The dark secret behind Top Gear’s Hopkirk Mini restoration

Remember how, back in 2004, BBC’s Top Gear ran a public vote to restore the Hopkirk Mini? There’s a reason why you never saw the car again…

Long before controversies surrounding cold steak, assaulting producers and winding up Argentinean locals found Clarkson ejected from BBC’s Top Gear – taking Richard Hammond and James May with him – the flagship motoring show faced another polemic.

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Back in 2004, when Peter Andre stalked the charts (argh!) and Top Gear was evolving the platform tone now accepted worldwide, James May fronted a competition entitled 'Restoration Rip-off'. Throughout Season 5, each episode would introduce a vehicle in dire need of restoration. Viewers were asked to vote via phone (at 25p a go) to decide which worthy vehicle was going to get a complete nut-and-bolt rebuild.

The cars vying for attention were:

  • The Adams Probe 16 from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange
  • Keith Moon’s 1938 Chrysler Wimbledon
  • Princess Diana’s Range Rover Classic
  • Paddy Hopkirk’s racing Mini Cooper, 407 ARX

During the climactic episode on December 26, 2004, the 407 ARX Mini was declared Top Gear’s outright winner. Using the money raised by those phone-ins, the legendary Hopkirk Cooper was to be restored throughout Season 6, set to air from May 2005.

However, the finished product never materialised. In fact, the car was never shown, spoken about or mentioned again. So what happened?

The real story

It wasn’t long before devout Mini enthusiasts and those already disgruntled with paying their TV licence began to dig, and they didn’t like what they found. Basically, the Mini wasn’t going to be showcased on Top Gear, as the car was deemed a ‘fake’.

Far from being a legitimate con, contemporary speculation didn’t blame Clarkson & Co, or Auntie Beeb; rather, fate had other ideas. One such story on the grapevine concerned the garage selected to restore 407 ARX. So the tale went, the company charged ludicrous amounts of money in an attempt to mug the BBC’s illustrious treasury, and held the Mini hostage until the bill was settled. This is untrue.

Further urban legend dictated that the project was cancelled altogether, leaving the car unfinished and discarded under a grimy tarpaulin for the tin worm to claim. In fact, the real story is very much different.

Shortly after Hopkirk’s Mini was crowned the people’s champion, rally enthusiasts and those of an anorak persuasion began to question the car’s heritage and true originality. After some detective work, it was eventually unveiled that the BBC had purchased a logbook, along with a bodyshell, engine and collection of parts, rather than an actual vehicle.

The problem? Logbook and shell had reportedly never crossed paths before, let alone traversed the rally stages together. The same could be assumed for the amassed collection of mechanical parts. Undertaking such a renovation would have resulted in what’s known as a ‘logbook restoration’. That’s a replica, to the likes of you and I – something to which the paying Top Gear audience may not have taken kindly.

Boiled down, the logbook had ties to Paddy Hopkirk, but the car couldn’t claim such a right. Don’t think that the purchasing department or researchers were complicit in an act of stupidity, however.

The rally world is renowned for punishing cars and sending almost all of them off to the oily crusher in the sky. It’s an infamously harsh environment for both vehicle and driver, resulting in extensive automotive destruction. With this in mind, it was common practice to re-shell a car once the floorpan was mashed and the frame was bent.

ID numbers, logbook and registration plates would be carried across to the new shell, for no other reason than keeping aerodynamics slick. Back in the day, the shell was considered a consumable and therefore just another part number.

Industry experts claim that nearly 90 percent of all rally cars from the 1960s and 1970s were re-shelled at least once during their rally lifespan. In the eyes of scrutineers, therefore, the Hopkirk Mini was a statistic more than an original racing legend.

Sadly, some remaining Mini Works cars currently exist with very little originality, leaving scarce evidence to evaluate each model’s true inheritance. As such, the sum of parts cannot constitute a genuine vehicle. This made it impossible for Top Gear producers to confirm that the Mini went anywhere near Paddy Hopkirk.

With such an identity crisis brewing, the BBC failed to gain accreditation on the Mini Cooper, which resulted in huge production delays. No matter what happened next, the tale has a happy ending.

While those who paid their fees to vote for the Mini never received their money back, the car has since appeared on the show scene fully restored. First spotted in 2006, 407 ARX is still out there stirring up emotion and attracting a new generation of enthusiast to the Mini cause – regardless of how original the chassis is.

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