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Australian Mini-Maker Meets MiniGuy

Sun., April 8, 2007 – It seems like everywhere I go in a Mini, people are always stopping me to talk about the car, and many have fond memories of the one they used to have, or their friend had, or someone else that they knew. Lots of the stories are interesting – and some really stand out.

Such it was the day that Bob M., of Westlake, California sought me out after reading about me in an L.A. Times article.

Turns out Bob – starting in 1960 at age 16 – worked in the Australia plant that built the Morris Mini, when the Mini had been on the market only one year.

Rather than have me tell his story, I’ll let him tell it in this piece he wrote at my request.

The history of Australian Minis is not very well documented, and I learned much from his account.

Thanks, Bob, for sharing your story with us.


p.s. – Pictured here is a ’63 Morris Mini, which is essentially the same as the ’59, with some minor changes, mostly in the cabin. Under the bonnet sat an electric fuel pump located there – one which also had a glass bowl. Inside, the seat mountings are different, the speedo has a clear speedo needle and there are courtesy lights in the rear side bins. The most important difference is a lack of “swedging” around the windshield opening, (which greatly contributed to water leaks). There’s more minor differences, and I’d appreciate being filled in by anyone who knows more about the topic. For all intents and purposes, the Minis look the same.

And here’s Bob’s story…
“Mini and Me”
by Bob M[******], Westlake, California

In February 1960, I entered the front gates of the British Motor Corporation (BMC) factory in Zetland, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, to begin my working life as a trainee mechanical engineer in the BMC Apprentice School. I was 16 years old.

Only months earlier, the radical twins, Mini and Austin Seven, had been launched in Britain, around the same time as the Triumph Herald…….British engineering was riding the crest of a creative wave. But in Australia, BMC was assembling the PininFarina styled Austin A40 to the tune of 40 a day, and was planning only eight Minis per day (Morris Minis, as the Austin version was not in the plan), on the assumption that Aussies would prefer the larger car. Also in the mix were various Austins, Morrises, Wolseleys, Rileys, MGs and other British automobiles of common heritage (and in many cases, with Pininfarina styling).

The BMC factory had been built on the site of the Zetland horse-racing track, so was large and flat. Many of the buildings had been brought in from England and reassembled on site, and were entirely unsuitable for the hotter Sydney climate. There was a building for making engines and suspensions, a press and body shop, and the RotoDip rustproofing line, where complete bodies-in-white were skewered like giant chickens and rotated through rustproofing baths. Then everything came together in the Final Assembly Building, which ejected finished cars with monotonous regularity. The factory worked three shifts: 7 a.m.- 3:30 p.m., 3:30-11:30 p.m. and 11:30-7 a.m., manned mainly by “New Australians” who were supervised by English foremen who, to a man, swore like troopers. My vocabulary blossomed.

Assembling a Mini was simple: the floorpan was set down, then the front engine bay and fenders were welded on, followed by the monosides (rare in those days), the rear panel, and the roof. Most were joined by external flanges, which were spot-welded by hand. Suddenly, you had a body-in-white, requiring no lead-loading (unlike most BMC cars) and was ready for the RotoDip, followed by the Paint Shop.

The engine-gearbox unit was dropped in, suspension pieces (rubber cones, etc.) were added, lots of piping and wiring, this and that, and soon you had a car. Simple and fast.

However, the first Minis had bronze synchromesh cones in the gearbox, so we had to strip all gearboxes, and put in new hardened steel cones. Apprentices, like myself, were naturals for this boring task. We were given new engine-gearbox assemblies, and off we went. In an eight-hour day, the best I did was to refit five gearboxes and reassemble the power unit. I can still do this in my sleep!

While we struggled to fix Minis, our warranty department was handling the case of a little old lady who had bought a Wolseley with “Manumatic” transmission – which was a stick shift with a button on the end to electrically release and re-engage the clutch. She thought it was an automatic, and naturally complained about the low top speed, high noise levels, excessive petrol consumption…but fantastic acceleration up to 20! The poor car had lived in first gear for thousands of miles!

The first Minis had an ignition key in the center of the dash, but a starter button on the floor tunnel, just near the handbrake. Ladies often caught their high heels in this button so eventually a change to a regular key-start was required.

I bought my Mini in 1963, at the employee discount, which netted me a Shadow Blue Mini for 632 Pounds (I was earning about 15 pounds a week). The heater was an optional extra at around 10 pounds, and of course A/C was unheard of (it would have sapped all of the engine’s 34 horsepower anyway). Also extra were non-retracting seat belts (but I bought some spring loaded plastic belt retractor gizmos for a pittance), and a seat extender…2 pieces of metal which bolted between the seat mounting points on the floor, and the matching parts of the seat frame. I’m tall.

The A-series Mini engine (around 850cc) had been borrowed from the Morris Minor (and Austin A30) and was transversely mounted so that its exhaust ports would face the back of the car, thus simplifying the exhaust plumbing. Because the A series lacked a cross-flow head, the single SU carburetor was also at the back of the engine, which relegated the spark plugs, coil and distributor to the front. Alas, the radiator was in the left front wheel well, so it was unable to protect the electrics from any water entering the grille. The battery was in the boot, as was the SU electric fuel pump (another weak point). The electrics were a mess. Lucas gets the blame for this in history, despite SU’s contribution. Rain was a real enemy. (A popular joke goes: Why do Brits drink warm beer? Because Lucas makes their refrigerators).

Driving the first Mini was even more fun than they tell you these days, partly because of the tiny drum brakes. The wheels were only 10 inches in diameter, so the drums were even smaller – and shrouded by the wheels. It was easy to run out of brakes, but the car fit between narrow gaps, and “turned on a zack” (Aussie sixpence), so we survived. The door side windows were sliders, and the inside front door handle was a piece of coated wire. The external door handles pivoted, which made them easy to force with a length of pipe. My Mini was thus stolen, and I lost my two dearest possessions: a National 10 (transistor radio…THE one to own in 1963….the closest 24 hour a day pop music station was in Melbourne….600 miles away!) and a Minolta SR1-B SLR camera. Sheesh!

Top speed was a bit north of 73 mph, but was affected by which brand of tyre you used. Whichever brand it was, tyres wore smooth amazingly quickly in the early days; I got 6,000 miles out of a pair of Olympics on the front.

One evening, close to home, I left my seatbelt off (last time I ever did this…you are about to see why) and T-boned a drunk driver who suddenly and impossibly appeared in my windscreen having driven for a mile the wrong way up a one-way street, and thus had reached an intersection which had no obvious need to have a red light pointing the wrong way – until then! I hit him at about 30 mph, and bounced off my seat and into the ceiling. My shins hit the metal pressing which formed the lower rim of the dash. I still have the scars. Alec Issigonis had always said that the steering column would not intrude in such a crash.- and I discovered he was right.

After a year, Mini and I separated. I moved up to a Morris 1100, an even better car, but one lost in history. Next was an Austin 1800 (“Land crab”) which was also a great, underpowered, under-appreciated car. Then I left BMC, and have yet drive one of their successors’ cars again.