In our garage: 1972 Morris Mini 850
We're close to puncturing the thin membrane between projects and lost causes.
Leftlane managing editor Drew Johnson has done a stellar job of sharing his personal automotive projects with our readers over the past year or so. His cars are relatively clean; they're not perfect, but they're all registered, and they can (hopefully; correct me if I'm wrong) be driven to the store without needing a tow. He's inspired me to introduce one of my projects. It's much closer to lost cause status than anything in Drew's fleet, but I'm determined to bring it back from the brink.
Lost cause might be a little bit too harsh, actually. This 1972 Morris Mini 850 has 99 problems but rust ain't one. And rust is what kills these cars.
Normally, my automotive interests gravitate towards metal stamped with "made in France," "made in Italy," or "made in Germany." The other 12 or so classic cars and mopeds in my fleet all fall in one of those categories, and my daily driver -- a turbodiesel-powered 2007 Renault Kangoo panel van -- does, too. I've driven and worked on classic Minis in the past, but I never considered buying one until I spotted this forlorn-looking 850 in the corner of a warehouse in Marseilles, France, in 2018.
I hadn't ventured into Marseilles (a trip I usually avoid making) in search of a 46-year old British economy car; I only needed a flat-twin engine for my Citroën 2CV. The seller just happened to have both -- and much, much more. Its story fascinated me. It was parked in the corner of a repair shop in 1980 because its then-owner dropped it off for repairs and never picked it up. It might have moved around the warehouse I found it in, but it had certainly never left it. It was complete, though everything mechanical needed to be replaced, and significantly it was 100% rust-free.
Several weeks later, I rented a Ford Transit flatbed and somehow maneuvered it around the swarms of unruly scooters buzzing through the narrow, winding streets of Marseilles without embedding one into the truck's giant grille. The Mini had no key, and the steering wheel was turned and locked, so loading it onto the Transit took ages. I didn't even have time to wash it before dropping it off in my storage unit about 40 minutes away. Come to think of it, I still haven't washed it.
Decades of sitting didn't keep this Mini mechanically sound, but it nonetheless found ways to surprise me. The tire still hold air, for example. The engine isn't seized, but its compression is low so I drove up to Lyon and bought an identical one pulled from a running car with terminal rust. I'll drop it in after changing the worn-out clutch (remember: the transmission and the engine are one unit in a classic Mini).
Every part of the braking system needed to be replaced, so I started the project there as I looked for an engine. I'm nearly done with the front brakes, and I'll move onto the rear brakes before the end of the month. My goal is to keep it as original as possible; I have zero desire to make yet another soul-less Cooper replica or a pseudo race car. I'm keeping the 848cc engine, the four drums, and the 10-inch steelies.
Although it has never been welded, it won't stay that way for long. The passenger-side fender and A-panel both took a hit while it was in storage so they need to be replaced. The Mini had welded-on fenders, so I'll have to cut it out and weld a new one back on. Matching the paint -- which isn't original -- won't be easy, and I may end up repainting the whole thing. Those are the last items on my to-do list, though.
Deadlines are meant to be broken, aren't they? In 2018, I figured I'd have the Mini back on the road within a year. It seemed feasible until I moved an hour and a half away from the storage unit I keep it in. Working on it suddenly became a much more complicated endeavor than it used to be. As I'm gathering parts left and right, I'm also keeping an eye on the classifieds to find a trailer. The next step of this project will be to move the Mini to yet another garage -- the one its future engine is in.