Specials : The Mini ERA Turbo

ERA is a name with a glorious past – and, in the summer of 1988, the owners of the marque approached Rover to revive the name on a very special Mini.

This is what happens when you put a turbocharger under the bonnet of a Mini: a little bit of magic.

Turbo’d fancy…

ERA Mini re-enacting the famous scene from The Italian Job
ERA Mini re-enacting the famous scene from The Italian Job

The Mini revival of the late 1980s was a welcome, if unexpected bonus, for a Rover Group which seemed to be growing in confidence with each new model launched. Japanese demand for the small car was unprecedented, and John Cooper soon carved himself an enviable business crating out tuning kits and various other retro accessories for keen Far East owners to bolt onto their most British of cars.

Cooper wasn’t the only one to recognise the massive potential of the Japanese market – or, indeed, the Mini itself. Interest in classic cars in general was ballooning, and plenty of other companies wanted to cash in on the boom-time years.

Injecting the Mini with performance

The ERA Mini Turbo was a car conceived to bring the Mini up-to-date in terms of performance and handling, while retaining as much charm as possible from the original car. What the company set out to create was, in essence, a modern Cooper – even though that was close to getting on the drawing board over at Rover Special Products (RSP).

In 1988, ERA set out to engineer a car to the highest automotive standards, and there would be no compromise on engineering quality. Fresh from its work on the M-Series engine, the links were already there, and so the new Mini project would use as many tried and tested standard Rover components as possible, and should minimise the use of special tooling to avoid lengthy testing and uneconomic production batches. It should be easily and readily serviceable by any Rover dealer.

With that in mind, it remained instantly recognisable as a Mini, and was distinctive from its humbler brethren. Interior trimming was lavish, and equipment levels would be high, as to satisfy the inflated wallets of the customers who were clamoring for such a car. Unlike some of the more specialist Mini and Metro models which took things to extremes, the ERA may have enjoyed high equipment levels, but the essential classicism of the original Mini remained – therefore, there were no digital instruments or super-modern gimmicks.

All those additions…

The ERA started life as a part-built Mini City, arriving from Austin Rover as a shell with headlining, glazing, and subframes. Accommodating the turbo of the 1275cc Metro A-Series engine required part of the bulkhead to be cut away while, to aid cooling, holes are let into the rear of the bonnet and covered by a discreet bulge.

ERA set out the Turbo to the fastest ever production Mini, but not by using an intractable high revving competition engine. Using a turbocharger would deliver excellent torque characteristics and mid-range performance.

Boosted by a Garrett T3 turbocharger that was also used by the MG Metro Turbo, the performance was ample. Thanks to changes to its ECU, the turbo produced more boost – up to 0.48bar at 6000rpm – although it was tailored back at lower engine speeds to keep combustion pressures below the detonation threshold.

Turbo modifications…

There was no intercooler so the charged air was blown directly into the SU HIF 44 carburettor and then into the A-Series engine. Power was up by 1bhp over the Metro to 94bhp at 6300rpm, and torque was upped to 87lb ft at 3600rpm. Performance claimed by ERA was 8.8secs for the 0-60mph run, and a maximum speed of 110mph. Thankfully, the chassis was upgraded to cope.

In terms of styling, the bodykit was styled by Dennis Adams, the Designer of the Marcos sports cars and the Probe concept car. It was an aggressive effort and, despite the company’s protestations, it had plenty of boy racer appeal. Matching the high price tag, the quality of the kit was excellent, and strong enough to survive everyday driving – and, if you took a close look at the radiator grille, you’d have seen it was straight off the Italian-built Innocenti Mini-Coopers.

The interior is almost totally changed. Gone were the standard Mini seats and the ‘bus driver’ driving position, and the welcome drop in noise levels added refinement to the Mini mix. Specially designed and tested sports-style seats were installed, giving excellent support and comfort. The dashboard sported a full range of VDO traditional dial instrumentation on an entirely new instrument panel.

A sunroof was fitted, and complemented the combination of best Connolly hide, cloth, ambla and deep sound deadening carpet.

On the road…

Put simply, the ERA Turbo was a Mini with a Metro Turbo engine (a popular conversion in later years), featuring fat wheels and uprated brakes. The 165/60HR13 Goodyear NCTs, and the 6Jx 13 five-spoke Track Star wheels were well covered by that controversial bodykit – but they did allow oodles of lateral grip. ERA’s suspension tweaks worked a treat.

The idea was to banish torque steer, and it worked – understeer was reduced, and lift-off tuck-in was a bonus that came to those who liked to push on. The ERA was a breeze to drive down a typically twisty English B-road, but physically demanding all the same.

According to Autocar & Motor magazine, the fun was hard to contain: ‘The donor MG Metro doesn’t boast state of the art turbo technology and lag can be annoying at times, so it is curious that ERA’s modifications seem only to stress this trait. Boost has been raised from 7.5psi to 8psi which raises peak power fractionally to 96bhp at the same 6100rpm.

‘But an unchanged peak torque rating now seems to arrive higher up the scale; precious little happens below 4000rpm – roughly the point at which the engine sounds as if it will shortly asphyxiate. Instead, it finds itself whipped up to 6000rpm in very short order. Even with only four gears, this means that the ERA feels impressively rapid in a rush though the box. Should corners intervene, the ERA zips through them with delightful nimbleness.’

Expensive, but exclusive

Despite all that, the ERA wasn’t over the top in terms of price – yes, it was expensive, and you could buy a very nice Volkswagen Golf GTi 16V for the same money as this hotshoe (list was nearly £12,000), but for the Japanese who loved that sort of thing, it was money well spent.

All you need to know

Engine Four-cylinder inline OHV turbocharged
Displacement: 1275cc
Compression Ratio: 9.4:1
Maximum Power: 94bhp at 6130rpm
Maximum Torque: 87lb ft at 3600rpm
Performance Max Speed: 115 mph
0-60 mph: 7.80 secs
30-50 mph (2nd gear): 3.40 secs
50-70 mph (3rd gear): 6.30 secs
Standing 1/4 mile: 16.60 secs

Taken from www.eraturbo.com

Production details by colour were as follows:

Cars made for the European Market, signified by the letter ‘R’ as a prefix to the four-digit ERA serial number embossed on a brass plate riveted to the slam panel.

Numbers of ‘R’ prefix Cars Produced by Colour

Red (Flame Red 89): 30 – 22 Full Production; 6 Pre-Production; 2 Prototype (1 Targa Red)
BRG (British Racing Green): 56*- 50 Full Production; 5 Pre-production; 1 Prototype (1 HNA Green)
Black: 9 – 8 Full Production; 1 Prototype
White: 4 – 3 Full Production; 1 Prototype
Silver: 3 – 2 Full Production; 1 Prototype

Total Production 102*

*Note: Of this total: 3 BRG coloured cars were later converted to Japan Spec, re-numbered and exported. 1 was stolen and dismantled. 1 was written off. Cars specifically made for export to Japan are identified by having no sunroof but were fitted with Air Conditioning in lieu. These cars also have a wider body kit to satisfy Japanese regulations concerning wheel exposure and a moulded central box at the front to accommodate Japan format number plate.

These cars have the prefix RJ to the four-digit serial number embossed on the plate fitted to the slam panel. All cars are full production.

Red (Flame Red 89): 157
BRG (British Racing Green): 180
Total 337 (which includes 3 BRG cars that were re-engineered from cars listed on the R Prefix List)

Keith Adams
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  1. Never heard of this particular model until now – sounded good performance for a Mini. One in Red, White or BRG would have suited me. I like the interior too. My first Mini was an 850cc which produced 39bhp if my memory is correct – not outstanding, but nippy enough for me at the time (1975)

  2. The End of an Era

    Geoffrey Weiner of Brighton, Sussex, acquired the registration J7 ERA in 2003 and it is, appropriately, assigned to his 1991 ERA. Mini Turbo.

    “Mine was described as the last one off the production line,” Geoffrey says. “The car was featured on the cover of Mini World magazine, and in a two-page article within the publication naming the original owner. I had already been in contact with him at a Mini club gathering at Brooklands and had asked him if it was for sale. He said he would consider selling and made contact the following year, when I purchased it from him in nearby Eastbourne.

    “The ERA [English Racing Automobiles] Mini Turbo was the replacement for the 1275 Mini, but it was launched at the same time as the VW Golf. The Mini, being dearer, was outsold by the Golf, which became the favoured vehicle for the ‘boy racer’. Very few ERAs were built and they are a rare sight on the roads today. Most were produced in British Racing Green and had a glass panel pop-up sun-roof and front spotlights as standard, but the best feature of all was the very plush interior with racing style seats and special eight dial dash, all finished in grey. The marque is now recognised as a true classic and prices reflect this.

    “I’m a true car nut and I love classic Minis,” says Geoffrey, “but, alas, I’ve rather grown out of them. My new love is the Morgan sports car, a marque to which I’ve been loyal for some years now. I currently have a Morgan Plus Four Commemorative Centenary model from 2009. I did a part exchange with the Mini Turbo to acquire a special Morgan which was a Le Mans ‘62, a special edition built in 2002 to commemorate Morgan’s class win victory at La Sarthe in 1962. A small number were produced in 2002 as a limited edition comprising the Plus Eight and the 4/4. Mine was a 4/4. Why not a Plus Four? Well, records show that, in 1962, Chris Lawrence of the famous ‘Lawrence Tune Co.’ of Acton, London, took a 4/4 and had it converted to Plus Four spec at the Morgan factory for the race with full factory backing.”

    Geoffrey is in the ‘automobilia’ trade, that’s to say he buys and sells automotive items of classic interest, such as motoring badges, car mascots and the like.
    “I have sold off most of this stock in recent years,” he says “and now concentrate on acquiring the prestigious Lalique glass car mascots, designed and produced by the well known French artist and entrepreneur Rene Jules Lalique during the inter-war years of the Art Deco era.

    “Back in 2011, I was asked to put on an exhibition of them in London and this was a resounding success with visitors from all over the world. This year I will have a book published covering them in detail, the first ever dedicated to the subject!

    “I acquired a derelict site in Brighton and, after many months of negotiation between my architect and the local council, got planning permission to build a dedicated gallery for the collection. It was important to have them on display in natural light and so the roof is constructed of special light-intensive sun-dim panels to show the mascots in the best light.”

    More details may be found on Geoffrey’s Facebook page ‘Unique Lalique Mascots’ and http://www.uniquelaliquemascots.com and .co.uk

  3. Found some more interesting background relating to the ERA Mini Turbo and an investigation into it possibly using a 5-speed gearbox via the following link. – http://mk1-forum.net/viewtopic.php?t=19631

    “ERA were concerned that the extra torque delivered to the standard gearbox had already caused idler gear and other problems in the Metro Turbo. ERA solved the idler gear problem with a Jack Knight modification but Rover insisted under their warranty terms on limiting the engine torque to 90lb/ft which meant performance was not as scintillating as the original raw ERA prototypes had demonstrated. Rover provided ERA with a copy of their test schedule they had formulated for the Mini, one of the tests was to drive in reverse for 2 miles at 35mph.

    Rover said this was because the cars they had sold to the Police would often have to reverse for long distances down motorway hard shoulders. ERA took six standard Minis on loan from Rover to Bruntingthorpe aerodrome to put Rover’s reversing theory to the test……however all the standard gearboxes broke and it later transpired that Rover had almost never managed to get a car past the test they’d set!

    Jack Knight was part of ERA at this time so a 5-speed JK gearbox was tested in the ERA Mini and found to be superior to the standard 4-speed. Despite this Rover management declined investing money on the tooling for a production 5-speed box as the Mini was thought to be nearing the end of its life under Rover plans in the late 1980’s (pre-BMW takeover).

    ERA engineers were confident it could be done with modest investment, they even proved this by secretly modifying a factory production casting die with the aid of the helpful Rover production line staff on the night shift, this produced suitable blank gearbox casings, proving Rover could have done the job for only a few pounds more than the standard box.

    In retrospect a five speed box would also have updated and transformed the original Mini and Metro but it seemed Rover management at the time possessed very little imagination and were reluctant to invest for the future. Delays in getting parts from Rover and dies for the gear case, meant that the ERA Mini was launched with the standard 4-speed box although some ERA Minis were retro-fitted with the JK box.”

  4. I hope this brilliant snippet from Nate above finally puts to rest the myths about what killed BL/MG-Rover. Clearly, management had the razor sharp foresight of a gopher with its head in a paper bag! 🙁 Imagne having a ready to go 5 speed gearbox for the A-series for very little cash, and saying ‘no’. I can only imagine the sole reason ERA did not fund and use the JK 5 speed box was to avoid getting offside with Rover bosses, and possibly losing a lucrative contract for their turbo mini. What a shame!

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