Cafe Race Car: Building A Motorsport-Inspired Mini Cooper S
Photography by Piers Hulford
I can’t help feeling a little conspicuous. Pleasant as it might sound to you or I, it’s 6 A.M. on a Monday morning and the residents in the flats above Brighton’s North Laine are waking up to a barely silenced racing-spec A-series motor. I arrive at our first shooting location on the corner of Sydney Street and Trafalgar and am quick to shut it off. The sun has yet to fully crest, and aside from the bustle of the bin men, this charismatic seaside town is now utterly silent. Time for a coffee.
If you are British, the classic Mini is as much a part of our collective cultural history as the Royal Family, James Bond, or The Beatles. It’s a source of great pride and appreciation, and its significance is assumed by all even if not fully understood. The Mini is an archetype. A true icon and the forefather of modern compact car design, and, in the hands of a World Championship winning Formula One team, the Cooper S became, arguably, the original hot hatch—and a bloody good racing car that punched well above its weight.
I’ve always had a broad appreciation for cars, but an early-‘60s Mini was always at the top of the to-own list. About a decade ago, I’d just sold my 1968 BMW 2002 and was in the market for another classic to drive daily. I settled on a first generation Mini as parts were cheap and readily available, and if I wanted more performance there would be some options—with over 50 years in competition, the tuning potential and support was certainly available. I found a superb example in Scotland but missed out on it by just one day. So, I did what you should never do when buying a car, and bought the very next one I looked at. In hindsight I should have waited, but nevertheless, I drove my Mini to and from work every single day, and loved every minute of it.
After a year of ownership I decided to investigate a crack that had appeared in the floor following a spirited drive home from the office. After poking around with a screwdriver I discovered that there was almost nothing supporting the front subframe. All that was left of the front floors and crossmember was a thin layer of paint and some crumbling iron oxide. Major surgery was unavoidable. The plan was to remove the engine and subframe, weld in new floors, repair the crossmember, and get the car back on the road. Needless to say, this didn’t happen. Like so many car projects it just kept evolving, and eight years later I finished building the car you see here.
My professional involvement in historic motorsport led me to the decision to build it into an FIA-legal race car. Standing in the rain at Goodwood, watching a diminutive Mini Cooper S take on, and beat, a big block V8 Ford Galaxy is exhilarating, and the kind of spectacle that makes driving feel brand new again. I always wanted to race, so what better way than to restore my Mini and build it into my very own race car?
I’ve long felt that many of the “historic” race cars built today don’t employ a suitably “historic” aesthetic. Although I wanted to include all of the latest engineering developments available, I also wanted to ensure that it looked like a race car that could have been built in the 1960s. The inspiration for the build came from early-‘60s endurance racers, in particular, the Aston Martin prototypes like the DP212 and 214. So when I found out that a Mini Cooper S ran in the Nurburgring 1000km in 1963, my imagination took over. I never found a photo of that exact car, but taking cues from the Aston Martin endurance prototypes, I adopted a concept that would underpin my car’s aesthetic.
The exterior is finished in Aston Martin’s California Sage Green, the same color used on the original prototype endurance racers. For the inside of the car I chose Smoke Grey, an original Mini color. Many original race cars from the period only had their exteriors painted in the team livery, while the inside of the car remained as it left the factory—the stripped out interiors showing the original delivered color. Not entirely sure what the result would look like, I took a gamble and applied this aesthetic to my build. Thankfully the color combination worked, the pale grey interior paintwork compliments the metallic green exterior handsomely, plus it added to the vintage racer atmosphere.
The interior is in keeping with original competition cars of the era which includes the original door cards and vinyl dashboard trim. A hand-fabricated dash panel is home to the additional gauges, a fuel pump switch, and the Mini’s original starter button, relocated from the floor beside the driver’s seat. It was common practice for endurance racers to black out any reflective surfaces in the cockpit and it was also typical for teams to use surplus electrical components from the military. For the oil pressure light and shift light, I used the same warning lights you’d find in a Spitfire or Lancaster bomber. The steering wheel is a custom item from Moto-Lita. It’s in the same style as the original Aston Martin wheels, with black anodized spokes and a dark wood rim. I still wanted the car to show some of its true age, so some patina was left as is, and I chose not refinish any of the original interior components. The only obvious distraction from a purely 1960s aesthetic is the roll cage, the OMP racing seat, harness, and STACK rev counter.
The engine is fully modified for racing, and was built to meet FIA homologation requirements. The capacity has been increased to 1293cc—the maximum allowed—and it features modified and lightweight internals which help it achieve a working redline of 8250rpm. The cylinder head is an original cast iron unit but has been ported using modern CNC technology. Beneath the engine, and sharing the same oil, is a straight-cut close-ratio four-speed gearbox and a limited-slip differential.
Back at our photoshoot, the sun has risen, the static shots are in the bag, and now, fully caffeinated, we are ready for a few action scenes. Like the streets and sewer pipes of Turin, Brighton’s Lanes prove no match for the Cooper S. Blatting through the tight passages becomes thoroughly addictive in no time. The buzz and whine reverberates through the brick and mortar canyons of boutiques and coffee shops, and though this is built with the track in mind, this scene feels exactly like what a quick Mini was made for.
The driving experience of this one is equal parts brutal and exhilarating. The mechanical equivalent of a double espresso. The engine is surprisingly tractable but the metallic clutch engages sharply and any amount of throttle in first gear has the tires scrabbling for traction. If you reach third gear in town then you’re probably breaking the speed limit. The car handles like a go-kart but the race-oriented suspension is a touch unforgiving on these uneven streets. The brake pedal is firm but effective and slows the car’s 620kg (about 1370lbs) abruptly. Applying power in the corners engages the limited-slip which fights me to pull the steering wheel straight. Straighten it out and hit the throttle, though, and the car takes off like a bottle rocket. There’s no carpet or sound deadening to mute the cacophony of noise up front, the open-mouthed carburetors gulping the atmosphere and the straight cut gears howling through the floor.
Driving this car is as visceral as it gets, a feeling no doubt compounded by how physically close you are to all the mechanical action. With each of the four tires becoming an extension of yourself, it communicates like no other car. If you are not accustomed to it, the constant flow of information through the seat and the steering wheel can be overwhelming. It’s an analog system that requires your full attention, but you’re infinitely rewarded for giving it. It’s the race car I always wanted to build, and it surpasses the high expectations I’d had for these cars since I was a kid with the scale model.