Les Leagas’ VTEC Clubby combines subtle looks with practicality and plenty of grunt.
Often it takes a few project car builds to really get into the swing of things, and besides, tastes usually change over time. Les Leagas’ last Mini rebuild kicked off in 2003 and evolved over the next 12 years into a custom body-kitted show car loaded with hi-fi grade audio. “It ended up costing me far more money than it should have done, as I’d do things then keep changing my mind,” he says. “The engine, for example, went from a 998 to a Metro Turbo, to a 1380 then an ML Motorsport 1275. I’d do things, go to a show, then realise I didn’t really like the updates and start over.”
With the fidgety bum learning curve complete, Les felt he’d gone as far as he could with the car, and couldn’t face taking it all apart again. Instead he decided to sell up,
make a fresh start and this time keep to a far stricter brief. “I owned a Mini Clubman back in 1980 and loved it, and so it was always my ultimate goal to have a Clubman with a Honda VTEC engine,” Les recalls.
A clear vision was required for the next project to keep the budget and styling firmly on course. This one would be a real sleeper, with everything Les could want from a high performance road-going show Mini. “I didn’t want anything garish, or anything mad to draw in your eye,” he continues. “The vision in my head was of a nicely restored car, one that wouldn’t really stand out until I opened the bonnet to attract the crowd like bees to honey.”
The project began promptly after London to Brighton 2015, giving Les just a year to get both the car and his accompanying teardrop trailer built from scratch. Somehow he’d aim to find a Clubman, have it converted to VTEC power and resprayed by November, then piece it all back together over Christmas. The schedule would allow a couple of months of shakedown time before a trip over to the IMM in Belgium.
“I found the car for £2000 in Liverpool, sold as a 1979 Clubman with ‘1275 GT’ on the logbook, and it looked solid as a rock,” says Les. “I’m not convinced it’s a genuine
“I began peeling back the layers. It was like an onion under there...”
GT though - there was a stripe down one side but nothing really left that I could see as GT.” The interior, wheels and engine weren’t original GT items, so all suspicions point to a regular Mini Clubman. Perhaps a previous owner told a few porkies to the DVLA once upon a time, when swapping the model names about was no big deal, or maybe it had all been changed to a lesser spec. Either way, Les reasoned that with only around 10 per cent genuine GT parts in hand, it would be cheaper to do a full VTEC conversion than rebuild an exact GT replica, such is the demand for spares.
“I lifted the carpets and the floors looked lovely,” he continues, “but I never realised it was five floors deep! Basically when I started looking it had more tin worm than anything – someone had done the usual thing of plating over plates. I was aiming for show and shine standards, so I got it up on the spit to start cleaning it all up underneath. When I looked at the sills, some of the welding needed a tidy up, then the rust started to fall out and I began peeling back the layers. It was like an onion under there.”
Uncovering all manner of nastiness around the body put the tight deadline under strain, and many would have admitted defeat at the first layer of oversills, but Les is a determined chap. He ordered up a pallet-load of new panels, grabbed the welder and got to work in the garage at home. Up front the wings and front panel now detach from the A-panels and flip forward on a hinge, all to create better access to the new engine. Once the wings tilt forward, Les can then remove the hinge pins and completely remove the whole front
end. He also opted for Minivation articulated bonnet hinges to save smacking the back of his head on the catch every time.
Accompanying such body mods, you may expect wide arch extensions and deep-dish alloys, but the subtle theme extends to the period GT wheels. As the regulation wheel for BL’s 1275 GT Challenge series in the late ‘70s, GKN Silverstone wheels have to be one of the most desirable alloys for any Clubman. The trouble is, they’re so sought after today that decent sets can change hands for over £2000! There is another option though, and Les managed to find a set of similar 5x12-inch alloys from the early Metro Challenge cars. “I managed to get them for £300 – a bit of a bargain,” he says. “If you look carefully at the centres they’re machined slightly differently, not that it worries me for that price difference!”
While a professional body restoration was out of the question, the paint job would be handled by his local bodyshop, especially as he was after a show car finish. “Back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, I had a Honda Integra Type R in a lovely colour called Pirates Black,” says Les. “So I always knew I’d get the Mini sprayed in the same colour. It’s not a flip paint as such, but it looks black in the shade and has a purple fleck that really comes out strong on a sunny day.”
The paint choice was apt, given Les’ engine conversion of choice. “To be honest I never really considered any other engines, like Vauxhall or Rover, as I loved the way the Integra Type R used to go,” he says. “The power delivery isn’t like a turbo where it kicks in hard at 3000rpm, it’s more like 4000rpm, so you can drive it sedately around town if you want. So I bought an Allspeed conversion front subframe and pulled a VTEC B18C engine from a DC2 Integra Type R.”
The standard-spec engine came with the gearbox, wiring loom, original clocks and all the ancillaries. And even in standard trim it’s a potent package to wedge in the front of such a lightweight car, pushing out just under 200bhp once the variable valve timing kicks in. “That’s plenty for what I want,” says Les. “I’m not going down the forced induction route – I don’t need to, as it’ll spin-up the front wheels enough as it is. The engine’s about the only thing I’ve not needed to rebuild on the car. It came straight from a breakers yard with 114,000 on it, I cleaned it up, painted a few bits and dropped it in.”
Most of the conversion gear came with the Allspeed Engineering front subframe, which retains the standard-style towers so you can use regular suspension cones and Mini hubs. “I ordered everything from them apart from the driveshafts,” says Les, “as I knew a guy from work who’s a coded welder and he offered to help. You end up with half Mini, half Honda shafts. I cut them down to the right length, then they were placed in a lathe at work, centre drilled, chamfered,
pinned and welded up – a proper job.”
Dropping the engine into the subframe was apparently easy enough, but wiring the modern Honda loom to the Mini’s rather basic setup proved a challenge. Much of the Integra loom becomes redundant in a Mini, as it hooks up to stuff like ABS and climate control, where really you only need the basic engine and dashboard connections. “David from Wired by Wilson is really into Mini electrics,” Les continues, “so I asked him to come over, take a look at the loom and the clocks and see if he could sort it. He had plenty of sleepless nights with Honda wiring diagrams, then came back about a month later with a modified loom. We plugged it in and the engine fired up straight away. I suppose running the Honda clocks keeps things more simple with the electronic speedo. The car and engine wiring is essentially separate, and David also extended the ECU wiring so it’s in the car not under the bonnet.”
A huge part of Les’ project revolved around the sound system, as he was a keen soundoff competitor back with his previous Mini. We’re not talking about ground-pounding hooliganism in a McDonald’s car park, but a well balanced system with a focus on sound quality. We managed to have a listen to his previous install, and it was mightily impressive – a winner in fact at the Kent IMM in 2014.
“The sound system in here is actually the same one from my previous Mini,” Les explains. “To buy all the gear again, it would have cost around £7000, which is more than I sold the car for! I decided to take it all out to use in the next install. There’s Silent Coat deadening from front to back, four layers inside the roof and with acoustic foam in the roof and door bins. Road and induction noise is still louder than a modern day car, as I’ve deadened the panels not gone for full sound proofing, but there’s nothing in there that can vibrate.”
“We’re not talking about ground-pounding hooliganism in a McDonald’s car park...”
So what on Earth does £7000 get you? Well, fans of car audio will recognise the front speakers as some of the most prestigious component sets created. They’re a three-way top-of-the-range set from Genesis, which has nothing to do with Phil Collins, but everything to do with handcrafted audiophile goodness. Sadly they’ve been out of production for some years, and hence why Les has gone to great effort to refit them in the new car. Each of the six speakers is amplified with 150 watts RMS of clean JL Audio power, in what’s referred to as a ‘ fully active’ system. In other words, pure control over the signal sent to each driver without those passive crossover boxes to decide what goes where. If you posses golden ears and know how to set it all up, it should sound incredible.
“It’s all about getting the speakers in the right position and firing at the right time,” says Les. “Luckily the head unit has time alignment and an auto equaliser built in, so you can aim all the sound towards the driver’s seat in competition mode, then change it back with a passenger in the car.” The main difference between the new install and previous system is the subwoofer location. Rather than having two 10-inch subs in the rear, Les has mounted a single sub behind the dashboard, in a bespoke enclosure pointing down towards the floor. He reckons it sounds just as good as the previous system, although a thorough re-tune may be in order before the next sound-off competition.
The final piece of the puzzle came with a custom-made teardrop trailer/caravan to tow behind the Mini. It’s the result of 300 hours of labour in the garage and Les built the entire thing from scratch, including the steel chassis. With enough space inside for a double mattress, it’s a much warmer alternative to camping for when Les and his wife Tina head away for the weekend. There’s Mini-themed curtains, gas cooker at the rear and even a beer fridge!
Despite a super quick turnaround his end, unfortunately Les didn’t quite make it to the IMM in Belgium. “The bodyshop took far longer than expected and I didn’t get the car back until three weeks before the deadline,” he says. “Then I was in a major rush to get it all done in time. I had to change the oil pump the week before, then when I plugged all the trailer in the electrics weren’t playing ball. That turned out to be the alternator, so I changed it and got an early morning ferry to Dunkirk. Two miles into France and one of the trailer wheel bearings disintegrated, so I ended up turning back.”
Apart from a few teething problems though, Les managed to complete the car pretty much on schedule and without getting carried away with moving the goalposts either. “I’ve nailed the way I wanted it to look, as it’s not overly modified from the outside,” he says. “I’d say it’s 95 per cent the way I’d pictured it in my mind, it drives brilliantly and has no problems at all towing the teardrop. Maybe some of the purists won’t like it, but who cares, it’s my car and I love it!”
Transformers-style flip-front and vertical-lift hinges are awesome for engine bay access.
The Type R motor is good for around 200bhp and runs sweetly despite clocking up over 100,000 miles.
The Allspeed conversion frame squeezes the 1.8-litre engine into a Clubman front end. It will just go under a stock round nose too, but Les always wanted a Clubby in any case.
The subtle style keeps the hybrid conversion on the down low.
It’s not often you see a VTEC Mini with a towbar.
Rear screen louvre is a touch of ‘80s nostalgia.
The interior has been built with sound quality audio competitions in mind, and a bit of comfort too.
Genesis Absolute speakers are very highly regarded by those in the know.
Honda Pirates Black gives a lovely purple sheen in the sun. The smart Unipart alloys came from a Metro Challenge race car, made by GKN.
Plush Recaro recliners retrimmed in leather.
Dark wood-rim wheel tops off a classy interior.
Three-point belts in the back for added safety.
Les even built this cool teardrop caravan from scratch in the garage. Now that beats a soggy cold tent...
Of course it’s Mini-themed in there!
The extra power makes towing a breeze.