Buying a classic Mini in the USA
The first thing that truly astonished me when I began shopping for a Mini was how much such a tiny car could cost! It's the age old story of supply and demand. Since Minis have not been sold here since the late 1960s, and they rust if you look at them wrong, there aren't all that many to go around. So, you have some choices:
1) Buy a privately owned Mini in the USA. They turn up if you know where to look. One of the best places to watch (other than Ebay, where you can find anything) is the Mini Mania classifieds. You'll need vigilance, as they tend to go pretty quickly if they are a good deal. Conversely, cars that languish there and the ads are repeated endlessly usually have a reason for not selling. All the best buys will, of course, be on the other side of the country from where you are. A Mini is not a car I would feel comfortable buying just from photos, unless you are well educated in what to look for. If there is a Mini club in your area, join up and have the membership assist you in looking for a car. Get educated, have the cash, and be ready.
2) Buy a Mini from a dealer/importer in the USA. Importing and selling Minis can be a lucrative business. But, like any car dealership experience, you will find crooks out there with the few honest ones. Ask around, and pay attention. It will be no secret who the bad guys are. Beware the re-VIN! (more about that later). A good Mini dealer will take the time to answer your emails and phone calls with newbie questions about these cars. An exceptional dealer will educate you on what to look for, and may question you to determine if a Mini is indeed right for you. A good dealer will not waste your time trying to sell you a car that is completely the opposite of what you want, but he will also tell you if your expectations are realistic or not. A good dealer will only sell you solid, running cars with a clean title and no ambiguous history.
3) Buy a Mini from another country and import it yourself. With proper research and a little coaching from those who have done it themselves, it can be accomplished and save you quite a bit of money. The problem isn't so much importing the car as it is finding a worthy candidate across the ocean. Unless you have someone you trust implicitly to sign-off on the car after a visual inspection, this is extremely risky.
Now, let's begin the education process. First, you need to decide what kind of Mini you want. No, they are not all the same, even though they may look alike. What follows is my truly basic, no-frills breakdown of various Mini types for general education of those who know virtually nothing about these cars (like me when I started).
Mk 1, 2, 3, 4? Most English cars as they evolve are identified by 'marks'. Each variant is subsequently named Mark (Mk) 1, then 2, etc. With Minis, Mk 1s and Mk 2s are the earliest types. Exterior door hinges, sliding rather than vertically moving door windows, smaller taillamps, etc. The Mk 1 and 2 are the most 'collectible', and are therefore more expensive. If you don't care about collectability and just want one to drive and have fun with, I'd skip these and move to a less costly Mk 3. Mk 4's are late model cars (80s-90s) and are, for the most part, not legal for US import. This does not stop people from having them (see re-VINs, below).
Cooper, Cooper S, SDL, Sportpack, ad nauseum. You'll need to do more research than I have time or space for here to learn all the myriad models the Mini has appeared in. All Minis are not Coopers. A Cooper 'S' (especially with external door hinges) is the holy grail. Sportpacks are the late model equivelant. Citys, SDLs, 30s and a host of other versions are mostly trim levels or special packages that were offered. My Mini would be classified as a, well, Mini Cheap. Again, unless you're going for collectable value there isn't much significance in a lot of them, as most any Mini can be changed into whatever you want it to be. (I'm sure I'll get hate mail for that one).
Round nose, Clubman, Traveler, Riley Elf, etc. Much like GM, Austin/Rover regularly created various models off the same platform. The 'normal' Mini is a round nose. Clubmans are a Mini with a square-ish and more modern nose treatment. Travelers are wagons, and there are also panel vans and pickups (though they are hard to find). You'll also see Minis badged as Rileys and some other brands with varying grille and/or trunk treatments. Under the skin they are all pretty much normal Minis. Clubmans can be a great value as they aren't as popular, yet offer space advantages under the hood for those who enjoy modifications. Round noses and Clubbies are the most commonly available.
850, 998, 1275 and what about all these other sizes? These numbers indicate engine size, and with Minis size matters! 850s are the economical bottom feeders. Since they are generally purchased new by frugal owners, they are often driven little, and therefore good examples are easier to find. 998 (often called 1000s) are the middle road; more power, but not the ultra-performance of the 1275. 1275's are the holy grail of standard engines, nearly doubling the stock HP of the 850 in the same package and will normally feature disc brakes and other niceties. You will pay a premium for 1275 and larger cars. 998s are reasonable, and the mostly unloved 850 will help keep your purchase price down. I've become a bit of a convert to the 850; it's a willing little engine, though it offers no real potential for advanced performance tuning. Any Mini engine will bolt into the same place, so an 850 can be a great value you can drive while building that ultimate race engine.
And finally, what's all this harping about re-VINs? As I noted, Minis were built for non-US consumption up to the year 2000. As with most cars that live this long, the newer Minis evolved with nicer interiors, multi-point fuel injection, air conditioning, airbags, etc. Some people desire a Mini that is less, well, pure than what is normally available to us. In addition, many people think that by purchasing a newer car they will have fewer rust issues (not) and better reliability (debatable). The problem is, as of this writing, Minis newer than 1980 are not legal for importation. But, they are here, and you will see them advertised for sale, although they are called something else. Typically, the ad will read "1971 Mini restored to 1990 specs". This is a load of horse manure. What it really means is someone purchased a rotted out 1971 Mini, removed the VIN serial number plate, and stuck it on a 1990 Rover Mini. The car is then imported to the USA with the 1971 documentation. Since most Minis look the same to the untrained customs worker, they usually get through. As a buyer, you need to decide if an illegal car is for you. Your car could get seized, if the trail ever leads to it. A smart insurer may refuse to pay a claim if the car becomes damaged, as you have fraudulently misrepresented what you are insuring. And a re-VIN may be a problem to sell, when the time comes, as the Mini world is a small place and people aren't afraid to point out the re-VINs. Finally, do you really feel a person who is performing such things is a trustworthy individual to buy a car from? Your decision.
What to look for: One word--RUST! There are not many cars that will rust faster than a Mini. Now, I know what you're thinking. It's not a very big car, and the prices of body panels isn't that awful, so if the one I'm looking at has a bit of rust it's worth putting some money into, right?
Nope, huh-uh, wrong.
The problem with Minis is, when they rust in one place, they are usually rusting everywhere. Common spots are floorpans, sills (rockers), fenders, A panels, valances, front panel (especially at the seam under the headlamps), bottom corners of the windshield, hood, trunk lid, trunk floor (check the batter box and spare wheel recess), door bottoms, roof edge....you see how this works? The metal is thin and of rather poor quality, so once it starts, it spreads like a virus in short order to other areas.
Another troublesome rust spot is the rear subframe. These are rather expensive and you'll want to pay close attention to them.
Panels are cheap, true, but everything on a Mini that isn't hinged is welded on, so it's generally not a job for the DIY-er. Labor costs will rapidly consume whatever money you thought you were saving by not buying that nice one for several thousand more.
So we've established the shells are garbage. Wait, it gets better.
The A series engine used in the Mini is a common powerplant for numerous other LBC's (Little British Cars). Most commonly found in the USA residing under the hood of a MG Midget or Austin Healey Sprite. While the internal parts are mostly the same, the block and crank are unique to the fwd Mini and Austin America/MG 1100, so don't plan on dropping a 1275 Midget engine in your Mini...it won't work. The upside is that regular maintenance parts are affordable and available. The A series is a robust engine, up to a point. When abused, it will fail in depressing ways (blown head gaskets, cracked heads, fractured crankshafts). Another reason a homely, well kept 850 may be a better value for your uses than a hotted up 1275.
The gearbox resides under the engine, and serves as the oil sump for the engine, both sharing the same lubrication. This is the one flaw, I think, in the otherwise brilliant design of Alec Issigonis. The Mini gearbox should shift precisely. While it is easy to beat the syncros during a shift, actual grinding is a bad sign. Prepare for a rebuild or replacement if this is an issue.
You'll note the radiator sits in the car totally wrong. This means the cooling system needs to be kept in a good state, or overheating will quickly occur.
Most cars under 1275cc will have drum brakes on all four wheels. Adequate, but not inspiring. The commonly available upgrade to disc brakes requires fitting 12" wheels to clear the calipers. Research this before buying anything.
Lucas electrics, of course, so make sure everything works.
It's not my intention to give an extensive mechanical checklist here; I'm only touching on the highlights. The ultimate message I have is, don't be fooled into thinking such a little car can't possibly be expensive to fix. It can. Go in with your eyes wide open.
Is a Mini really right for me? I think more people should ask themselves this before getting sucked into the "cute little car" mode. Minis are completely unlike any other car commonly available in the US. I highly recommend driving one first before deciding you absolutely have to have one.
Is safety a major concern? Minis are sturdy cars, up to a point. Beyond that point, you'll be squashed like a bug. They are tiny, and not easy to see on the road. I advise people to drive them like you would a motorcycle, which means pretend you're invisible, and assume everyone on the road is out to kill you.
Can you perform repairs yourself? The newest Mini you can legally own will be 25 years old. It will be an old car, no matter how nice or how few miles it shows. Things will break. Your ability to perform repairs will be a large factor in how much owning one will cost.
Do you enjoy talking to people? Seems like an odd question, but you will be bombarded with questions from everyone who sees the car, many of them repetitive, inane and tiresome. Every time you fill up the tank, you'll meet a new friend. Some people enjoy this side effect while others do not.
Can you fit in it? Minis are surprisingly cavernous. I'm nearly 6 feet tall, and have no trouble driving it or getting in/out. The small pedals can cause problems for those with big feet or who prefer large shoes.
Do you intend to use it every day? Some do. I would not recommend it, mostly due to the age of the car more than anything. We're talking about a car that still has a manual carb choke you know.
Can you afford one? A decent Mini will set you back a minimum of $6000. This is a running, driving, legal car that is not a cosmetic embarrassment. That's the minimum; it climbs from there. You can buy a lot of other collector cars with more room, power and fewer headaches for the same kind of money. If you can't afford that much, I don't recommend you buy one. Unless you have good mechanical abilities and are familiar with restoration work, anything in the less costly price range will take a lot of work, lots of money and will likely be a horrible disappointment.
Why am I so down on Minis? It may seem that way, but I'm not. I'm just trying to be as honest to the 'average' reader as I can be. It is too easy to like Minis and want one, and therefore too easy to buy a rotten car and have a bad experience. I've seen it happen to too many people with all kinds of cars. Think before you act.
Minis, once your past all this garbage above, really are hilarious, nimble, fun cars. I really do take the long way home whenever I'm driving mine. I hate to get out of it. It's not fast, sexy, nor totally reliable. But it is always fun, and there's not too many things that perform a basic task (transportation) that are always, without fail, fun.
Glossary of common Mini terms for the newbie
A-panel--sheet metal piece between the fender and the door, seperated by the raised seam
Clock--instrument, such as the speedometer. A 3 clock dash, for example, has 3 seperate gauges
Quid--British pound of currency, similar to our dollar
Hydro--Hydrolastic suspension, a sort of liquid filled suspension system used on some Minis. Has it's pros and cons.
De-seam--grinding off and filling to a smooth look the external body seams on a Mini
Minilight--common alloy wheel fitted to Minis
Door card--interior trim panel
Scuttle--cowl, the part of the body in front of the windshield
Screen--windscreen, or windshield
Box--muffler, usually refers to one or two (single or twin box exhaust)