Mini restora­tion

The plan was sim­ple: strug­gling to find an af­ford­able rot-free Mini in Bri­tain, we set about im­port­ing one from sunny Italy and con­vert­ing it to right-hand drive


An Ital­ian Mini comes home and first job is to re­lo­cate the steer­ing wheel.

T his project started with a re­quest from man­age­ment here at Kelsey Me­dia to source a suit­able Mini to raf­fle off at the an­nual Mini In The Park event last year. Of course, the sim­ple way would have been to find one in the UK, tidy it up and have done with it but pick­ings were fairly slim within our bud­get, with oo­dles of rust and plenty of bodges.

That got us think­ing: at the time, Ster­ling was still pretty strong, so could we ven­ture over­seas and find some­thing in­stead? Sure, it would be left-hand-drive, but a con­ver­sion would surely be much eas­ier than weld­ing body pan­els.

I duly spot­ted a mint low-mileage Mini HL in Italy with the in­ten­tion of buy­ing if for my­self. A quick mes­sage was duly sent to my pal Marco Pin­zauti at Mi­lan-based spe­cial­ist Just Mi­nis. As it tran­spired, the car was in the south of Italy, and a lit­tle too far away. How­ever, Marco men­tioned a 1985 Mini that he had com­ing in, which seemed ideal and had the added bonus of be­ing around 600 miles closer.

When the pho­tos popped up on email, it wasn’t per­fect, but it looked very good for a 30-year-old Mini, and be­ing a base-spec model with a cen­tral speedo, it would be an eas­ier job to con­vert it to right-hand-drive. A price was ne­go­ti­ated and we made ar­range­ments to col­lect it around the end of Oc­to­ber. It would be a good ex­per­i­ment to see if pur­chas­ing a Mini from abroad could work out bet­ter than buy­ing lo­cally, and we’d get to en­joy a road trip at the same time. Af­ter all, Mi­lan is the Ital­ian home of the Mini, as In­no­cen­tis were built to the north west of the city in Lam­brate.

Hav­ing im­ported a Mini and a Fiat 126 in the past, I wasn’t too wor­ried about the bu­reau­cracy side of things. Mov­ing a clas­sic car from one EU coun­try to an­other comes un­der the Sin­gle Mar­ket Rules, so there is no duty or VAT to be paid, and if it’s over 10 years old, as any clas­sic Mini will be, you don’t need Type Ap­proval ei­ther. Since 2013 though, it’s been manda­tory to declare a NOVA (No­ti­fi­ca­tion of Ve­hi­cle Arrivals) with HMRC within 14 days or you’ll get a fine. You also need to en­sure that your im­ported car comes with the of­fi­cial pa­per­work from the coun­try you’re buy­ing it in, as this will need pre­sent­ing to the DVLA to prove its make, model, age and spec. And when it comes to the first MoT test, you’ll need to en­sure your car is UK-com­pli­ant, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to ar­eas like front and rear light­ing. On a Mini, this means chang­ing the head­lamps and swap­ping the rear fog lamp from the left to the right.

In Italy though, things are a bit more dif­fi­cult than some other Euro­pean coun­tries. Es­sen­tially, un­less you are an Ital­ian res­i­dent, you can­not buy a car and keep the num­ber plates on it. Num­ber plates in Italy are is­sued by the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, and the owner of the car is re­spon­si­ble for the road tax on that ve­hi­cle year in and year out un­til the num­ber plates are re­turned to the au­thor­i­ties as proof that the car is no longer in use on the road in Italy. If you’re not a res­i­dent, the plates are there­fore can­celled for ex­port and you’re left with noth­ing. In coun­tries like Ger­many an ex­port plate is pro­vided which in­cludes in­sur­ance, but in Italy all you can get is a short-term card­board plate at a con­sid­er­able cost, and only for the back of the car.

None of this is a prob­lem if you’re trans­port­ing it on a trailer, but it’s not ideal for driv­ing the car as we wanted to. Some sellers will let you keep the plates on the car on the pro­viso they are re­turned, but they have to trust you. For­tu­nately, Marco did.

An­other stum­bling block was in­sur­ance. A num­ber of UK in­sur­ers are happy to pro­vide cover on the chas­sis num­ber un­til the car is is­sued with a UK plate, but the ma­jor­ity will only do this when the car is ac­tu­ally back in the UK. The al­ter­na­tive was to ar­range in­sur­ance lo­cally, but the cost is huge in Italy. For­tu­nately we were able to find a bro­ker in Mo­dena who was a clas­sic Mini fan, and

ar­ranged cover for 14 days com­plete with a green card for for­eign travel. With bank trans­fers to Marco and the in­sur­ance com­pany ar­ranged, the bor­ing bits were out of the way and it looked like we could fi­nally get on with ar­rang­ing our trip.

By now it was Novem­ber, but the weather still looked good, so col­league Stephen and I booked up one-way flights to Li­nate Air­port, the only con­cern be­ing that our pack­age of tools, re­flec­tive jack­ets and warn­ing tri­an­gles would make our suit­cases over­weight. Marco met us on ar­rival in Mi­lan, and be­fore 10am we were face-to-face with our new pur­chase.

Marco was a man of his word, and the car was ex­actly as de­scribed. We al­ready knew there was some rust on the driver’s door and some park­ing dents, but com­pared to an equiv­a­lent UK car it looked very good. Be­ing a base-spec model there were no crea­ture com­forts – not even a heated rear win­dow – but with its low mileage A-Series, disc brakes and 2.95 fi­nal drive, we were happy that it would make for a su­perb and eco­nom­i­cal road trip Mini.

Our first task was to regis­ter the sale with the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, which took about an hour and saw us en­tirely in­debted to Marco as we couldn’t un­der­stand a sin­gle word. We were orig­i­nally go­ing to set off straight away, but in­evitably we got dis­tracted, first by espres­sos, then pizza, and then by Marco’s im­pres­sive busi­ness it­self. Just Mi­nis was es­tab­lished in 2005, and is the coun­try’s only ded­i­cated Mini shop and show­room of its kind. As a Cooper-ap­proved spe­cial­ist, it has a host of great parts on dis­play, and is even dec­o­rated in Mini colours!

Of course, it also had the spares we needed for our trip, in­clud­ing spare bulbs, a head­light switch, Lu­cas ig­ni­tion parts and a head gas­ket, just in case. There’s lit­tle-to-no chance of a UK res­i­dent get­ting break­down cover on a for­eign reg­is­tered car, so we de­cided to carry as many tools and parts as we could, and wing it with our fin­gers crossed.

We woke the morn­ing of our de­par­ture to 22-de­gree heat, and with­out a cloud in the sky. Our cho­sen route would take us west via Turin and then into France via the Fréjus Tunnel, so we paid a fond farewell to Marco and took to the Au­tostrada.

We had hoped to reach Au­to­mo­biles BMC in Vi­enne be­fore dark­ness fell, but we didn’t re­alise we’d cho­sen a French na­tional hol­i­day for our visit, and it was closed. Luck­ily the staff were still hard at work, and owner Francois Win­deck was happy to in­vite us in for a cof­fee and a tour.

With con­fi­dence high, we pressed on. We hadn’t bud­geted to use the toll roads, but with fad­ing light and in­creas­ing fog, it seemed like the best op­tion. We booked a room in the Ibis ho­tel in Di­jon, and headed north. The damp fog caused an in­ter­mit­tent mis­fire, but more con­cern­ing was the al­most to­tal lack of vis­i­bil­ity. Thank­fully we reached Di­jon in one piece, but we couldn’t ac­tu­ally see any of it. Our speedo was al­most be­com­ing er­ratic, and the cable promptly snapped as we neared the ho­tel. It didn’t mat­ter, as there was no chance of break­ing any speed lim­its in such weather!

Hav­ing made a few wrong turns the

fol­low­ing morn­ing, we headed up to Reims on the Au­toroute, stop­ping in the pic­turesque cen­tre of the city at a bak­ery for lunch. The heater be­gan to drip wa­ter into the pas­sen­ger footwell, but that was tem­po­rar­ily solved with a strate­gi­cally-placed cof­fee cup and shut­ting the heater valve stopped the leak en­tirely – the heater prob­a­bly didn’t get used an aw­ful lot in Mi­lan. For­tu­nately the mis­fire had dis­ap­peared, which was just as well. De­spite car­ry­ing a whole load of Lu­cas parts, we dis­cov­ered our Mini was fit­ted with a Du­cel­lier ig­ni­tion sys­tem. Still, the Lu­cas parts had pro­vided a wel­come placebo up un­til that point...

From Reims we headed to Laon, be­fore es­cap­ing the toll roads in favour of the D routes up to Lille. Amaz­ingly, we were still only on our sec­ond full tank of fuel.

You’d prob­a­bly ex­pect us to re­gale you with tales of our strug­gle to reach Dunkirk in time to catch our pre-booked ferry on time, but not this time. We re­fu­elled, bought a met­ric tonne of booze and cheese from a hyper­mar­ket and pitched up at the port with a good 10 min­utes to spare. Aside from the pre­vi­ous night’s fog, the weather had been in­cred­i­ble for the time of year, and the cross­ing was in­cred­i­bly smooth. We hadn’t set out to reach Eng­land this quickly, but hav­ing ar­rived in the UK around 8pm only a day af­ter we first set off from Mi­lan, we were on a roll and de­cided to make the fi­nal push back to Bath.

Again, the car ran fault­lessly back on its ‘home’ turf. We en­coun­tered our first ma­jor down­pour around 20 miles from Bath, but the car didn’t leak and we keep plug­ging away. We couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride as we trun­dled into our home city, pleased that our crazy plan had worked.

Back home, thoughts tuned to slightly more prac­ti­cal mat­ters. With the NOVA cus­toms forms sent off to HMRC, the next con­cern was the car’s first ever UK MoT test, which is vi­tal to ap­ply for a Bri­tish num­ber plate. How did we fare? Find out over­leaf.

The car was just as de­scribed and the mild Mi­lanese cli­mate means it’s a more solid ex­am­ple than a UK car of the same age.

First sight of the 31,000-mile Mini out­side Just Mi­nis in Mi­lan.

Hand­ing over the keys af­ter the sale. Marco helped us out by trust­ing us to re­turn the all-im­por­tant Ital­ian num­ber plates.

Buy­ing a Mini sight un­seen and plan­ning to drive it 1059 miles back home? Then this is what your suit­case will look like once you’ve packed all the tools and parts you think you’re go­ing to need...

The Mini proved re­li­able on the long trip home, with just a brief mis­fire in foggy France to spoil things.

Marco’s Just Mi­nis busi­ness is the only Mini spe­cial­ist in the coun­try. Fit­tingly, it’s lo­cated close to where the In­no­centi Mi­nis were manufactured.

A brief pit stop en route saw Jeff and Stephen visit French spe­cial­ist Au­to­mo­biles BMC in Vi­enne.

Be­fore leav­ing, Jeff sen­si­bly stocked up on Lu­cas ig­ni­tion parts. Luck­ily he didn’t need them: we later dis­cov­ered the car runs a Du­cel­lier dis­trib­u­tor...

The Fréjus tunnel was the cho­sen route un­der the Alps into France.

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