Ten Feet of Trouble: The Tale of an Austin Mini

It was the summer of 2003, and having already been stung once by the vintage Mini bug, it was time to buy another. A Morris Mini already resided in the garage, and to ensure that at least one of them was running when I wanted to go for a drive, a second Mini was needed — just to be safe.

Mini front end
Since finding one locally was a non-starter, it was time for another online purchasing excursion. The earlier search for the Morris Mini had gone so well and the importation from New Zealand had been so trouble-free that there was really no concern about a second overseas purchase. Maybe a little concern. Possibly a lot of concern, glossed over by my desire to get another Mini. In any event, eBay would be my savior, and I found a yellow Austin Mini with only 8 million or so miles on it, a little bit of rust, and an undeniably jaunty presence.

When the time came, the auction ended, and I was the high bidder. I hadn’t met the reserve, though, which was a whopping $5,000. My bid of $3,500 just didn’t make it, so I contacted the seller — the owner of a garage in England that specialized in Minis. The seller was a little gruff and hard to work with, but in no time, we managed to hammer out a final price of $4,200. Shipping was arranged. Money changed hands. And now, the waiting started. All nine weeks of it.

Mini eBay listing photo
The paint job that the Austin Mini had when it came Stateside featured a black roof that made the summer heat a bit more unbearable.

I’m a patient guy. Nine weeks is no problem, normally, but just a few months prior, the cargo vessel MV Tricolor had gone down in the English Channel, taking all 2,871 Volvos, Saabs, and BMWs aboard to a watery grave in the seaway. News of this sent a shock through the automotive community, almost a mourning of sorts. I’m almost certain that a funeral dirge that sounded like a cross between a German drinking song and an ode to IKEA was played somewhere for the lost vehicles. This imagined funeral march played in my head for nine weeks as the reality hit home that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to ocean travel, and that Minis are notoriously poor swimmers.

Nine anxious weeks passed, and the day came when the shipping line informed me that a car awaited my arrival at the Port of Baltimore. They would gladly hold my car at the port for 30 days, after which it would be sent to the crusher. In other words, “It’s here, come get your s**t.” I booked my one-way flight to Washington, D.C.

Picking up an old car more than 600 miles away is sketchy enough, but Mini Mania’s message board made life considerably easier. Another Mini owner lived in Baltimore and was willing to help out if I ran into difficulties with the car.

Mini sandwich in two-car garage
A Mini sandwich in a two-car garage.

Via deduction, you’ve probably gathered that we’re about to venture into the realm of stupid, where some moron is about to pick up an unknown vintage car and drive it back through the mountains of West Virginia in the middle of summer. If that’s not enough, there’s one more element of stupid to pile onto this potential funeral pyre of automotive disaster: the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

These events take place less than two years after 9/11. At this point, I had taken eight flights since 9/11, and the new policy was to randomly pull two people aside from every flight for “special screening.” For seven of those eight flights, I was randomly drawn *cough* for special screening.

Now, after such searches post-9/11, you might expect that a single man of Middle Eastern descent under the age of 40 with a one-way ticket to our nation’s capital while carrying a pouch full of tools and an empty gas can would have been searched via X-rays, gamma rays, microwaves, some forms of radiation never previously heard of, and an entire team of proctologists. Please believe me when I say that any fears about the car were displaced by worries of government “intrusion,” for lack of a better word. If there was ever a time for a special screening, this was it. My fears proved unfounded, though, and I was free to get a cab to the port unmolested, as it were.

Kurt's Austin Mini
If you’ve ever looked at a map and seen how much space a major airport takes, you know it involves a pretty vast piece of real estate. The Port of Baltimore covers five or 10 times as much space — asphalt as far as the eye can see. On a hot day in the middle of summer, it was like an ocean of black lava. The car was located near the middle of this ocean, a straight 30-minute hike across the shimmering pavement, shoes literally melting to the pavement with each step. At the end of this hike was a tiny (10-foot, one-half–inch) car: a bright yellow go-kart with a black roof, a black interior, and not a hint of air conditioning. Finding it in this sea of pavement was like finding an oasis, albeit an oasis devoid of water, food, or shade.

She’s right-hand drive, so I got in and quickly found the keys under the floor mat. The key went into the ignition, and … clickclick … nothing … dammit. Click. More dammit. Thus began the several hours of troubleshooting in the relentless heat, all ending in clickclick … and a series of words progressively less pleasant than “dammit.” I eventually caved, out of ideas, and finally called my contact from the Mini Mania message board, Bradford McDougall. An hour later, he was there, and a short time after that, the only idea we had left was “tow truck.”

As it turned out, Bradford had a great place to work on a car and a beautiful vintage Mini of his own. More importantly, he had spare parts. After tearing into the car for a while, the last thing left was to change the battery cable, and he thankfully had one sitting around. No ordinary cable, the Austin Mini requires a 10-footer to run from the back of the car at the battery, snake through the passenger cabin, and wind up at the starter under the bonnet.

Kurt's Austin Mini
All the while, we marveled at the features of this car not found in a standard Austin Mini. The 1,460-cc engine. The front disc brakes. The roll cage. The twin gravity-fed fuel tanks to balance the fuel load. The sealed cooling system (rather than the standard open system that would dump coolant on the pavement when it was hot). The front-mounted radiator. The custom dash made from a British street sign. The meaty 13″x7″ tires. And the coup de grâce, the feature the seller didn’t tell me about — the ignition lock-out tucked way up under the dash.

It’s a great feature, if you’ve never seen one. In a nutshell, it stops a car from going vroom-vroom when you turn the key, and it makes a car go click-click when you turn the key. It was in click-click mode, so the eight hours of fiddling around in the brutal heat had been completely unnecessary. Dammit.

When the slack-jawed swearing subsided, we finished what we were doing, i.e. bypassing the ignition lock-out. When the car started, it coughed out the remainder of the salt air from its sea voyage and came alive. It was a ferocious little beast, a steroidal Chihuahua with the bark of a Great Dane. It was wholly unlike other Minis we’d previously encountered. She needed some clean-up, but she had all the right bits and bobs to be the belle of the ball. Brad immediately told me, “If you ever decide to sell it, call me first.”

Kurt's Austin Mini
I left for home the next morning, and in the heat of the day, the black roof and black interior really came into its own as a way to cook meat in the car without a grill. It was a miserable drive, as I was wrapped in the black racing seat and harness with no A/C. That was the day that started this 16-year love affair, as she tore through the West Virginia hills with 200 pounds of grinning, smoked meat in the driver’s seat.

Since then, the Austin Mini has gotten new sheet metal and a new paint job that takes the edge off the blast furnace interior. The motor has lost some of its 120 horsepower over the years and could probably use a rebuild. With only 1,400 pounds to haul around, minus the driver, she’s still quick, endlessly fun, and elicits smiles everywhere she goes. She’s still the belle of the ball. So, with my most sincere apologies to Bradford, I’ll be keeping her at least another 16 years.

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