This resto-mod Mini is a 60-horsepower, street-legal go kart

The love for a first car can cause one to make some questionable financial decisions. But as many eventually appreciate, the memories and thrill of the drive can outweigh the instinct to preserve your funds. Steve Nelson, owner of a tastefully modified 1965 Morris Mini Minor, went through this exact dilema, managing to walk away with fantastic results. So good, in fact, that it was featured on a recent episode of Jay Leno’s Garage.

Nelson acquired the Mini Minor 40 years ago, at age 17. It was his first car. A right-hand-drive version that was imported to the U.S. from Bournemouth, England, the copper-colored Morris suffered from body rust not typical of sunny California, but not enough to prevent him from enjoying the car as a daily driver for many years. But when an exhaust valve seat managed to clink-clink-clink its way out the tailpipe, that shelved the car for 18 years.

World renowned Cooper expert Graham Reid of Heritage Garage took on the project in 2013, suggesting to Nelson that it would be easier to just start with a fresh shell. Nelson declined, of course, as he didn’t want to lose the essence of his first car with a different body. So the rust and rot was repaired and a number of hot-rod updates were made to improve driveability. The 850-cc inline-four now produces 60 horsepower (up from 34) through the use of twin carbs, hotter cam, “998” cylinder head, higher compression, and a few other tricks.

The nearly-six-foot-tall Leno slides behind the wheel of the Mini Minor and proceeds to take it for a rip on the twisty mountain passes surrounding Burbank. Leno finds the sensation of speed to be the little car’s greatest asset, commenting that it’s easy to have fun without needing actually go all that fast. The Mini’s rowdy exhaust note and upgraded four-speed manual only add to that experience.

The Mini is the quintessential car of the U.K., and one could easily argue (as Jay does) that it was as important for England as Ford’s Model T and VW’s Beetle were for the rest of the world. Its simple, front-wheel-drive layout and excellent packaging was tremendously influential on the automotive world for decades to come. And Steve’s spritely, powder blue Mini Minor serves as a great example of its ability to just make people smile.

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