1976 Leyland Mini 998CC
Do you remember when Minis were cheap to buy and incredibly cheap to run, the ideal first car for a generation of pimply faced youths? If you do, then you must have quite a memory because those days disappeared at least 30 years ago! Today, a classic Mini is still incredibly cheap to run, but in many ways it is very expensive for what you get in pure motoring terms – an engine dating back to the 1950s, a four-speed gearbox, a complete lack of gadgets and gizmos… heck, Leyland finally got around to fitting a heated rear screen in the 1970s, but the switch for this was added to the dash as an afterthought (bringing the total of dashboard switches to three!) and looks very aftermarket indeed.
However, all of that misses the point. You don’t buy a classic Mini because you want gadgets and gizmos. In fact the exact opposite is true – Minis were always incredibly basic, and that is the reason why so many people love them today. Driving one is an exhilarating and liberating experience, reminding you of how little you really need to be happy. A Mini offers stripped back motoring, making no attempt to isolate you from the driving experience, but instead putting you at the centre of the action. You don’t so much drive a Mini as become part of it in a way that cannot be imagined in anything built since the 1970s.
Only, of course, the classic Mini was built after the 1970s, all the way through until 2000 and so nearly overlapping production time lines with the first of the BMW MINIs, the second car in our double header and one which drew on the original styling so well but carried nothing else across into the new millennium. By then the classic Mini had 12in wheels, disc brakes, fuel injection and (slightly) more luxurious interiors, but just below the surface the original 1959 car’s DNA was everywhere.
So when the idea reared its head of a double header project featuring both a classic Mini and the first of BMW’s iteration, I quickly volunteered for the classic camp. Financially, it was a decision I soon came to regret! Initially I looked at cars up to the early 1980s, hoping to find something on the 10in wheels that I remember from my early motoring days. Sadly, the only cars I could find from the 1960s that were under £6000 were the booted Wolseley Hornet or Riley Elf variety, and while I was keen, the Ad department was rather less enthusiastic.
Cars from the 1970s were a little cheaper, but I am still not particularly keen on paying £5000+ for a car that requires extensive work. The later Rover cars from the late 1980s and 1990s were not much better value, £4000 seeming to be the starting point for anything on 12in wheels that is on the road. The problem I then found was that many of those were ripe for restoration anyway, and that a 1990s Rover Mini can rust every bit as enthusiastically as a 1970s Leyland one. Having just tackled a lengthy and costly Midget restoration, I didn’t fancy diving back down that particular rabbit hole.
And then Jeff Ruggles, News Editor on Classic Car Buyer and a lifelong Mini nut, forwarded details of a Mini Clubman that had been posted for sale on one of his club Facebook pages. The Clubman was, of course, the one with the remodelled and updated nose, built to bring the Mini’s styling into the 1970s (think Austin Maxi rather than 1800 Landcrab...) and supposed to take over from the original design. However, the Clubman was itself retired in 1980 to make way for the Metro while the original round-style Mini got a new lease of life and scampered merrily on until 2000.
In over 40 years of production, the Mini only ever had an A-series under the bonnet. This one is a 998cc unit with a single SU carb.
For many years the Clubman was a cheaper way into Mini ownership, but tastes are changing – the 1970s are currently fashionable and prices have been rising for some time. However, top squarenose money goes for the 1275GTs, and the car Jeff had found was a 998cc Clubman. It also had an automatic gearbox, and most prospective buyers would have marked those factors down most decisively on the debit side of the buying considerations. That made the £4500 asking price seem a little steep. However, it had two massive ticks on the credit side – just 19,645 miles from new and it appeared to be largely original and unmolested.
After viewing a load of photos to assess its condition, the seller put the Clubman in for an MoT. It passed this without any advisories, which I took as confirmation of its structural integrity and that it should be safe to drive home. I decided to take the plunge, paying quite literally ten times as much for a toy as Rob Hawkins paid for a far more modern and usable car, but that is the price you pay for a proper classic!
I will be able to tell you more about the driving experience later, but for now, let me hand the keyboard over to the previous owner, Darren Bullen, to explain how this example has survived so well. ‘I discovered it by chance when talking to my friend who said she had a Mini stashed away in her garage,’ he explained ‘I asked to have a look and was amazed at what I found under the layers and layers of cardboard. She asked if I wanted to buy it, to which I said: “Yes please.” ‘It seems that my friend’s husband, Doug Rood, was an accountant for a local garage called Mann Egerton in Bury St Edmunds and some time around 1997 or 1998 he became aware of the Clubman being traded in by the original owner. Realising that it was in mint condition, he bought it. Doug drove it around for just a few months before he heard about 4-star being phased out and that the Mini’s head needed converting in order to cope with unleaded fuel. This was not something he could afford to do, so he sought out the few garages that still sold leaded. Then at its next MoT, the Mini failed on leaking brake cylinders and a binding brake shoe. Doug decided to put it away in the garage until he could afford to sort it out, but that day never came and nearly 20 years later I discovered it.
‘When I found the Mini, its brakes were all seized solid and I couldn’t move it out of the garage. I had a mate who runs a scrapyard and he agreed to come with his pickup, winch it out for me and deliver it back to my home. I did the basic necessaries and put it in for an MoT in 2018, just to see what else I needed to do. I was amazed that all it failed on was a defective horn and ineffective windscreen washers, both of which I had forgotten to check! Having sorted both of those, it passed with no advisories.
‘It has been dry stored throughout my ownership. Last year the autobox inhibitor switch fell to bits, so I hunted high and low and finally managed to find a NOS one. I’m not sure the adjustment on it is quite right yet as the gear selector needs to be in exactly the right spot for the engine to start, but it’s probably just a matter of getting the car over a pit and tweaking the adjusting nut.’
Darren listed the work he had done as:
● full exhaust system (new)
● master cylinder seal kit (refurb)
● battery (new)
● tyres all round (new)
● wheel cylinders all round (new)
● wheel cylinder link pipes (new)
● brake shoes all round (new)
● rubber brake hoses on rear (new)
● fuel tank sender (new)
● alternator fanbelt (new)
● heater system valve (new)
● oil and filter change (twice)
● door mirror glass (new)
● auto gearbox inhibitor switch (NOS)
● LED interior light bulb (new)
● rear light cluster rubber seals (new)
● plastic seam chrome trim (new)
● windscreen washer pump & tube (new)
● horn (refurb)
I arrived to collect the Clubman and found it looked slightly shabbier in the metal than it had in the photos, but they all do that so it was expected. The key thing was that it did indeed appear to be solid, original and unwelded, and I was happy that Darren’s description matched the car.
I then set off on a two-hour drive home, probably the furthest the Mini had travelled in the last 20 years! First impressions behind the wheel were that it was quite lethargic and sounded slightly rough, but the poor acoustics were probably nothing more than a slight blow on the exhaust. As for lethargic, it is a 998cc automatic so it is never going to be a road burner, but as my confidence in the car grew, I started pressing it harder and found that it responded in kind. There are four speeds in the AP gearbox, but it zips up through them so quickly that you are in top by 20mph. If only they had added a fifth gear, which apparently would have been very little extra bother… Still, I wound it up to 60mph and it sat there happily enough. It is a peculiar feeling as you come to a stop because the ’box provides engine braking on the top three ratios and you can feel the gearbox shifting down through each one in turn, much like you would in a manual car.
Elsewhere, the suspension and steering felt superb, exactly how I imagine they would have been from the factory, backing up the claimed low mileage. The brakes felt a bit wooden, which is normal on an unservo’d system, but they stopped the car well enough and in a straight line if you stamped hard on the pedal. Overall, I have to say I loved the experience, and by the time I arrived home I had a huge grin stuck on my face. Minis can do that to you – I think I’m going to enjoy this project.