Mini ownership can be a real joy – fantastic handling and huge fun at a most affordable level. But don’t turn joy into despair though by buying a dud. Here’s how to find a good one.
Since the Mini arrived and it remains one of the most entertaining small cars of all time. Issigonis designed the handling to be safe and easy, but inadvertently created a miniature racer – the cornering speeds you can achieve are hilariously high.
Sadly, that means an awful lot of people like to modify their Minis, which can make it awfully difficult to find one that hasn’t been meddled with. Currently, the bargains are the Minis from the ‘Seventies and ‘Eighties, especially the ones in lower trim levels. Find one that hasn’t been ‘Cooper-ised’ and you’ll own something that’ll only go up in value, but which still has plenty of Mini magic. Be wary though as modified Minis have not always been improved by such meddling.
On the plus side, few classics can boast quite such an active ‘scene’. There are hundreds of Mini clubs all over the UK and beyond, while specialists also ensure you won’t be short of parts. The Mini has always been an ideal starting point for classic ownership. That hasn’t changed. However, make sure you buy one that’s genuinely good, especially if the asking price is on the high side.
Assistance for this guide was provided by Dean Theobald of Dean’s Minis (01353 722888, www.deansminis.com) and Gavin Parish of Somerford Mini (01249 721421). Both warn about cars on the market not being quite what they seem, so read on to ensure you bag a good ‘un.
To start with, Dean recommends making sure you do your homework. There are more types and special editions of Mini than you may expect – certainly more than we can cover even in this large feature. Dean says: “Decide what you want and stick to it. Don’t be seduced by shiny paint. What era do you want? The ‘Seventies Minis tended to be better built, while later ones are dreadful for rust.” Sadly, metal quality and rustproofing actually seem to have been poorer nearer the end.
A Mini will rust pretty much anywhere that isn’t made of rubber or glass. This not only means keeping an eye out for corrosion and bodges, but also checking originality. Minis that still look factory fresh are getting ever scarcer, so do your homework and check for the little clues that may hint at restoration work: Are the badges and graphics in the right place? Does it wear the correct bumpers and trim? Has a City E model been turned into yet another Cooper replica? Any one of the huge number of Mini specialists out there will help you answer these questions.
Another issue is previous repairs. Gavin says: “Poor repairs are a serious issue. Sadly there are still Minis out there with ‘MoT standard’ repairs, consisting of patches rather than panel replacement. You can still see cars where a new outer sill has been welded over a rotten inner.” Watch out for this. Dean adds: “Fresh paint is very shiny, but it doesn’t mean the car itself is actually nice. When it comes to repair panels, I prefer the Heritage ones (www.bmh-ltd.com), but they can still need a little work to fit nicely. Check a MkI Mini carefully though as Heritage doesn’t supply MkI floors. M-Machine (www.m-machine.co.uk) can though.”
There’s no attempt to hide seams on a Mini. Some are very visible – the ones running from the roof down each corner – while others are hidden on the ‘other side’ of the body. This includes the snout, so start your inspection here. Checking on Minisport.com reveals that the front panel – containing indicators holes, front valance and grille opening – ranges from £170.52 for a 1990-1996 Mini, up to £211.60 for a square-nosed Clubman and £240.47 for a MkI. You can get just the outer skin for more like £50, but if that has started to rot, then more extensive corrosion behind it is very likely indeed. Get the car on full steering lock to enable you to check the inner wheelarches on each side.
A genuine wing, reproduced by British Motor Heritage, will set you back around £93, while a pattern part can be purchased from Mini Sport for £48.22. The inner wing will set you back £140.40 but it’s entirely possible you’ll then find rot in the scuttle panel – another £121.67. And here’s the problem – we’ve just covered over £630 worth of parts just for the front end. Due to the Mini’s construction, all of these panels first need cutting away, then welding into place. That adds significantly to the cost yet again, so it really does pay to check a potential purchase very carefully indeed! If a Mini has been restored, check the panel fit very carefully. “It is very tricky to get panel gaps right,” confirms Dean.
If all is good so far, then inspect the sills – especially around the jacking points, which can be bought separately for less than £10 each. Sills – inner and outer – will set you back less than £50 per side, but again, it’s the labour to fit them that’s the problem. In addition, it’s highly likely that rot will then be found in the floors, which makes checking these a sensible next step. A hand on the carpets will swiftly let you know whether water ingress is a problem. It’s not really possible to lift the carpets (because it’s one big section) so you really need to get underneath the car – not easy with a Mini – to check the condition of the floors.
Front subframes don’t often corrode as they’re usually doused in engine oil. The rear subframe is less well protected and replacement will probably set you back around £600 if a pattern subframe is used, though the cost depends on how many brake/suspension components need to be replaced. Genuine subframes range from £370.26 to just over £500 for a late Mini due to the suspension changes made.
Rear wheelarches corrode badly and can usually be inspected inside depending on the trim level. If carpeted, give them a good prod to check for soft areas. Then, head back outside and check for corrosion inside the boot – especially in the battery tray.
Regarding bumpers, grey or black bumpers were fitted for most of the ‘Eighties production run. Getting bumpers in this correct finish is frustratingly difficult. They had a matt finish that aftermarket bumpers just don’t seem to recreate very well.
One big modification is to fit a glassfibre flip-front to a Mini. You can do this even if you aren’t considering further modifications – being able to quickly remove the front end certainly makes it easier to work on the engine. However, it’s essential that reinforcement beams are fitted between the bulkhead and the front of the subframe.
The A Series engine is pretty hardy by the standards of its day, though it will make it obvious when a rebuild is due, usually by the amount of acrid blue smoke that will start to appear from the exhaust. This engine has a reputation for not being very oil-tight, but things can be improved a lot. Tired gaskets and seals make them far worse with key problem areas being the rocker cover, driveshafts and gear selector rods. Minis built between 1992 and 1996 had an inadequate rubber olive in the oil transfer pipe at the front of the engine that only made matters worse. Somerford Mini sells it for just £2.86. It also sells the rocker cover gasket for just £1.30 and a selector rod kit of an improved design for £5.14. Dean says: “You can get them oil-tight. Briefly.”
Aside from blue exhaust smoke, you need to be confident that the engine isn’t overheating. This can be tricky as only posher or sportier Minis tended to have a water temperature gauge. You can check the state of the coolant though: If it looks old and rusty, there’s a fair chance the radiator and block have started to silt up. Regular changes (every couple of years) are essential. Have a good look at the condition of the hoses too.
Regular oil changes are essential too, as this oil also performs its duties in the gearbox, which famously lives in the sump. Pull the dipstick and check whether the oil is black and aged or nice and golden. Check for creamy deposits under the oil filler cap that might suggest head gasket failure – which isn’t too difficult to remedy. Carburettors and fuel injection systems tend to be reliable, so just ensure the tick-over is steady and that the engine pulls well during a test.
A reconditioned, ready-to-fit 1275cc engine will cost you around £1500, though there may be a surcharge against your old engine. Still, this remains far more satisfying than butchering a poor, unsuspecting Metro.
The gearbox is probably the most fragile aspect of a Mini. You therefore need to listen out for worrying noises, though the transmissions were never entirely quiet. A little whine is fine – it’s a characteristic of the cars. Worn bearings create more of a hissing noise in the early stages, so listen out for that. Watch also for failed synchromesh, though early Minis never had it on first gear.
Replacing the bearings on a Mini gearbox is certainly possible, and Minisport sells a bearing kit for the four-synchro gearbox for £88.67, with a full reconditioning kit retailing at £194.08. A gearbox with all the reconditioning work done for you will cost around £760 and again there may be a surcharge against the return of your old gearbox.
Incidentally, two different remote set-ups were used on the Mini. The MkI Cooper used a bulky remote set-up in place of the earlier ‘magic wand’ direct lever. A new design was gradually fitted from 1973 using rods, and this continued for the life of the Mini. Five-speed conversions, usually courtesy of Jack Knight, do exist and take the strain out of motorway journeys.
The clutch is hydraulic, so a failed master or slave cylinder will make gear selection very difficult. An easy way to test this is to turn the engine off and then see if gear selection improves. If the clutch is slipping, a kit is around £50.
AP’s incredible automatic transmission needs to be in fine fettle to work properly. On a test drive, watch out for thumping changes or slipping in gear. Make sure it works in all gears too. Valve blocks can get gummed up and prevent some gears from working. You can find lots of helpful information on automatic Minis at: www.autominiregister.proboards.com
‘Dry’ Minis (the vast majority) use rubber cones for suspension, with small telescopic dampers. No Mini will ride like a limo, but tired dampers cause the ride to become extra bouncy – especially if the rubber cones have become aged and stiff. This is definitely something to check for on a test drive. Cones approved by Dr Alex Moulton are sold by Minisport for £38.74 each. KYB gas adjustable dampers are recommended and cost £128.74 for a full set.
Dean adds: “The front cones should be changed every five to ten years. When they’re tired, the front end sits very low, which some people like. The ride will be awful though. Go genuine for replacement cones. There are some bad ones about.”
The ‘wet’ Minis arrived in 1964 and ran to 1969 (1971 for the Cooper S, Clubman and 1275GT). These used hydrolastic displacers that were interlinked, as on the BMC 1100. Sadly, replacement displacers are very hard to find, so many ‘wet’ Minis have been converted to the ‘dry’ set-up. That’s probably sensible if you’re planning to use a Mini of this era intensively.
On all Minis, there is a grease point for the rear suspension arm. A good indicator of how well the car has been cared for is the state of this nipple: Is it clean or does it look like it has never seen a grease gun? Gavin says: “Too many Minis have been poorly looked after by people who don’t understand them. Many garages don’t even know what a grease gun is these days. It’s one reason we often have to overhaul rear radius arms.”
The super-direct steering is one of the best things about a Mini. There should be no play at all. The front swivels need greasing and don’t always receive such treatment, but it’s worth jacking up each corner if allowed, so you can see if you can find play at the road wheel. If that greasing has been neglected, it can make the steering feel stiff. If play has developed in the rack, replacement will cost £60 to buy. Fitting isn’t particularly difficult. Track rod ends are less than a tenner apiece and can be another source of play. Give the steering wheel a wiggle too. Column bushes can cause a vague sensation and, if the column will come away without a fight, are pretty easy to replace.
Note that the fitment of 13-inch wheels led to a restricted steering lock, as there just isn’t enough room for those larger wheels to turn as far in the wheelarches. This makes the turning circle laughably poor. They may look good, but those bigger wheels do nothing for ride comfort, nor practicality. Says Gavin: “13-inch wheels were way too big. They ruin the car. Many feel the 10-inch cars are best.” Dean adds: “Watch for 12-inch Minis that have been converted to 13 inches. There are lots of differences – the ‘arches need trimming and there are rear subframe and steering rack differences.”
With very little weight, even the earlier all-drum Minis should bring the car to a halt in good order. Front discs certainly improved matters, but it should be noted that the later factory-fit discs required the fitment of 12-inch wheels. If you want smaller 10” wheels, you need a Cooper-esque conversion kit. Front discs were not fitted as standard across the board until 1984. Those larger discs were first seen on the 1275GT in 1974, which until then used the smaller type. A servo wasn’t introduced across the range until 1988, but it does reduce the pedal effort required. It was standard on Cooper S and 1275GT Minis.
Badly adjusted drums, failed wheel cylinders or seized callipers can all cause a Mini to pull to one side. Callipers can easily be overhauled at home – the original steel pistons seize, so Minisport’s stainless replacements (£10.82 each, two per calliper) are a good idea. Budget on another tenner for a seal kit.
Inside, aside from water damage, it’s just wear and tear. Seats generally got larger over the years, with later Minis having enormous seats and ever greater luxury – walnut dashboards, leather and even airbags – if one is fitted, make sure the warning light goes out after the engine is started. If originality is a major driver, you may struggle to find a Mini that hasn’t seen some form of interior overhaul.
1985 was the last year that a central speedometer was fitted – after this, a conventional dashboard similar to the Clubman/1275GT was used. If you’re considering a Mini for regular use, it must be pointed out that column stalks are a lot easier to use than the little switches of MkI Minis – and a lot easier to reach!
Replacing seat material can cost anywhere from £149 for a black, vinyl rear seat cover, to over £1100 for a full seat kit, in leather, for a 1993-1995 Mini. You can get the foam seat bases (typically less than £30 each for the earlier-style seats). As you can see though, overhauling a Mini interior involves no small cost. With some – such as the ‘Eighties Mayfair – you’re stuck with trying to find good secondhand items, as the velour seat covers are not currently in production.
Dean says: “It can be a nightmare trying to find interior bits, especially for the ‘Eighties Minis. My advice is that if you want a ‘Eighties Mini, make sure the interior is good. Bodyshells can be repaired so are less of a problem. Don’t forget to check the headlining.” It’s a similar story with seats in the LAMM and Rover Mini Cabriolets – though a seat refurbishment specialist may be able to help, at a cost.
From 1973 an alternator replaced the earlier dynamo, though conversion of earlier cars is possible. Give the belt a quick tension check. If it’s too tight, it can damage the alternator bearings and also the water pump bearings. There’s not a lot of electrical equipment in most Minis, so check that everything works – including the rather feeble heater.
In 1996, the Mini gained a front-mounted radiator – largely to meet new drive-by noise regulations. This means an electric cooling fan, which you need to ensure works correctly. With the car parked up after a test drive, wait until it cuts in but keep an eye on the temperature gauge to ensure it doesn’t overheat.
Single-point fuel injection (SPi) was fitted from 1993, in order to improve emissions. This changed to multi-point injection (MPi) in 1996, which is rather better. There was some overlap between the two for different markets, and SPi engines were available in many states of tune. There’s a lot more complication, but hopefully more reliability – as well as the possibility of diagnostics to help find a fault. Be wary if the Check Engine light is on, though it could simply be a duff sensor.
Dean says: “The MPi is much better but the SPi can be costly to get through emissions tests if things have gone wrong.” Both our specialists rather preferred the carburettor and points era, though Gavin warns: “Points and condensers can be poor these days, so electronic ignition is a good idea.” That can also banish the Mini’s reluctance to perform in wet weather.