Sur­vival guide: Mor­ris Mi­nor

The im­mor­tal ‘Moggy’ is still one of the most pop­u­lar clas­sics to buy. But what can you ex­pect once you’ve bought one? We look at what up­keep a Mi­nor will need over the years

Classics Monthly - - Contents - WORDS JACK GROVER

Look­ing af­ter this pi­o­neer­ing clas­sic.

T he Mor­ris Mi­nor is a car that has never re­ally gone away. Even be­fore pro­duc­tion fi­nally ended the lit­tle car had picked up a de­voted en­thu­si­ast fol­low­ing that en­sured its on­go­ing sur­vival and a na­tion­wide net­work of spe­cial­ists meant that even af­ter the Bri­tish Ley­land main deal­ers lost in­ter­est in what had been the first Bri­tish car to sell a mil­lion ex­am­ples own­ers had no trou­ble find­ing some­where to have their Mi­nor ser­viced, re­paired and re­stored.

Un­like many clas­sics you can still find Mor­ris Mi­nors in use as ev­ery­day cars. Even now you can find own­ers who don’t re­gard their Mor­ris as a clas­sic but sim­ply as a re­li­able, eco­nom­i­cal and trust­wor­thy car that does all they ask of it. A Mi­nor is still per­fectly ca­pa­ble of be­ing used as an or­di­nary car, al­most 70 years af­ter the first ex­am­ples took to the roads – a tes­ta­ment to how ad­vanced and how ‘right’ Alec Is­sigo­nis’ orig­i­nal de­sign was.

But that said, the Mi­nor did evolve steadily over its 24-year life. The orig­i­nal model, the MM-Series, was launched in 1948 and was distin­guished by its low-set head­lamps ei­ther side of the ‘cheese grater’ grille, a 918cc side­valve en­gine and a gold­painted dash­board with small di­als set in front of the driver. Orig­i­nally the Mi­nor was built as a two-door sa­loon or tourer but in 1950 a four-door sa­loon was added to the range and shortly af­ter­wards the head­lamps moved up to the wings to com­ply with reg­u­la­tions in ex­port mar­kets, es­pe­cially North Amer­ica.

In 1952 the BMC A-Series en­gine in 803cc form was fit­ted in place of the an­cient side­valve for the Series II Mi­nor; later in 1952 came com­mer­cial vari­ants of the Mi­nor in van and pick-up truck form, plus spe­cialised ver­sions for the Royal Mail and the Gen­eral Post Of­fice’s tele­phones depart­ment. The fol­low­ing year saw the ar­rival of the pop­u­lar Trav­eller es­tate with its wood-framed rear body. A facelift in 1955 in­tro­duced the wider slat­ted grille in place of the ‘cheese grater’, which gave the Mi­nor the ba­sic look it would wear for the rest of its life, while the in­te­rior was re­vamped with a painted me­tal dash and twin glove boxes ei­ther side of a cen­trally-mounted speedome­ter.

In 1957 came the de­fin­i­tive ‘Moggy’, Mor­ris Mi­nor 1000. The en­gine was in­creased to 948cc in size, giv­ing a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in per­for­mance while the body gained a one­piece wind­screen. The fi­nal round of up­dates for the Mi­nor came in 1962. The en­gine was in­creased again to 1098cc and was fit­ted to a stronger gear­box plus larger front drum brakes. A much more ef­fec­tive fresh-air heater was in­stalled along with a larger white-on-black speedome­ter set above cheaper tog­gle switches.

With more mod­ern cars now avail­able – both from com­peti­tors and within BMC it­self – Mi­nor sales en­tered a grace­ful de­cline from this point. Fol­low­ing the for­ma­tion of Bri­tish Ley­land the model was on bor­rowed time. The tourer mod­els ceased pro­duc­tion in 1969 and the stan­dard sa­loons in 1970. The much-loved Trav­eller was deleted from the range in early 1972 and by the end of the year the fi­nal or­ders for the com­mer­cial vari­ants had been ful­filled and the last Mi­nor rolled off the line.

This means that the youngest Mi­nor you can buy, even if it’s been ex­ten­sively re­stored and re­built, will be 45 years old and it will be a van. A good Mi­nor will pro­vide re­li­able and fun trans­port but a bad one can prove hugely ex­pen­sive to fix or even just keep on the road. So here’s what you need to know to find a good one and keep it that way.

BODY

Mi­nors have a sur­pris­ingly com­plex body struc­ture which makes ef­fect­ing good-qual­ity re­pairs ex­pen­sive, even if all the parts are read­ily avail­able. This also makes any Mi­nor good at hiding cor­ro­sion. Outer pan­els such as the wings and doors are non-struc­tural and new ones are avail­able new so these ar­eas are not too much of a con­cern but the in­ner struc­ture they at­tach to is much more im­por­tant.

The sills, in­ner and outer, are the clas­sic spot to check and be­ware fresh outer sills welded

over rusty orig­i­nals to pass ‘one more MoT’. The footwells get rusty from damp floor mats (per­haps caused by a leaky screen, and it may be leak­ing be­cause the sur­round­ing me­tal as rusted out) and the rear floor must be checked care­fully as this is where the rear springs mount to the struc­ture. Also check the spring hang­ers from un­der­neath, es­pe­cially on Trav­ellers and com­mer­cials which have a resid­ual rear chas­sis frame in that area which must be strong and rust-free – lift the rear seat on Trav­ellers to check. At the front there are ‘chas­sis’ legs which carry the en­gine and front sus­pen­sion and be­cause these are box sec­tions they rust from the in­side out – once any­thing more than sur­face rust has bro­ken through it’s time to re­place the en­tire sec­tion.

The door bot­toms on all mod­els are prone to rust but are at least non-struc­tural. Good sec­ond-hand doors are dif­fi­cult to find and new door skins are ex­pen­sive. Re­pair sec­tions are cheaper to buy but need good weld­ing and body skills to fit to a de­cent stan­dard. The wood fram­ing on a Mi­nor Trav­eller is struc­tural. Ideally the wood needs to be rubbed down and re-oiled (not var­nished!) every year but no one does this so af­ter 20-odd years the wood will rot. The first parts to go are the sec­tions at the bot­tom of the body and in the nooks where sec­tions join. Al­though the in­di­vid­ual wooden sec­tions are avail­able in most cases it’s eas­ier and, in the long run, much more cost-ef­fec­tive to re­place all the fram­ing in one go. This costs over £3000 with the labour costs in­cluded, which ef­fec­tively means that around half the value of a good Trav­eller is in its wood­work!

The com­mer­cial vari­ants of the Mi­nor had a much harder life and tended to be over­looked for preser­va­tion in favour of the car ver­sions un­til quite re­cently. The be­spoke rear body­work is steel and re­pair pan­els are ei­ther not avail­able or very ex­pen­sive (£1000 for a pick-up tail­gate!) so con­di­tion is key. The rear floor is also wooden and prone to rot but can be re­placed by sim­ple ply­wood sheets cut to the right shape. The pick-up was avail­able with a can­vas tilt to cover the load bed and these are avail­able new for about £350 if the orig­i­nal gets too worse for wear.

DRIV­E­TRAIN

The Mi­nor en­dured for so long be­cause it was a sim­ple and rugged car that re­quired very lit­tle in the way of main­te­nance. The most durable mod­els are the 1098cc Mi­nor 1000s which can re­ally only be killed by se­vere ne­glect or the rav­ages of time. In all cases it’s cru­cial that the oil and fil­ter are changed as re­quired, and with good-qual­ity flu­ids. Reg­u­lar coolant changes and flushes are also key to pre­vent en­gine death by in­sid­i­ous over­heat­ing, es­pe­cially as no Mi­nor has a tem­per­a­ture gauge as stan­dard! Head gas­ket fail­ure from ex­ces­sive hotrun­ning is one of the big killers of the A Series; the other typ­i­cal fail­ure is worn-out bear­ings caused ei­ther by lack of main­te­nance or high mileages

lead­ing to wear in the oil pump. Check that the oil pres­sure light goes off smartly af­ter start­ing the en­gine, es­pe­cially when it’s hot and that it doesn’t flicker at idle. Low oil pres­sure and high mileage can also lead to wear in the tim­ing chain and the cam fol­low­ers, lead­ing to the char­ac­ter­is­tic valve rat­tle of an A Series – they can go on like that for years with­out trou­ble but if the noise from the chain gets se­ri­ous it will need re­place­ment. Other en­gine trou­bles at high mileages in­clude worn valve stem seals which lead to a cloud of blue smoke from the ex­haust un­der ac­cel­er­a­tion. Smoke on the over­run in­di­cates ex­ces­sive clear­ance in the pis­ton rings. For­tu­nately the A Series is a very sim­ple en­gine to work on and the spa­cious en­gine bay in the Mi­nor makes over­hauls and re­builds well within the reach of the home me­chanic.

The 803cc A Series is not as strong as its de­scen­dants in any ap­pli­ca­tion but es­pe­cially when teamed to the very low gear­ing in the Series II Mi­nor, mak­ing it prone to bot­tom end fail­ure. Many parts spe­cific to the 803cc ver­sion are very hard to source now. The side­valve en­gine is strong and sim­ple (it doesn’t even have a wa­ter pump) and be­cause of its shared her­itage with other Mor­ris side­valve en­gines it’s sur­pris­ingly easy to look af­ter.

All the en­gine have a sin­gle SU car­bu­ret­tor as stan­dard, as fit­ted to dozens of other Bri­tish clas­sics. As is typ­i­cal of this type of carb it re­quires very lit­tle main­te­nance in ev­ery­day use other than check­ing the oil level in the damper every now and then but with age and miles comes wear in the throt­tle spin­dle, the jet nee­dle and the nee­dle seat. All of this can cause er­ratic run­ning and high fuel con­sump­tion. Re­build kits are avail­able from SU but un­less you know what you’re do­ing its best to leave this job to a spe­cial­ist.

All Mor­ris Mi­nors were built be­fore the era of un­leaded petrol but many will have been con­verted. For those that haven’t the A Series is pretty tol­er­ant of run­ning on un­leaded and many own­ers run for years with­out any trou­ble. If you cover a lot of miles, es­pe­cially on main roads or mo­tor­ways, it would be best to play it safe with a lead re­place­ment ad­di­tive or to get the con­ver­sion done.

TRANS­MIS­SION

All Mi­nors had a four-speed man­ual trans­mis­sion and the ‘ribbed case’ gear­box fit­ted to the 1098cc mod­els gives the least trou­ble, with much-im­proved baulk-ring syn­chro­mesh in place of the fast-wear­ing cone syn­chro of the older types, al­though all Mi­nors lack syn­chro on first gear. The ear­lier ‘smooth case’ boxes are more prone to wear­ing out with age but can still be ex­pected to do at least 50,000 miles be­tween over­hauls.

All the gear­boxes gen­er­ate a bit of whine in the lower gears, es­pe­cially in first, but should be quiet in top gear. Band-saw-like scream­ing in­di­cates worn out main­shaft bear­ings while rum­bling when the car is sta­tion­ary and in neu­tral shows the layshaft bear­ings are shot. The syn­chro­mesh on all units wears out at high mileage, lead­ing to crunchy down­changes but the ‘ribbed case’ gear­boxes are much bet­ter in this re­gard.

Switch­ing to mod­ern multi­grade gear oils can re­duce wear and make the gearchange smoother, es­pe­cially in cold weather. Like all things Moggy the gear­box is not dif­fi­cult to re­build and mod­ern al­ter­na­tives are avail­able – the Ford Type 9 five-speed unit is a pop­u­lar up­grade, es­pe­cially for own­ers that have fit­ted a 1275cc en­gine.

Un­sur­pris­ingly given the tiny power fig­ures in­volved the Mi­nor’s dif­fer­en­tial goes on pretty much for ever pro­vided the oil hasn’t leaked out through per­ished seals and gas­kets. The prop­shaft uni­ver­sal joints also re­quire at­ten­tion with a grease gun at least once a year to stop them seiz­ing or wear­ing – lis­ten for clonks when tak­ing up drive or rum­bling sounds un­der ac­cel­er­a­tion.

SUS­PEN­SION, BRAKES

The Mi­nor’s in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion is one of its big­gest as­sets, giv­ing ex­cel­lent road­hold­ing and a supple, sta­ble ride. But it is also one of the car’s big­gest weak­nesses. The king­pin that car­ries the hub is threaded at each end to al­low it to turn with the steer­ing, lo­cat­ing into the lower arm at the bot­tom and the damper arm at the top. It’s sim­ple and ef­fec­tive but re­lies on good lu­bri­ca­tion to pre­vent the threads seiz­ing. If the king­pin is not reg­u­larly greased – the of­fi­cial in­ter­val is every 3000 miles but many own­ers do it every 1000 miles – the threads run dry and be­gin to seize or wear. Even­tu­ally one of the threads will strip, lead­ing to the sus­pen­sion col­laps­ing, typ­i­cally when the cor­ner­ing forces are quite high such as when ne­go­ti­at­ing a round­about!

If prop­erly main­tained the king­pins can last a very long time but grad­ual wear is inevitable. The way to keep a check on them is to jack the front end of the car up and check each front wheel for ‘wob­ble’ in the same way you’d check for a wheel bear­ing, but look for the king­pin mov­ing in its sock­ets. Par­tiall­y­seized king­pins can also be shown up by tight points in the steer­ing.

The rear sus­pen­sion gives much less trou­ble but the leaf springs can seize up with age and rust. It is pos­si­ble to re­move the springs, dis­as­sem­ble them and lu­bri­cate the leaves but it is less has­sle to sim­ply keep an eye on the con­di­tion of the springs and re­place them if the leaves start to show signs of be­ing splayed apart by ac­cu­mu­lat­ing rust. On com­mer­cials and hard-worked Trav­ellers the rear springs can sag with age; re­place­ment is the only cure.

Both ends of the Mi­nor use lever-arm dampers, which need oil of the cor­rect grade and in the right amount to func­tion prop­erly. If the dampers’ seals have worn the oil may have leaked out, so an oc­ca­sional check in the filler plugs is worth­while. If the seals do leak re­built units are avail­able but the qual­ity of these vary hugely, rang­ing from full re­builds that re­turn them to ‘as new’ spec­i­fi­ca­tion to those which are es­sen­tially just re­painted and filled with fresh oil.

The Mi­nor’s orig­i­nal drum brakes were never more than ‘ad­e­quate’ and need to be in good con­di­tion to stay that way. Cars that don’t get reg­u­lar use can suf­fer seized wheel cylin­ders, shown up by drag­ging to one side un­der brak­ing. Keep an eye out for leaks from per­ished cylin­der seals, es­pe­cially as the stan­dard mas­ter cylin­der is not translu­cent and is hard to ac­cess to check the level. If the mas­ter cylin­der starts leak­ing or the in­ter­nal seals go (lead­ing to a spongey brake pedal) re­plac­ing it is sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult – this is one of the worst me­chan­i­cal jobs on a Mi­nor! Up­grades in the form of ser­vos and front discs are very com­mon and avail­able in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent kits.

IN­TE­RIOR & ELECTRICS

The Mi­nor’s in­te­rior is, like the rest of the car, sim­ple and durable and vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing can be re­placed with­out dif­fi­culty. Worn or sag­ging seats can be re­trimmed, re­placed or up­graded with ei­ther new or sec­ond-hand parts depend­ing on your bud­get and taste. Sag­ging or thread­bare head­lin­ings are pretty com­mon. You can get new ma­te­rial but fit­ting it (it’s held in place with an ar­chaic series of spring-clips and wires) is a job best left to those who have mas­tered the many tricks that make it seem easy, un­less you want a chal­lenge!

Switches can wear out, es­pe­cially the in­di­ca­tor stalk and the ig­ni­tion key switch but most elec­tri­cal prob­lems are down to bad earths caused by cor­roded con­tacts. Aside from some spe­cial com­mer­cial mod­els and very late po­lice ‘panda’ cars no Mi­nors had al­ter­na­tors from the fac­tory and all mod­els ex­cept the MM lack am­me­ters so a com­bi­na­tion of worn brushes, out-of-ad­just­ment reg­u­la­tors and a cold, dark win­ter can lead to un­der-charged bat­ter­ies. Many cars have been fit­ted with al­ter­na­tors, which also makes ad­di­tions such as uprated head­lamps and heated rear win­dows fea­si­ble.

The Mi­nor was also pro­duced as a pick-up and a van, plus unique vari­ants for pub­lic util­i­ties. They make in­ter­est­ing restora­tion pro­jects or prac­ti­cal and dis­tinc­tive work­ing ve­hi­cles but bring their own dif­fi­cul­ties when it comes to up­keep.

The 948cc and 1098cc A-Series en­gines are re­li­able, long-lived and easy to work on with 100 per cent parts avail­abil­ity. The early 803cc model and the orig­i­nal side­valve en­gine are some­what less prac­ti­cal.

With reg­u­lar main­te­nance a Mi­nor can pro­vide re­li­able trans­port for many years. Very few me­chan­i­cal jobs are be­yond the means of the home me­chanic.

If the Mi­nor has a de­sign flaw, it’s in the front king­pins; ne­glect to grease them and they’ll start to wear rapidly, fol­lowed by com­plete sus­pen­sion col­lapse.

Tourer mod­els are more pop­u­lar now than they were in the 1960s, so you’re more likely to find a con­verted sa­loon than a gen­uine fac­tory-built soft top. The hood and its frames have to be cared for to pre­vent dam­age to the fab­ric and the win­dows.

Early mod­els have a charm all of their own but for ev­ery­day prac­ti­cal­ity the A-Series pow­ered car is a bet­ter bet.

The iconic Trav­eller is a ver­sa­tile work­horse but its tim­ber-framed body is vul­ner­a­ble to rot and is ex­pen­sive to re­pair.

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