Not all old Minis cost the earth, but should you take the plunge with a budget car? Our long-suffering but dedicated resident Brit enthusiast says 'yes'...
Meet Audrey. She’s a 1992 Mini Mayfair, bastardised to look like a Cooper S and currently capable only of standing still, remaining stationary and being impartial to movement in every way. Now coated in thick dust, her chrome-rimmed headlamps poking out from the darkness of underground storage, it would appear to the casual observer that Audrey is long forgotten, snubbed or discarded. However, in all cases they would be wrong.
Audrey’s blemished Vermillion Red paintwork may not have seen daylight for the best part of two years, but it’s not through lack of trying. Hatred is a word usually reserved for low-fat foods and Windows 8, but I truly abhor the resulting impact from her previous custodians. Besides ragging her to within a metric inch of mechanical oblivion, the previous owners also tarnished the honest paper trail. Everything is a mess.
The MoT history, up until purchase date, holds all the previous hallmarks of a well-used example; subframe rot and corrosion in healthy abundance, alongside more electrical gremlins than a frenzied Tamagotchi. Investigate further, and there’s no end of nearside track rod-end woes, excessive exhaust emissions and a distinct lack of brakes. In essence, the whole thing was royally screwed before I even got near her.
However, the last name before my own upon the logbook belongs to a garage in Coventry that shall remain nameless – for it undertook its own MoT. According to the sheet of paper, Audrey has no structural weaknesses, little in the way of electrical problems and only the healthiest of mechanicals. It was all a con.
Originally purchased with my sister and her fiancé, who were looking to partner up in a classic acquisition, the Mini is now completely under my control after they abandoned the project. Audrey’s £1700 asking price did seem suspiciously low, even at the time. It didn’t take long for things to go horribly wrong – around 30 miles, in fact.
Little more than a few minutes out of Coventry, the head gasket perished with all the usual finesse of an oleaginous explosion; oil lapped down onto the roadside while steam oozed out from the bonnet, with cartoon sound effects to match. It took 13 hours for us to get home – that’s a long time to brew contempt for any new purchase, having witnessed its lifeblood slither towards the kerb.
Yet it’s not entirely an automotive horror story. Replacing the head gasket and putting the Mini through an extensive check – performed by an independent garage – proved relatively inexpensive, leaving me with a working classic Mini for under £2k.
Far from being an uncommon tale, this is well within the realms for those with only a shoestring budget to secure a functioning* classic Mini. While bandwagon jumpers will always try to wring value out of their specimen when shoving it onto the open market, even contemporary classifieds house classic Minis for less than £3k. That’s an awful lot of automotive heritage for the same cost as an airline to North America.
Please don’t expect a problem-free vehicle for this amount, though. Immaculate examples command a premium, yet the real fun is to be had at the other end of the price trough. Unlike delicate supercars or problematic luxury saloons, even in a dilapidated state, a classic Mini can make you smile like Jack Nicholson’s Joker.
Resist all you like, but even the shortest of journeys makes you feel as though you’re in The Italian Job, all while tickling your heart with delicate fingers. Each snappy gearchange, each stab of the brake pedal and each burbling stream of tailpipe flatulence removes the problems of the modern world and replaces contemporary anxiety with warm-blooded nostalgia.
It’s like getting a hug from your nan, a driving lesson from Sir Paddy Hopkirk and a fast-tracked expedition through 20th-century pop culture all in one.
You’ll soon become a DIY mechanical expert, too. Cheap Minis are cheap for a reason; the wheel fell off mine, for instance. Audrey also murdered her own heater matrix, leaking green fluid all over my passenger’s feet. The exhaust fell off in Edinburgh, while the steering lock stuck on while I was negotiating a roundabout. It wasn’t quite as funny as it sounds – onlookers thought I’d finally lost my mind after the 10th round trip...
Don’t let the dependability aspects put you off, though. Parts are plentiful and cheap, whereas the club scene is bursting with knowledge and advice. There isn’t a single job on any classic Mini that can’t be undertaken; if rust has seen off a wing, sill or subframe, these panels can all be purchased freshly minted. You can even get new complete racing shells, with all the accoutrements expected from modern motoring.
The best bit? Once you’ve spent a little money rectifying the problems, you’ve got all the charm and chuckability of a top-end example for far less cost. Furthermore, as you’ve got your hands dirty and watched progress from scrap-metal fodder to MoT success, you’ll have more of a connection with the Mini compared with if you had simply purchased it outright. Sentimentality is certainly worth more than any price tag, and the experience brought with it can be life-changing.
So what if the A-series engine leaks more than Julian Assange, or the ride is bumpy and draughty? Driving your cheap Mini is largely infectious, and running costs are mere peanuts when put up against those of larger cars. You won’t be scared to use it, either, for expensive and concours examples are usually destined for a life in storage, kept away from the tight turns and undulations for which the Mini’s little face longs.
And as for Audrey’s fate? Well, I have big plans for her – especially as a new investor has been found, who is bowled over by her cute aesthetics and is willing to help get her back on the road.
The new stakeholder is a force to be reckoned with, infamous for taking no nonsense and capable of a freezing-cold stare from 20 paces. I should know – she raised me. May the Lord have mercy upon my soul.