Inspired by a true icon, the R50 MINI is fast becoming a classic in its own right. But how does it stack up as a project car? We find out, in association with Teng Tools
Say hello to our latest project car: a 2000 R50 MINI One. As an early example of the car that took the Mini nameplate into the 21st Century, the R50 MINI is fast becoming a modern classic – and one that’s far cheaper to buy than the car that inspired it.
We’ve taken our R50 MINI on board to see how a cheap early example of BMW’s MINI stacks up as an ownership proposition. Our Y-reg car cost just over £400 at auction in 2020, albeit with an MoT due and some issues to take care of.
Here, we’ll chronicle our experiences with our MINI One as the project progresses. Keep an eye out for the latest additions.
R50 MINI One project: Introduction
The days of buying a cheap classic Mini as a daily runabout are over. Today, many will find it hard to justify spending £5000 on a tatty Mayfair or City model from the 1980s. Occasional bargains can be had, but there is often a catch, such as an abandoned Woody Traveller with no logbook or an imported Moke with promises to have its paperwork intact on purchase. It can be frustrating if you’re looking for a cheap project.
BMW MINIs, meanwhile, are starting to gain in value – and cheap ones available for £500 to £1000 are often snapped up quickly. It’s easy to see the appeal: retro styling, improved crash protection over the old car, and handling that can be considered alongside that of a classic Mini, but with improvements in refinement.
There are mixed opinions on the choice of mechanical components on the BMW MINI, with gearbox and power steering problems being top of the list. Common problems abound, but that spells good news for owners, because someone somewhere knows how to fix them and source parts.
Similarly, some of the problems associated with the classic Mini are non-existent with the BMW version, such as corrosion and rain-sensitive ignition components. Many classic Mini fans have taken a long time to accept the updated BMW, but with the 20th anniversary of production upon us, the R50 MINI has surely earnt its classic car status.
We eventually found our MINI One thanks to Car Mechanics magazine editor Martyn Knowles, who has a collection of these cars, including several 2001 Y-reg models. He knows his way around the UK’s car auctions, where MINIs are often not considered collectible or classic, so when Y254 YYW was spotted at British Car Auctions near Reading, he offered to bid for it live online and won the auction at a bargain £275. Add in the fees, and the total cost tipped £400. The Covid-19 pandemic didn’t make collection easy from BCA near Reading, but luckily, the auctioneers have a transport service and charged a reasonable £330 (inc. VAT) for the convenience.
Delving into the car’s history, we discovered that the MINI has 76,000 miles on the clock, but some 3000 miles ago its radiator and coolant had been replaced, along with the brake fluid, tyres and some air intake components to the tune of £541.20.
A look online at the car’s MoT history revealed a bit of an anomaly, however. During July 2020 when the UK was in lockdown and MoT tests had been extended, the MINI One was submitted for a test and it failed, mainly on rear brake performance, but also on headlight aim and a faulty OSF indicator. However, its MoT extension automatically kicked in, so it was granted a certificate until January the next year: not only was the car road legal, but it could be taxed online.
Sadly, however, those faulty brakes meant we weren’t prepared to head out for a road test. Instead, we spent time looking over our new purchase, making a lengthy to-do list for tackling as the project goes on – all will be revealed soon.
During the assessment we also checked to see if this MINI One has the hallmarks of an early model. The most collectible MINIs have the Y-registration ending with the letters ‘OBL’, so our car is never going to be in that league. Instead, it has a build date of May 2001 and is car number 276 according to its VIN.
Our car does bear a few early features, such as the ‘MINI’ embossed pedal rubbers (above) – later pedal rubbers don’t have these logos. The windscreen washer jets are smaller on the early R50 MINIs, and there should be foam underneath the scuttle panel grilles, but this is missing. Looking underneath the front end, the anti-roll bar droplinks are a later type (see gallery below), suggesting the front MacPherson struts have been changed – early struts are expensive to replace, with top bearings and bushes costing around £200 a set.
There was a time when a 1959 Mini wasn’t worth its weight in scrap; superseded by later models with a rod-shift gear change, disc brakes up front and a larger A-series engine, the car was considered less desirable. This MINI One may not be following suit in terms of technological advancement, but it seems destined to be just as collectible due to its emerging-classic status. We’re determined to preserve it as much as possible and keep it looking original.
The rose-tinted glasses are definitely off, but we’re optimistic our 2001 Y-reg MINI One isn’t going to turn into a bottomless money pit. Being an early model, we plan to keep it as original as possible, which may mean overhauling some parts instead of replacing them, but that may not always be feasible.
The defective rear brakes that were noted at the last MoT test in July 2020 may have been caused by a sticking brake caliper for instance, but hopefully we can overhaul the caliper with new seals, helping to keep the original BMW component. From a point of being frugal, the rear brake discs are rusty, but they are not worn excessively, so we will remove and clean them to see if they can be restored. A replacement set of discs and pads only costs around £60 to £80, so all is not lost if the budget method fails.
There are a number of minor irritations with our MINI One. For example, the passenger door electric window doesn’t work. The motor on our car attempts to power into action when the switch is pressed, but nothing happens. According to several forums, owners and specialists, thumping the door panel, just above the speaker, can fix the problem and stir the motor to life. We’ll remove the door card, check the electrical connections and grease the runners instead of simply hitting something, however.
The steering on our example feels very agricultural and clunky. The MINI’s steering is a combination of hydraulic and electric assistance – there’s an electric pump instead of a belt-driven pump, which then feeds the hydraulic power steering fluid through to the steering rack to provide powered assistance. Typical of an old design, the steering isn’t particularly light, but there are also a few knocks and bangs when manoeuvring the car.
We checked the fluid level inside the power steering reservoir and it’s up to the maximum point on the dipstick, but worryingly ours is a murky brown colour. The fluid should be Pentosin CHF 11S, which is usually green. We checked with our local MINI specialist, mad4mini, and they explained the power steering fluid shouldn’t usually need renewing – although it may have been incorrectly mixed with Dexron II, which is recommended for the later MINIs. A refresh of the fluid, lubrication of the steering column linkage and a check over of suspension bushes may discover the cause of the notchy and seemingly not so good steering.
Whilst the fluid in the power steering reservoir may look a little dubious, at least it’s there, unlike the engine coolant and engine oil. Our car was barely showing any oil on the dipstick after delivery; after adding 1.5 litres of engine oil, the level was between MIN and MAX.
Similarly, there was hardly any coolant inside the expansion tank, which is secured to the engine bulkhead. We topped this up with diluted G12, slightly worried that that the coolant inside the engine may have run out as well – especially if the expansion tank outlet was blocked. We squeezing a number of coolant hoses revealed the sound of liquid being moved, so we ran the engine for several minutes to allow it to warm up and later checked the coolant level. It had dropped by a small amount, so it was topped up again.
Both the coolant and engine oil will need to be monitored to see whether fluid is being lost. However, we’ll be completing an engine service, so the oil will be drained. This led us to wonder when the last service was conducted.
Strangely, the air filter looked as good as new, but the pollen filter looked worse than the inside of a Dyson after several years of abuse and neglect. So while the air filter can survive for a few more miles, new service items need to include engine oil and a filter, a pollen filter and a set of spark plugs to be safe.
There are a number of exterior cosmetic-related problems that should be fixed on the MINI. Most of the exterior black plastic trim has faded and there’s some trim missing from the nearside front corner of the roof, as well as a missing bee-sting aerial at the back of the roof.
The worst of the cosmetic defects on the outside of this MINI concerns the bonnet. It has a mottled finish and looks as though someone has attempted to respray it, but the paint reacted. It’s beyond a cut and polish, so a respray is the only answer.
Inside the MINI, there are a few tatty pieces of trim, including the gear knob that cuts into your hand and water marks on the seat, but overall the interior isn’t too bad. The digital display for the steering column-mounted tacho doesn’t work (this displays information such as outside temperature), nor does the aforementioned passenger electric window, but otherwise everything else seems to be in good order, including the electrically adjustable door mirrors. While inside we plugged in a fault code reader, and couldn’t find any stored or pending faults.
The boot tells a different story and highlights a common problem with the MINI – water ingress. There’s no spare wheel or toolkit underneath the false floor, but instead there’s what can be best described as enough water for a foot spa.
Surprisingly, the water is clean and the surrounding metalwork is free from rust, so all we need to do is drain it and find the source of the leak. Water can leak through via the high-level brake light, the rear wiper, registration-plate lights and plinth, and the tailgate seal. I’ll remove all of them in an attempt to find and fix the problem.
Stay tuned for updates, as we’ll be fixing all of the problems above.