1970 Mini Cooper S - Reader Resto

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From the archives: Growing up in a car-obsessed household, it was natural that Kate Vella would choose something interesting and individual as her first car

Kate’s introduction to driving had been behind the wheel of dad Joe’s Mustang, and the family garage was haven to a variety of vehicles, plus all the gear needed to maintain them.

First published in Unique Cars #318, Nov/Dec 2010 

Seven years ago, aged 18, Kate bought a Mini Cooper S MkII, which would serve as her regular transport until a 2009 mishap forced a complete strip and rebuild.

Bright purple, with flashy customised seats and a white leather steering wheel, it wasn’t going to win any authenticity awards should she happen to venture near a Mini Owners’ display day, but Kate loved her Mini for a range of reasons.

mini-cooper-resto-10.jpg

"It was cute, handled really well and was easy to see out of and park," Kate said. "Unfortunately, one afternoon in September last year, another driver didn’t see me waiting to turn right and the Mini looked headed for the wreckers. When we got the car home the damage didn’t look too bad but the more you looked you could see how far the effects of being hit extended. The frame was bent and the floor buckled."

Kate’s insurer declared the car a write-off but she wasn’t going to give up that easily on a car that had grown up with her.

"We bought the wreck from the insurance company then my dad Joe went looking for a decent body shell that we could use to rebuild it," she said.

mini-cooper-resto-9.jpgTricky metal repairs were entrusted to a highly-skilled craftsman and family friend who normally works on expensive Jaguars

For several weeks, the damaged Cooper sat on old milk crates, which gave access to items that would be removed and transferred to the replacement body. As Kate recalled, it was at times a tedious job but would ultimately make rebuilding the car easier and far less expensive than starting from scratch. "We would put parts from my car and the one we bought side-by-side and pick the one that was better, or at least needed less work to make it right," she explained.

Where neither of them was really good enough, we would get one to replace it." 

mini-cooper-resto-8.jpgDismantled Mini fitted easily into the professional spray booth for a perfect paint finish and rapid re-assembly

Joe found a suitable body at Northern Mini Parts in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg and it sat in his shed alongside the Mustang and a Corvette restoration project that was put aside while the Mini was being rebuilt.

"It [the Mini] was Kate’s everyday car so it was important that we got stuck into it and got it back on the road as soon as possible," Joe said.

The body was in decent shape but closer inspection revealed rust and damage that would need expert repair if it were to serve its purpose.

That job fell to Greg Newton, a panel beater friend of the Vella family, who undertook the task of fully restoring and painting the replacement body. First task was to strip the shell, which was then bead blasted so hidden defects could be identified and eliminated before paint preparation.

mini-cooper-resto-12.jpgCleaning, cleaning, cleaning... Kate spent hours removing seven years of gunk before the engine could be installed in the new body

"The roof had rust so that was cut out and new metal shaped to fit," Kate said. "It also had some rust inside the back mudguards and none of the front ones we had were much good, so we had to find a replacement pair and fit those."

Almost seven months after the purple car was damaged, the body was fully prepared and ready to paint in Kate’s "second choice" colour combination of Powder Blue and white.

"Originally I’d wanted a darker Surf Blue but it was hard to match," she said. "Then I saw a car in this colour and found out what it was but before committing we did a test spray. It looked good, so Greg could start the painting."

Due to meticulous preparation and Joe’s guidance, the reassembly process was tedious but problem-free.

mini-cooper-resto-5.jpgAlmost a year later, two Minis have become one, and the more authentic-looking Cooper S is ready for the road

"Things like bolts and small parts that were going to be nickel-plated were all dumped in caustic soda to get rid of any dirt and rust then washed and dried," Joe explained. "Doing that makes it easier for the platers, gives you a better job and saves money; it’s well worth the extra time you spend." Kate rates refitting the engine as the most fiddly and challenging aspect of the job. It had been rebuilt some years earlier by Mini specialist Link Automotive so it needed little more than a thorough clean and replacement of minor components like the air filters.

"There is so little room to work in the Mini engine bay you have to be really careful with everything you do," she cautioned. "All of the paint was new and we would have hated to damage it, so it was a very tedious process getting the engine in and then everything else that goes around it."

Joe had removed and checked the original car’s suspension and braking systems. Most components were in usable condition and were refitted to the restored body, together with a set of ROH Contessa alloys.

mini-cooper-resto-1.jpgMinilite-inspired ROH Contessa alloys off original car. New bumpers came unassembled but still cost $800 for the pair

Not so the interior with its somewhat extroverted seat trim and worn carpet. Luckily, the original car’s standard seats had been carefully stored and were in excellent nick. New carpets and hood lining were fitted by Straight Line Trimming and the steering wheel recovered in white leather.

"The wheel isn’t standard but I like it much better than the big, genuine Mini one," Kate confided. "There’s also a heater and radio so it’s got all the comforts I need."

Reunion with her 1970-model Mini after a year was a shock for Kate. While her car was being rebuilt, she had been using her mum’s gadget-packed, BMW-designed Mini and her initial response to the older car’s cabin was that it "felt so big and empty."

mini-cooper-resto-2.jpgWeeks of work resulted in a pristine engine bay. The scariest part of restoration was refitting the engine without scarring brand-new paint

OWNER SNAPSHOT

  • NAME: Kate Vella
  • AGE: 25
  • JOB: Merchandising stylist
  • HARDEST PART: Making sure I went out every day, even in winter, to do a bit of work on the car and when something didn’t work, keep on trying.
  • BEST PART: Getting my car back after all that time, and working on it with my dad.
  • NEXT PROJECT: Helping dad with his Corvette, as he spent so much time doing my car!

COUNTING THE COST:

  • Replacement body shell: $1280
  • New bumpers: $800
  • Trim: $800
  • Paint and consumables: $1100

mini-cooper-resto-3.jpg

WHAT IS IT?

BMC (British Motor Corporation) introduced an S version of its Cooper-modified Mini in March 1964, followed by the more common and reliable 1275cc version.

Australian assembly of the Morris-badged Cooper S began in 1965 and local cars got wind-up front windows instead of sliding glass, and twin fuel tanks gave a 500km-plus range.

The 1966 Bathurst 500 was dominated by Minis and the field included 24 various models. With their excellent fuel economy, Coopers filled the first nine places.

The Mark 2 arrived in 1969 with new oval badges front and rear and plastic wheel arch extensions as the Mark 1’s drilled steel wheels protruded beyond the guards and contravened rego rules in some states.

The top speed of a standard Cooper S was only 158km/h but hundreds of Mark 2s were used as unmarked police cars.

THE RESTO: 

Buggered boot

mini-cooper-resto-14.jpgDents from a prang didn't look too serious but structural damage meant a replacement body was needed to save Kate's much-loved Mini.

 

Donor dilemma

mini-cooper-resto-15.jpgTransferring everything from one cramped Cooper S engine bay to another occupied many hours of sometimes frustrating work.

 

Crate expectations

mini-cooper-resto-13.jpgWith all mechanicals and suspension removed, the discarded Mini body is easily supported by four plastic milk crates – luckily for Joe Vella!

 

Strip show

mini-cooper-resto-11.jpgIngenious frame, designed by Joe, allowed body to be easily moved and tipped for rust removal and component installation without damage.

 

Rally or road

mini-cooper-resto-16.jpgNon-standard 1980s-style seats and belts failed to survive the makeover but all mechanical parts were able to be re-used.

 

Creature comforts

mini-cooper-resto-17.jpgAuthentic Cooper S buckets, radio, heater, custom wheel and toggle switch extensions make basic Mini more liveable – and stylish. 

 

On guard

mini-cooper-resto-7.jpgReplacement mudguards had to be found and fitted before the body could be primed and readied for the paint booth.

 

Shock ‘n’ suspense

mini-cooper-resto-6.jpgSuspension was in good shape despite several years use but was cleaned and checked. Bolts were nickel plated before refitting.

 

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