AROnline is committed to telling the complete history of BMC>MGR – especially by sourcing original accounts from those on the ground, who can provide readers with the definitive inside view Rover Minki 1 and 2.
Keith Adams talks to former Rover Group and MG Rover Engineer, Pete Bourne, who recalls his involvement in one of the most fascinating projects from the Rover Group in the 1990s. Here’s his account…
Plenty a good tune played on an old fiddle
The thinking behind the Minki and Minki 2 came from the Mini’s Indian summer in the form of the RSP Cooper, as well as Alex Moulton’s belief that the Hydragas system was still the best suspension set-up for Rover’s smallest car. Pete Bourne was involved in the project and remembers its early days. ‘According to an old CV of mine, Minki 1 was built during 1992,’ he said.
‘My memory of events is not that clear, but I will do my best to tell you as much as I can. At the time, the Chassis Development Workshop was in the Flight Shed. We were pretty much self-contained with vehicle ramps, pit, test rigs and equipment, machine shop and welding area. In addition to this, there were offices for the Chassis Development Engineers,’ he added.
The creation of the Minki was possible because of restructuring within the company. ‘During this time Rob Oldaker had moved the Chassis Department into the same function as the Styling Studio. This meant we were all upgraded to ‘red’ security cards and enabled us access to some of the more secret areas including at times the Styling Studio at Canley,’ Pete said.
Tony Spillane: managing the Rover Minki 1 project
The Rover Minki 1 project was a small-scale affair, and was managed by Tony Spillane. ‘I was selected to help him,’ said Pete. ‘I was a hard worker, very inventive and had proved myself very capable in niche jobs. Interestingly, Tony had built himself a three-cylinder diesel Mini which he used daily, and I believe he used it to sell the Minki idea to upper management. It used a Daihatsu C-Series engine and gearbox. I thought this was a little crude, but an interesting concept.’
‘Tony came into the workshop to discuss things and present some drawings and sketches. The basic plan was to build a buck to show a three-cylinder K-Series engine with end-on gearbox, and a running prototype with a standard Mini powertrain, but with Metro suspension and a modified driving position.’
The Rover Minki 1 comes together quickly
Clearly, Rover’s talents during the 1980s and ’90s lay in making the most of existing components, and this was cleverly realised in the Minki. Pete recalled, ‘Tony was a natural at finding all the bits and pieces, and the buck was getting built very quickly. The buck would also have a Rover Metro front subframe installed, which had to be heavily modified to fit the Mini Body In White (BIW).’
And creating a three-cylinder K-Series for the sake of packaging was an interesting process. ‘The buck engine was basically a four-cylinder, with the number one cylinder cut off. Another buck existed at Canley, which had a tailgate and a completely new dash. This dash would eventually come to Longbridge and be installed into the Minki prototype.’
Designers, Wynn Thomas and Tony Hunter were responsible for the dashboard, and an evolution of what was created for the Minki ended up in the MINI (R50).
Making the Minki work
Pete said: ‘I undertook the installation of the subframe in the buck and was responsible for the initial powertrain fit. The buck then went up to the Buck Shop for finishing off. The main Minki donor arrived shortly after and was stripped down completely. Again, I did the majority of work on this car, and – again – we cut down a Metro front subframe, modified it to suit the Mini body and installed interconnected Hydragas suspension.
‘At the front, we had to split the Hydragas units vertically, as a standard one would not fit. The upper gas sphere could then be fitted in the wheelarch and connected to the lower part of the unit by steel tubing. I recall the first run on the road being disappointing as this tubing was far too small to allow a decent flow. We soon fitted large-bore tubing.
‘At the back, we used a standard Mini subframe and modified it to accept Metro Hydragas units. To save money on the Metro, they used the same-sized Hydragas units for front and rear. This meant that the rear units exerted far too much pressure and the back end would be on its rebound stops.’
Suspension ingenuity, sitting straight
By the 1990s, there was a wealth of Hydragas experience in the company, and without much product to work on (by this time only the R6 Rover Metro continued to use the system, with the MGF to follow in 1995). Using off-the-shelf parts did cause some challenges for the engineering team, not least this front-to-rear imbalance. ”To alleviate this, helper springs are inserted which act against the Hydragas unit. On Minki we could not use these so we hunted down a pair of old Hydrolastic springs from an original Mini. These came from a scrapyard in Stoke Works.’
Another thing Tony wanted was a better driving position. ‘We cut and shut a standard Metro steering column and angled it to get away from the standard bus-like position,’ said Pete. ‘I think we also moved the seat rails back a little to give more clearance to the knees. The car was then handed to the Chassis Development Engineers to tune the suspension.’
Meeting Alex Moulton
They say never meet your heroes, but Pete was more than happy to find out for himself. ‘During the project, Tony invited me to join him in meeting with Alex Moulton down at his country estate in Bradford on Avon. This was a magical experience for me. Alex was very inviting and settled us down in his study – he talked and listened intently.
‘Alex took us out in his personal Hydragas Mini, which only had two seats: one for his chauffeur and one large armchair in the back for Alex. We later took this car back to the workshop for investigations and testing. After the ride, we had lunch served to us in his dining room and, after that, he showed us around his cycle factory – a lovely day… Eventually the programme was shut down, and Tony and I went our separate ways onto other projects.’
After Minki 1 comes Minki 2
Pete recalled what he knew about the Minki 2. ‘From what I gather, when BMW came on the scene, one of the first things they asked was what the plans were for Mini. This caused a bit of a panic, and management soon asked for Minki to be brought back to life. Unfortunately, Minki 1 was scrapped off by the finance people at Canley!
‘Tony was asked to develop a plan to build another Minki Prototype, but this time had more resources to play with and Minki 2 was going to be a much grander affair. I was assigned to the job and Tony soon came down to see me and talk over the plans The Minki 2 would now be a four-cylinder K-Series engine with an R65 gearbox, Hydragas suspension, Metro steering column and pedal box, and Metro seats. We had no parts left from Minki 1, so everything had to be done again from scratch.’
Making the K-Series fit in the Minki
Because of the wider powertrain, the Minki body would have to be cut down the middle and widened by 50mm. ‘I believe that Tony came up with the idea that they should also add 50mm to the length to give more legroom,’ said Pete. ‘The BIW work was all done at Canley and, once painted, it came over to me where I had already been working on the mechanicals. We gradually built Minki 2 up and then came the day to take her out. It really worked very well “out of the box”, as we used to say. It was now time to get the ride and handling chaps onto it. I supported a lot of the suspension tuning as well as Vern Houghton, another Chassis Technician.’
Tony actually came across an advert in some motoring magazine, showing a four-cylinder K-Series-powered Mini and was inspired enough to look into seeing how it worked. ‘He suggested we got in touch and pretend to be interested in buying it, but in reality we just wanted to take a look and drive it… Oh, what a mess! A very shabby example of how not to do things. It was also very poor on the road and was extremely harsh. We soon left.’
Great feedback from management
Pete recalls the positive impact the car had on Rover’s top brass. ‘The car was now receiving some good reports from management ride and drives, and was now ready for John Towers to test it. A date was set and the car sent to Gaydon for a test drive by Towers early the next day. An Engineer and I were sent to Gaydon to carry out final preparations, and set the ride heights. During a safety check at the end of the day I noticed a small leak of Hydragas fluid from one of the units.
‘We were using special tuning units, which could be stripped and all the internals changed to make performance adjustments They were notorious for leaks. I took them out, re-sealed and re-fitted, but it continue to leak. By this time everyone in the workshop had gone including my Engineer so I was totally on my own in a secure workshop that, had I left, I would have been unable to get back in as my keycard wasn’t cleared for this particular workshop.’
Burning the midnight oil
Pete recalled how so many hours were put into the project. ‘We did have some spare units in the workshop’s store, but the stores were locked up! The store was surrounded by eight-foot steel panels and above them about a 10-inch gap to the roof. I decided to break in: it was like The Great Escape, but in reverse. It was even worse the other way round carrying a pair of Hydragas units! Anyway, I managed to fit these and set the car up before leaving at about 11.30pm. I believe the ride and drive went well and, later on, Minki 2 was presented to the BMW Engineers.
”That was the end of my involvement with Minki, although it stayed at Longbridge for some time. Eventually, the Minki programme was halted and Minki 2 went off to Gaydon and became part of the British Motor Museum collection. I have never seen it since. I have been to the museum many times, but never saw it there.’
Would the Minki have been a success had it been launched like this? Would it have enjoyed as long a life as the MINI (R50)? We can only speculate now…