How the classic Mini made its mark in Kiwi motorsport
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New Zealand has a little known link to the motorsport legacy of the high-performance versions of the ubiquitous Mini.
Sir Alex Issigonis, the man behind the original Mini, had no motor racing aspirations for the innovative little car, yet it soon became apparent that the 1959 original boasted great road manners and was rife for extra power.
Australian Jack Brabham and NZer Bruce McLaren were Cooper Formula 1 team drivers at the time and quickly assessed the competition potential of the modestly powered 848cc Mini Minor. They each helped persuade boss John Cooper to evolve a sports version of the car with a larger capacity engine and front disc brakes.
Cooper had the unenviable task of convincing conservative management at the British Motor Corporation that such a car would be a commercial success - and the rest is history. The first Mini Coopers went on sale in the closing months of 1961, and the Cooper name is still carried on most Mini models today.
When McLaren drove one of the first Minis 60 years ago he was described it as “fabulous and able to put sporting cars to shame on twisty roads”.
McLaren tempted NZ crowds with a racing Mini in 1962 and the following summer returned with a more powerful 1.1-litre Mini Cooper which stunned the crowds at the first local Grand Prix meeting held at Pukekohe.
The Mini was expected to run in the saloon race for smaller cars, but Bruce took on a greater challenge by competing in the event for the big guns.
The 25-year-old Kiwi stormed three cars off the grid and was soon involved in a crowd-pleasing battle with the highly modified 2.5 litre six-cylinder Mark II Ford Zephyr of Ernie Sprague and 3.8-litre Jaguar of Alistair McBeath. They raced wheel-to-wheel, with the winning Jaguar finishing just one-tenth of a second ahead of McLaren.
Ardmore’s airfield circuit in January 1961 marked the first competition appearance for the Mini, with no less than seven of the BMCs facing larger saloon cars.
Minis soon became hugely popular in motor racing, with the long-running, relatively low-cost Mini Seven series attracting large fields.
The Mini Seven Association of NZ became affiliated to the controlling body of motor sport in the mid-seventies and during the first 20 years of Mini Seven racing the regulations remained largely unchanged. Value for money was reckoned to be a key factor in the popularity of the class.
Christchurch driver Jim Mullins took his white Mini Cooper 1293S to victory in NZ’s national Group 2 saloon car championship for the 1965/66 season.
Despite the high level of tune, the car was docile enough for Mullins to drive the car to and from meetings in both islands. Mullins and Lin Neilson also won the Three Hour Challenge race at Pukekohe, downing the dark horse of the meeting, a big Ford Mustang which was dogged with braking problems.
At the 1966 Grand Prix Pukekohe meeting, Sydney driver Brian Foley kept the crowd on its feet with spectacular driving in his 1.3-litre Mini Cooper, finishing second to Frank Bryan’s much more powerful 4.7-litre Ford Mustang.
Aucklander Rodger Anderson acquired a Mini Cooper S that had already been campaigned in all forms of motor sport, from rallies and trials to national races and hillclimbs. Anderson ran the car in the one litre class and notched up sufficient points to be crowned overall saloon car champion in 1968.
Rod Collingwood set his sights on racing a Mini after watching McLaren tackle the bigger cars in 1963 and eight years later won the 1000 cc championship class for the season in his own Mini.
Reg Cook became a new rising star among Mini drivers in 1971, and the following year was the man to beat with some stunning victories. Other prominent Mini drivers included Alan Boyle, Barry Phillips, Graham Watson, Peter Harris, Peter Sharp, David Strong and Rex Hart.
Arrival of the new generation Mini in 2001 saw development of an international one-make Mini racing series and with Mini NZ backing, 20 specially prepared versions of the supercharged 1.6-litre Mini Cooper were imported for the 2006/07 season.
The series was seen as good for the car’s image, backed up by Greg Hedgepeth who was national manager for Mini NZ at the time. “It helps remind people that Mini is bred from race heritage and proves that Mini is a performance vehicle,” he said.
The Mini also made its mark in other forms of the sport, with Scotsman Andrew Cowan and local navigator Jim Scott in a white Clubman GT taking outright victory in the 1972 Heatway international rally run over rugged local roads.
Car club members relished the way the Mini performed in gymkhana tests and they were exceptionally good in fuel economy runs. Canterbury fuel experts George Drayton and Laurie Timlin achieved a world record 60.19 miles per gallon (4.7 litres/100 km) with a Mini in the 1961 three-day Mobilgas Economy Run held in the North Island.
Motorsport played a significant role in shaping the history of this extraordinary vehicle, not only in Europe but also in New Zealand.