Carini: MG’s “overgrown Mini” got me hooked on the real thing
When I was a sophomore in high school, my father and I went looking for my first car. We found a sensible but somewhat unusual 1965 MG 1100 sedan. Although most MGs were sports cars, the 1100 had four doors, a steel roof, and room for four adults. It was essentially a longer, wider Mini, from which it borrowed its advanced front-wheel-drive technology, its transverse four-cylinder engine, and its four-speed manual transmission.
Shortly after getting the 1100, I bought a 1966 MGB with a bad engine. Once I rebuilt the engine and put the B back on the road, I was probably the only 16-year-old at Glastonbury High with both summer and winter cars.
My girlfriend at the time lived next door to a Pratt & Whitney engineer who owned a 1964 Mini Cooper S. One Saturday morning, I went to pick her up and he called me over. The first thing he said was, “You know, your MG 1100 is just an overgrown Mini. Have you ever been in a real Mini?” He then took me out in his Cooper with the 997-cc version of BMC’s A-series engine. He explained that in addition to loving the responsiveness of the tiny car, he owned it because the Mini was an “engineering marvel.” Not only did the short ride scare the daylights out of me, it was a revelation; I had to have one.
A week later, I saw a 1275-cc Cooper S listed in the Hartford Courant for $1200. Naturally, I had to go look at the car, so my buddy, Tommy, and I drove down to New London to see it. The 2-year-old Cooper S was blue with a white top. The body was fair, but it was missing the passenger seat, which the owner had thrown out after he melted the vinyl upholstery with an auxiliary electric heater.
With only $100 to use as a deposit, I managed to talk the guy down to $1000. I then went home and asked my dad to lend me $1000. Dad just looked at me like I had two heads. After going down in flames with my father, I went to see my grandma, who agreed to let me borrow the money if I could pay her back in a year. Certain I could easily earn the money in time, I was ready to buy my Mini Cooper.
The next weekend, I paid for the car and drove it home. I soon found that the owner hadn’t been very kind to the Mini, so I got busy. I replaced the constant-velocity joints and boots, changed all the fluids, found a used racing seat, and thoroughly cleaned the car in and out.
Knowing the Mini was speedy and nimble, I entered autocrosses and gymkhanas, on temporary courses set up in parking lots throughout Connecticut. It was fantastic! I won on most weekends, especially on short, tight courses. If one particular guy showed up with his very fast Corvette, and the straights were long, he sometimes beat me. I didn’t stand a chance, however, when future SCCA champion, Busch regional series winner, and Corvette racer Kim Baker would come down from Massachusetts with his Lotus Super Seven.
The Mini was quick, but I thought I could make it quicker with a big Weber 45DCOE sidedraft carburetor on a long intake manifold. To make room for the assembly, I had to cut the firewall and dash, which meant that the carb stuck through into the interior. If the engine backfired, I’d get a flame shooting in at me. To make it handle better, I fitted Firestone racing tires and added a heavier rear sway bar. Tommy and I even took a trip to England to buy Mini parts. We ended up tossing out half our clothes so we’d have luggage space for everything we found.
I still have that 1966 Mini; it has been tucked away in a friend’s tobacco barn since the mid-1990s. I have dreams of introducing my grandson to Minis someday and working with him to restore the 1275 Cooper S to its original condition. If he does get bitten by the Mini bug, it’ll be a lot like trying to eat a potato chip—you just can’t stop at one. That means he’ll also surely have fun with my Mini van, my 1071-cc Cooper S, and my Countryman woody.
This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.
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Great story! Original Minis are so cool. A Go-Cart surrounded by sheet metal.
I often wonder how people get into cars that exist because governments through war, rationing and addiction to taxation essentially mandated “nothing nice for the poors”. Thanks for the window into that world.
My first car was a builder’s beige Austin 1100; same car, different badge. The front subframe rusted through (probably assisted by near-the-limit cornering), but I still have fond memories. Thanks for rekindling them. Sure wish I’d installed the dual-SUs and manifold I bought for it.