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.