Concepts and prototypes : The Minor that got away

Andrew Elphick dives into the archive and finds a forgotten ‘nearly’ entry into the World Sportscar Championship 36 years ago in 1977…

Morris racer - fullPerhaps Porsche will never know how close it came to losing the 1977 world championship for makes. Unthinkable? Possibly, but one must remember that during the course of last season, most of the opposition came out of the same Stuttgart factory as the winner, if not by the same door.

Surprisingly, the challenge that might have made Porsche sit up and take notice was not an expansion of BMW’s turbo programme, nor a more serious approach than had been seen before on the part of Lancia or De Tomaso. It originated very much closer to home and, because the project was never bought to final fruition, remained one of the British motor industry’s best kept secrets. Until now, that is.

With the first stages of the Jaguar XJ project underway, even the most reclusive members of Leyland’s hierarchy began to notice that the public – especially the normally critical enthusiast sector – were warming to the well publicised prospect of the big cats expected domination of the European Group Two championship.

Whether through reasons of national pride, nostalgia or a combination of the two, there were a great many hopes raised towards a re-enactment of what had taken place twenty or so years previously, when the all conquering D-types had reigned supreme. What was more, the black market price of the XJ range went up by over £1000 and every Jaguar salesman found that he could afford to buy a new sheepskin car coat.

However there remained one small problem, one which although not serious could, in the long run, devalue the return on the investment in the entire operation. While the title of European saloon car champions was prestigious in itself, none of the racers was what could really be described as a classic – with dubious exception of the Tourist Trophy.

In the 1960s, Ford had realised that real marketing success hung on the capture of a single race, namely Le Mans, and consequently diverted considerable resources towards that objective. Having failed to buy Ferrari, and discounted Porsche as relative non-starters, it picked up a long term option on Lola cars ltd – which had shown up well in the ’63 race with the Chevy powered Mk 6 GT – and started to do it its own way. One small warehouse full of greenbacks and a few seasons later, seven litres from Detroit – in a hard topped go-kart built in Slough – passed under the hallowed Sarthe clock at 4pm, with a record mileage to its credit. Ford had won and everyone but everyone wanted a Cortina 1200 or a straight-six Mustang.

Unfortunately, in 1976 Leyland didn’t have a warehouse full of used notes, FIAT owned Ferrari and Porsche was most definitely not up for grabs. Developing the Jags was proving costly, over £2000 alone being required for the construction of trick lightweight radiator badges, so any expenditure on a contender for Le Mans would have to take a low profile, lower than even the monthly outgoings on loo paper for the management suite.

When the project finally gets the go ahead, in March of that year, the engineers, designers and administrators of the scheme had only one path open to them. The car would have to follow established lines, use proven principles which would minimise development costs and cut out expensive forays into the world of radicalism. It would also have to be based, as far as possible, on components available within the Leyland Empire.

Any thoughts of something along sports-racing such as Matra, ideals were dispelled, both for the reasons just given and because of the overall pre-requisite for product identity. The Porsche approach was, therefore, deemed to be the most suited to the job in hand and those involved promptly set out to copy the German factory’s methods as closely as possible.

Fresh in the knowledge that the Jaguar programme had started after the decision had been made to supersede the range with a new design, thoughts were retrained to selecting a candidate from those models in current production. Foremost was the need for a shape with beneficial aerodynamic qualities which, in Doctor Ferdinand’s theories, meant something akin to half a medium new laid egg.

The Morris Minor suddenly appeared to have a lot going for it.

Production of the Minor 1000 bodyshell had ceased, at Cowley, some four years previously, but a little known plant BL assembly plant in Dublin was still in full production, having found an application for them as swill dispensers within the agricultural industry. In fully glazed form they were proving popular as mobile site huts for construction workers, although transportation was usually by pallet and fork-lift truck rather than by the vehicle’s own wheels.

Of course, every step forward often brings a problem and this particular instance proved no exception. To retain the Porsche logic, the power unit would have to sit in the rear but, as almost everyone must know, Moggies have always favoured a full frontal layout. To reposition the engine without the fabrication of an incredible number of special parts would involve the removal of the pressed steel undertray, followed by a spot or two of welding to re-affix it back to front, so to speak. As it happened, the task eventually proved unnecessary, Irish assembly workers having put the shell together the wrong way round since 1954, one year before the Minor was banned from the Republic after a number of mysterious accidents, for which no cause could be found.

The next challenge to match the designer’s ingenuity was a means by which to link up the driving from the gearbox tailshaft, now facing forwards some halfway up the floorpan, to the final drive unit, a Vitesse component attached by tuftrided steel bolts to the underside of the engines sump.

Eventually a rather complicated arrangement was evolved using two modified Austin A40 Countrymen rear axle, mounted one above the other, with their hubs interconnected by the way of four A-Series duplex camshaft sprockets and a pair of extended duplex timing chains. Tensioning took the form of a Mini rubber suspension cone sandwiched between the diff casings. An MG Midget propshaft linked the gearbox to the upper axle, whilst a lengthened Minor version performed a similar duty from the lower axle to the rear final drive. All three differential assemblies had their planet wheels locked by argon-arc welds.

To ensure alignment of the propshafts and rear driveshaft/suspension components – the later incorporating two left hand Princess 1800 driveshafts and modified Cooper S discs and hubs, mated to Minor torsion bar front suspension arms picking up on their normal attachment points – the engine had to be raised by six inches. Extended mounting supports, made out of angle Iron – salvaged when the bicycle stand was moved from the factory worker’s car park to the management parking area – took care of this problem, the supports being drilled and surface-planed in the interests of lightness.

Having got this far, it was becoming obvious that the car would have to be re-homologated with the FIA, especially when a check revealed the original homologation had lapsed in 1959.

By showing, on the appropriate forms, that a rear engined Minor used to be built in large quantities in Sark, the clerk to whom this was entrusted showed a considerable amount of initiative. Unfortunately his actual intelligence must, to this day, remain in some doubt as he managed to mix in with the appropriate specification sheet a page or two from a maintenance bulletin for the AEC Mammoth Major 8. When the papers returned, they stipulated four-wheel steering, something which hadn’t been previously considered.

Although initially taken aback, the project engineers tried to think constructively about the possible advantages which such a layout could offer. After all, the Tyrell P 34GP car had just been announced, complete with six wheels, four of which steered, so the racing precedent in circuit racing had been set.

In type 2T G8 RBE form, the Mammoth Major had two I section forged steel beams supporting the front hubs at 74.06 (188.112mm) centres – too wide to fit within the confines of the Minor front wings. By careful sectioning, the engineers brought the width down to 51.84 inches (131.678mm) giving an actual track measurement, to the centre of the brake drums, of 66.65 inches (169.30mm). Out of interest the narrowing exercise did not, in any way, weaken the structural rigidity of the axle components and their combined load capacity of 22,400lb was considered a plus point, in case aerodynamic downforces generated by the improved bodyshell proved greater than had been calculated.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Mammoth drum brakes were retained on all four front wheels. The reason given by our informant was that it was found that, by turning retention lips on the outer peripheries of the 7in wide drums, they would double as wheels and so provide a significant weight saving. However as the original AEC four axle layout featured direct air operation on all wheels, with a double diaphragm chamber linking the first and fourth axles, this would have necessitated a triple air/air/hydraulic system for the Group Five Minor – remember the Cooper S discs on the rear. Perhaps the combined friction area of almost 500 square inches had some influence on the final decision.

Rather more interesting – and logical – was the steering linkage, which owed much to its commercial origins. Instead of a conventional rack and pinion set up, cam and roller steering with an integral valve for hydraulic power assistance was chosen, initially with an operating ratio of 28.5:1 giving 5.25 turns lock to lock. An increase in ratio of 15% allowed re-gearing to drop the latter figure to 3:25 turns, also permitting the substitution of a 10 inch diameter formula leather rimmed steering wheel in place of the original item, which measured 21in across.

Selecting and adapting a suitable engine from the Leyland range proved to be one of the biggest headaches of all. It wasn’t so much that there was a total lack of potential power units, but restrictions dictated by capacity class limits did lower the choice available.

For simplicity, the design team decided that sorting this out could be performed satisfactorily with a slightly enlarged version of the normal in-line A-Series which, if it proved successful could have forced induction fitted and compete in the 2 litre category. Accordingly a Marina block was bored to take Simca 74.4mm pistons, a straight-cut close ratio Mark 4 Sprite box bolted on to the front – which was the back, if you follow the earlier reasoning – along with all the associated gubbins. A Leyland ST stage 1 tuning kit surmounted this creation, complete with a single HS4 SU – with a ram pipe of course.

In retrospect, it was probably at this point in time the programme took a turn fir the worse. In the dyno cell the engine showed potential, if not instant promise with 82bhp erupting from the business end. When fitted in the car and put on a rolling road this droppd to 25 horses. A computer study showed that such a reserve of power would only be good for 19mph, a bit short of the 246mph that was reckoned to be required for a Le Mans victory.

As there are few Unipart stockists who keep the KKK twin turbocharger units in stock – and a preliminary study showed that little in the way of a worthwhile power increase could be expected by fan-charging with Mini heater blowers – the project died a quiet and natural death. A sadly inconspicuous end to what could have restored the British motor industry.

(This article first appeared in the April 1978 edition of Car & Car Conversions magazine, written by Fred Game).

Keith Adams


  1. Not as convincing as the April 1st joke concerning steam powered experimental Mosquito aeroplane, the penny did not drop until the author described flying into clouds to refill the water tank for the boiler

  2. Just to show I read it to the end
    “could be expected by fan-changing with Mini heater blowers”
    For “changing” read “charging”!!!
    Great start to the day!

  3. Brilliant. – thank you so much for the time and effort – I read every word. Without the picture I would probably have fallen for it!

  4. #10 It was all a joke – do you get it now? It was not b*****s – it was an unagressive fun piece.

  5. You do realise that someone is now rubbing their hands with glee and preparing to actually build this, probably that bloke who came up with the ‘ herald of horror’. Where though have I seen that intake scoop before, it looks really familiar?

  6. Another sad case of what could of been. Around the same time Car Magazine published (rather grainy) photos of Opera- a British supersaloon that would have made all Jaguars, Mercedes, Rolls Royce obsolite overnight. It was to be built of corrosion proof ply-wood and powered by a mid-mounted diesel engine driving three of its four wheels for extra stability. Option packs were tailored for the target market, the Italian pack included special tyres tuned to give the desired level of squeal, the French giving added roll in the corners. What could have been!

  7. #13 Your just not getting the idea of speaking to each other inteligently without resorting to filthy language are you?
    Bless you Rob – let’s move on……..

  8. You naughty boy nasty Rob!!! Lucky I take it all in jest eh?!

    I’m glad it tickled a few on an artic bank holiday Monday.

  9. Actually if you delete the extra wheels , scale down the rear spoiler , hmmmmmmm , I think that could be made to look good!

  10. 🙂

    A car banned from the Republic? Before the NCT (Irish MOT) was brought in in the early 2000s (when everyone could afford a new car), if it still (barely) drove it was on the road!

    What the Minor needs, for proper 70s sportscar racing fun, are Zakspeed style wings. The rules stated that the bonnet, roof and doors had to be production (which might’ve suited a GT racing Maxi…) but enterprising race teams found that they could extend the bodywork of the wings. Porsche even took the rules to meaning they could lower the headlights – which would’ve reverted the Minor to MM / Series 1 style!

  11. You would be amazed who enjoyed this article! An octogenarian lady who worked at Cowley and who’s husband was ‘on the design/styling’ side at Gaydon years ago, thought it was hilarious. (This lady absolutely loves the Austin Bide type articles as she met some of them and had heard her husband speak of them all often).
    A 12 year old boy who finds the whole BL history fascinating (dipping into the website every day – he sais) thought it was brilliant and for the oddest of reasons. His father was made redundant by the Pheonix 4 debacle and now won’t have the BL/Rover/MG words mentioned in the house. This fuels the young lads passion for what went on!
    Many of our vintage chums who meet in our local every week are ex Gaydon, Pressed Steel or Cowley. We do have lively evenings – and if things get a little dull I just throw in “we’ll I think Michael Edwards was a fantastic chap”! (I do have to buy my own drink after that though!)

  12. The Car magazine article has been lodged in the backof my mind for years, I was starting to think I imagined it! If anyone has a scan then please let me know.

  13. Made me laugh on a miserable April 1st so thanks Andrew!

    Credit to whoever did the drawing – very nicely done.

    The strange thing is that such a car and such a state of circumstances would have been entirely possible at BL in the Seventies. Let’s face it, a square steering wheel? That had to be an April Fool’s joke taken seriously!

  14. “Irish assembly workers having put the shell together the wrong way round since 1954….”

    This is when I twigged that the article was an April Fool’s Day joke.

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