Cool retro MkI
It’s taken several years, but Sean Ashford’s MkI is finally the car he always wanted it to be, and all without a Cooper S badge in sight.
The latest fancy buzz word in classic car circles appears to be ‘evocation’, and as terms go, it’s pretty broad. Previously it’s been used to describe beautiful creations like the Eagle E-type or one of those bespoke Aston Martins, which take the original concept and brilliantly upgrade it with modern engineering. But on the flip side, it’s increasingly been adopted as clever marketing lingo to get premium money for something that isn’t quite the full ticket – a car with all the right badges, but not the right bits.
Sean Ashford could never be accused of such cynicism when it comes to his stunning MkI,
however. Blank out the badges and it looks to be for all the world a genuine, periodtweaked Cooper S; it’s got the proper S front panel, twin fuel tanks, an S engine block – heck, it’s even got the Cooper boot board brackets. But you won’t find the words Cooper or S written anywhere on this one, for it still wears its Austin Mini labels with pride. It’s not a pretender, it’s simply a Mini built just as Sean wanted it. “It looks like an S, but it’s a Mini 850,” he says. “I’m not bothered whether it’s got an S badge or not, it’s still a Mini regardless.” It’s also an exceptionally good-looking one at that, so what’s the story?
“I’d always had Minis back in the day, but nothing spectacular,” says Sean, who lives in North London. “The most special one I had was a 1275 GT, in light metallic blue with a sunroof. I bought them initially to make some money; they were quite good earners. I’d go to the car auctions at Enfield and buy the ones that had been converted for disabled use, because no one wanted them and they’d go cheap. They’d have tiny mileages, so I’d just unbolt the conversion parts and sell them on. That’s what got me into Minis, but then I lost touch with them and got into other things.”
Like many enthusiasts though, Sean would make a return to the scene. “I had a light blue Pick-up for while, but that fell
apart and someone bought it from me to do up,” Sean continues. “Then my mate bought one for his daughter, we went down to Brighton in it, and it was a bit of fun. I thought ‘I’ve got to get myself a Mini again’, and that was it.”
The inspiration for an early car would literally appear right in front of him. “I was driving through a place near me, Archway, and I came across this MkI shell, sitting in the road,” says Sean. “It had no wheels and no interior, but the body was good. There was a council notice on it to tow it away, so I left a contact number. The owner did ring me, and although I couldn’t buy it, I fell in love with the MkI shape then.”
Sean managed to find a suitable and rather more complete MkI in the hands of Paul Wigington – a man famed for his selfbuilt Mini Sprint drag racer and top-drawer panel fabrication skills. “I bought it as a 40th birthday present to myself in 2002,” he explains. “It was Almond Green with an Old English White roof and reverse rims. Every time Paul sees me he wants to buy it back!
“It was mostly standard apart from a 1275, and he’d done the bodywork to a degree,” adds Sean. “It still had drums, but he’d set it up right so it did stop quite well. I used it for a few years but then I didn’t drive it for a bit because I got hold of another Pick-up. It was sound when I bought it, but it sat outside my mum’s for a while and deteriorated a fair amount.”
FADE TO GREY
Inspiration to get the things back underway came in the shape of Paul Costin’s Tweed Grey 1965 Austin Cooper S, a well-known car and quite the looker with its black roof, door roundels and Rose Petal wheels. “I always had visions of doing something with it, then I saw pics of Paul’s Cooper S and knew that was how I wanted it to look. I loved the style, and the stance – it’s my ultimate Mini.”
Jeff Surrey of the Stoke Mini Centre was instrumental in transforming the car into a Tweed Grey dream machine, but work actually started before he’d made the move up to The Potteries. “Jeff was based in Finchley at the time, but then he said he was relocating up to Stoke, so we started doing the engine long before the bodywork was really touched,” explains Sean. “I had this 1275 Cooper S block with the nitrided crank, but nothing else.”
Luckily, Sean’s block was in exceptionally good condition, so he could get away with just having the bores honed rather than a rebore. Otherwise the engine has been given the full treatment, with new con-rods, pistons, the rotating assembly all lightened and balanced, plus a Kent 276 camshaft. On top sits a Stage 4 equivalent cylinder head from Mini Spares, with 1.5-ratio rockers in roller-tip flavour. It’s also got a super twocore radiator, an auxiliary fan, silicone hoses and neat oil catch tank that Sean has refinished in crackle black.
In terms of electrics, the car has been converted to negative earth and treated to a complete new loom, plus a new alternator and an electronic Aldon dizzy. Fuelling is taken care of by a pair of twin 1.25-inch SUs, and there’s a full-length stainless steel centre-exit exhaust to complete the job. The remote-change gearbox has also been fully overhauled, and now boasts a straight-cut gearset, a KAD quickshift and a Salisbury-
“I saw pics of Paul Costin’s Cooper S and knew that was I how wanted it to look...”
type limited-slip diff. However, the LSD will probably come out in the near future, as Sean describes it as “horrible!”
The long-awaited body refresh saw the car transported up from London to Cheshire. “The bodywork was done by Tony Ennion at the Ennion Workshop,” Sean comments. “He put new doorskins on, new wings, inner and outer sills, the Cooper S front panel, a new bonnet, A-panels, a rear valance – all the usual stuff. The only thing he didn’t really touch was the boot floor, as it just needed a couple of little patches, nothing major, and wasn’t worth changing. It was
“I thought ‘oh sod it’, and had it stripped down again to be repainted...”
then painted Tweed Grey with a black roof. Tony said to me that a Tweed Grey car should normally have a white roof, but that’s the way I wanted it to look.”
The finished shell was then transported back down to London for completion – at least, that was the plan. “It sat around in my garage for a while, and I started doing bits, but it stalled and just got forgotten about really,” says Sean. “Jeff took it up to his workshop to get things restarted, but by that time the paint was looking a bit flat. Jeff got it altogether again to the point where it was done, but in 2015 I thought ‘oh sod it’, and had it stripped down again to be repainted.”
THE RIGHT STUFF
The rebuilt car certainly boasts an impressive spec. In addition to the tweaked Cooper S motor and straight-cut ‘ box, the suspension and brakes have been completely overhauled and uprated in the same vein. The drums have been replaced by Cooper S discs up front, albeit without a servo, while original new old stock Minifins were found for the rear, still in their boxes. Meanwhile there’s a new rear subframe, with proper Mini Spares ‘Ripspeed’ Hi-Los and KYB Gas-A-Just dampers. A KAD rear anti-roll bar stiffens things up at the back, and has been joined by KAD rear camber and toe brackets, adjustable front tie-rods and fixed 1.5-degree negative camber bottom arms.
The Cooper S influence is also clear inside the car, but once again, things have been upped a notch. There’s two-tone grey trim from Newton Commercial, but rather
than go for standard front seats, Sean’s plumped for a set of plush replica S recliners. The carpets and trim panels are also new, but he hasn’t made it a faithful S replica. Instead he’s chosen a single silver speedo from an earlier MkI, with a separate rev counter in a pod and a combined oil and water temperature gauge mounted stealthily under the lower dash rail. “I didn’t want loads of bits hanging around,” he comments. ‘There’s no heater either, as I can’t see me ever using the car in weather that’s going to need one.”
Staying inside, Sean had previously fitted a leather rimmed Moto-Lita steering wheel with plain spokes, but he replaced it with a larger wood-rim version as he felt it was smarter and more in keeping with the car. Indeed, Sean has been keen to keep things subtle, with only a few neat additions like the DSN towing eyes to break from period extras such as the Lucas reversing lamp. “Any little touches we could do, we did,” he says. “Nothing that would look out of place, just sensible upgrades. It couldn’t have arches either; I don’t mind them on Sportpack Minis and things like that, but when people put arches on Pick-ups or MkIs, I think it ruins the look of them.” Luckily, the 4.75x10-inch Mini Spares Rose Petal wheels and Yokohama A008 tyres just about sit within the stock body line, adding that historic racer feel and really completing the Paul Costin-inspired exterior. “The only thing I probably won’t do is put the black discs on the door,” adds Sean.
The car was finally completed earlier this year, some 14 years after Sean first bought it. Jeff gave it a show debut at Himley Hall in May, while Sean’s first event was the Brands Hatch Mini Festival in July. Unsurprisingly, he’s really looking forward to enjoying it further. “I’ve not really used it in anger yet – it needs driving!” he says. “Next year I’ll get it out, and hopefully take it over to Ireland for the IMM. There’s a few things to modify now, like removing the LSD and maybe going down the route of one of Stuart Gurr’s supercharger kits.”
Now around 130bhp cloaked in that attractive classic exterior sounds incredibly appealing, but even without a Vmaxscart blower, Sean’s MkI is already one very impressive bit of kit. It’s got all the great features of an original S, only faster and brimming with neat upgrades to make it even more enjoyable. Label it an evocation if you must, but this is one Mini that stands tall on its own merits.
The Tweed Grey and black paint scheme is a winning combination.
The inspiration: Paul Costin’s stunning ‘65 Cooper S, now in New Zealand.
During the rebuild the car was fitted with a Cooper S-type front panel, providing clearance for the oil cooler.
Rebuilt big-bore motor is based on a proper Cooper S block.
Rose Petal wheels add that historic racer look.
Refreshed interior features new two-tone trim and grey carpets from Newton Commercial.
The replica Cooper S recliners look superb.
Sean has opted for an earlier silver speedo.
Lovely wood-rim Moto-Lita wheel.
Sean has deliberately retained the standard badges. Note the KAD rear anti-roll bar.
Lucas reversing lamp is a nice period touch.
Jeff and Sean have produced a real cracker.
Cooper-style grille and overriders up front.
Twin fuel tanks and boot board brackets.