingly graded so that the needle only starts to make meaningful movement over 4,000 RPM; anything else below is squashed into two inches of movement.

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Worth noting now is the fact that in the four years this car was in restoration from 2010 to 2014, Rick was extremely hands-on. Those braided lines you see running along the floor are his work, and channel fuel from the twin rear tanks up to the engine. He’s done enough work on the car that he could literally take the car apart and put it back together if he wanted to.

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But now there’s no point in that, not now when the car is just as he wants it. As the build went on, Rick grew to find the merits in the little Mini’s capability, finding a new avenue of automotive performance apart from the high-performance rally-bred Imprezas he loved.

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Rick admits that he was starting to lose spirit in the course of the restoration because of how long it was taking and of the mounting receipts; minding the smallest details tends to wear down the spirit. To keep the flame alive, he bought another three Minis to drive and work on and later sold each for a fair profit.

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Those Minis were likely built to the same standard as this one, so whatever the buyers paid for is absolutely worth it. Rick built this Mini taking the right way around every corner; nothing was to be cheaped out on, and it had to be correct. Take for example these window clips. They came in two varieties: one of solid steel that’s rare nowadays, and a cheaper part that was a result of BMC starting to cut production costs. Rick’s Mini carries the steel ones, and they took an unbelievably long time to source. The cheaper parts would probably have done the job just as well, but Rick wasn’t having it any other way.

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A wonderful thing happens when you take your car’s restoration into your own hands: you learn not only of your car, but of the rest of its ilk. Rick is basically as close to a walking encyclopedia on the Mini as you can get, and knows all the little tricks to sussing out real Mk 1s from later cars. For example, all the windows on the Mk 1 are smaller compared to the later cars. The difference isn’t much, but for it’s enough for people in the know to tell with a single glance.

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Only the Mk 1 Minis had this little lip along the drip rails. These little wings were one of many things sacrificed for the sake of BMC’s finances. Again, it’s a small difference, but one that will jump out at you once you’ve been taught.

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An easier way to tell a Mk 1 Mini from the rest is by having a look at the door. The door pocket is surprisingly large, about large enough to hold half a week’s worth of groceries for a small family. To make room for this, the door is hollow, with no space left for any glass to retract into it, hence the sliding windows. Note also the very simple latch release; it’s that thin silver rod poking out from the edge. Door handles don’t come any simpler than that, I think.

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Another trick Issigonis used to save interior space is the external door hinge. Easily observable, this is yet another easy way to pick out early Minis from the bunch. With the Mk 3 came roll-up windows, internal hinges and door pockets that could only hold a few slices of cheese and ham.

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Early Minis had a very endearing trick to further maximise cargo space. Say you were going out on an extended vacation with three of your friends or family. You each have one seat in the car, and have filled up the commodious door pockets with various small items. The boot is filled with you stuff, but along the way you find sizable souvenirs to take home, with little space for them on the trip back. Issigonis’ solution? Put that stuff on the boot lid and tie it down.

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To make this boot lid/additional load floor legal on paper, early Minis employed a hinged rear registration plate frame. Swing the boot open, and the top-hinged frame would swing down, keeping the rozzers away from you and you motoring down the road. This also makes it possible to store skis – partly – inside the car, which I guess is why there’s a hole in the boot wall. You can also see here the twin fuel tanks that were fitted standard to the Cooper S; with just an 848cc A-Series, the small tank was no problem, but fitted with a 1275 S engine, the increased thirst became an issue. Why twin tanks on either side? I imagine weight distribution and handing balance was a factor.

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Cost probably was an issue too. It was probably easier – and cheaper – to have one fuel tank standard across the Mini range and to fit an additional one to S models, than have to come up with new tooling and new mounting points for a single larger tank that would only see use on the S models.

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Rick relocated the battery to the back, both for ease of service and to better the weight distribution. In light, with low-power cars like this, preserving momentum is key, and well-balanced handling helps immensely in that regard. Rick says that the Mini feels much more exciting compared to his high-power Impreza; in the Impreza, he could be going the business end of 200 and still feel calm, while half that in the Mini feels like the adventure of a lifetime.

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Then again, “low-power” is a relative term, depending on what car you’re referring to and what’s been done to it. Rick popped the bonnet, primed the fuel pumps and cranked the engine. What happened next was amazement.

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The 1275 S motor – massaged by Mini specialists MED – came to life with a determined roar, and settled into a burly idle.

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Up by the firewall is the fuel filter, with its own pressure gauge for easy diagnosis and tuning.

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The fuel comes down into these twin Weber 40 DCOE carbs…

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…where it is mixed with air sucked in by these beautiful velocity stacks…

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…then through the trick MED head.

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The MSD ignition ignites the air/fuel mixture, which is then transferred as power to the front wheels.

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Spent gases come out of the block and become music courtesy of the MaxiFlow straight exhaust system.

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Not only are these carbs very pretty with their velocity stacks, they are properly special too. These are NOS (new old stock, basically new parts that have been binned for a while) DCOEs of Italian construction, which already makes them pretty special. Serial numbers, however, will blow your mind: the serial numbers on these carbs are sequential. They are, in essence, “married” to each other as they are fitted to the Mini, and make these carbs immensely, immensely special.

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To keep the married carbs working in harmony, an Innovate Motorsports gauge reads out the air/fuel ratio. This makes tuning the carbs infinitely easier, as the feedback loop operates in real time and is guided by precise measurement.

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Having the carburettors properly tuned is vital to the motor’s performance. Rick tells us that this humble 1275 S block can rev all the way to 7,500 RPM. At high speeds like that, it has to be certain that the engine is being fed the right amount of fuel, and that is not an easy thing to do with an analog fueling system.

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On the handling side of things, the car still retains the correct rubber cones for suspension, but it’s all rose-jointed, which allows the suspension to do without bushings. As a result, the suspension components act more directly on each other, which translates to better control over the car’s movements. There are some downsides to rose-jointed suspension, chief among which is the increased noise of the joints acting on each other and the need to routinely check the joints for wear. But, if you want handling as direct as possible, there’s no beating the setup, short of attaching the wheels to your limbs.

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MED is a British firm that specialises in turning the little motors in these cars into proper screamers. Because shipping the entire engine over would be a little impractical, an arrangement was made where MED would send the block’s target specifications to Rick, while the head was constructed in MED’s facility. Rick had the specifications carried out locally, and fitted the MED head when it arrived. The head is specific to Rick, and is even stamped with his initials.

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As for aspiration, while some Minis have holes drilled into the bonnet, the chaps at MED reportedly prefer that the bonnet stay intact, and the air be routed through the original opening.

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Bonnet hooks secure the bonnet, but the springs are sheathed in rubber and rest on a thick clear sticker to keep the paint from damage.

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Rick is rightly worried about this paint, because he had three different shops work on the car’s paint before he was finally satisfied with the work of the fourth. The results are well worth the bother when you see it in person; perfectly smooth is the surface, and there is not a trace of orange peel or warping anywhere at all.

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When he sent back pictures of the car’s progress to MED, they said they’d pass it along to a specialist British magazine that deals only in Minis. A short while later, the magazine rang -figuratively – asking if they could write the car up. Since they couldn’t fly a photographer over to the Philippines, Rick asked a friend of his to shoot up the Mini, and then sent the pictures over.

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Some time later, his all-aluminum Mini was on the pages of Mini Magazine, earning the coveted centrefold spread. Rick says that they were quite surprised to learn that such a Mini existed in the Philippines. Both MED and Mini Magazine quite proudly feature Rick’s Mini on their respective Facebook pages, so you can gauge how much enthusiasm the little car has drummed up.

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You might wonder then, with such value on the car – and all the parts needed coming from Britain – why risk stuffing it on the track?

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Well why not? Rick has been asked the same question by his friends, and he tells them that he wants to enjoy his hard work while he can; he doesn’t want to leave the car untouched and then come to regret not having fun with it as time goes on.

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At the end of the day, he is right. As beautiful and valuable as the car is, ultimately only the person who put his back into it has the right to judge its value. If it is seen fit to turn it into static art, then so be it. If, on the other hand, the builder sees fit to race it, then who’s to say that it’s wrong? Cars can be mended and parts reproduced. Sure, provenance and originality may count for much in some circles, but what price is there for fulfillment?

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Ultimately, cars were built to drive, and few cars invite owners to drive it quite like the Mini does. With all the work he’s put into it, Rick isn’t afraid of a little use, and that’s just the way it should be.

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We aren’t done with Rick and his Mini though. When we come back, we’ll take a look at Rick’s small workshop and parts storage, and take a peek at what’s behind the white plywood walls.

– Words by Kristoff Franco, pictures by Eugene Calimag

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