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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.