It may look like it’s been lifted off the streets of Tokyo, but James Kelly’s cool custom Mini began life as a humble Mini City E and was transformed in a Dublin garage.
James Kelly’s awesome Mini looks like it’s been customised in Japan, but you’ll actually find it on the streets on Dublin...
Many of your average car buffs just won’t get the idea of a Japanese-style Mini. You’ve got Japanese car culture, with its drifting, unfeasibly huge power outputs and outrageous styling, and the humble Mini – traditional, utilitarian and unmistakably British. To the initiated, the two cultures are Tokyo Drift versus Countryfile; as much of a clash as putting HKS and Blitz stickers down the side of your front-wheel-drive five-door Ford Focus and pretending it’s a 500bhp RX-7...
With Minis, however, it’s different. The Japanese Mini scene is where these two worlds collide, for no other overseas nation can match its affection for Issigonis’ masterpiece. And what’s more, our Far Eastern counterparts have their own
unique take on how a Mini should look, which amazes and inspires in equal measure. The Mini you see here is a prime example, but you won’t find it pounding the streets of Tokyo, or even the UK. This Japanese-styled British icon was created in Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, but with a pair of show plates on, it has everybody fooled...
Despite the incredible popularity of Japanese Minis on forums and various social media sites, it’s a style that’s still largely unexplored in the UK. Various folk have cherry picked one or two bits and there’s a steady flow of JDM (Japanese domestic market) cars re-entering the UK, but this car has to be the most convincing Japanese-style Mini we’ve seen outside of its domestic habitat.
It would’ve made sense to pick up an imported car to work with as a base, but owner James Kelly hasn’t done that. Instead, he’s taken a tired City E – the first Mini he ever drove on the road – and worked his magic. It features a whole host of proper imported bits, all put together with vision and thought. But why go to so much trouble, and expense? “Everybody has an English one!” he explains. “I was fed up of going to shows and seeing Sportpacks and Minilites, Sportpacks and Minilites... chrome grilles. Anything you could buy that was standard I was trying to avoid. The Japanese style fitted me, and was unique.”
James is certainly used to seeing plenty of Minis. Together with dad Paul, he runs Dublin-based specialist Minifix, which has seen most of the Minis in Ireland pass through its doors! Amongst James’ fleet there’s the 1275 GT he’s owned since he was 10, a VTEC Hornet project, a proper JDM-spec ERA Turbo and his Japanesethemed City, which was christened Maggie by the previous owner. “It was bought for 500 Euros when I was 19 in
“Anything you could buy that was standard I was trying to avoid...”
2010,” says James. “I bolted on a Stage 1 kit and roller-tip rockers, and I had it on Cooper reverse rim steels with an Innocenti grille.”
A change to rare Momo wheels followed, but then came the first step towards the current Japanese-influenced look – a set of 6.5x10-inch SSR FLII splitrim wheels so beloved in JDM circles. They were sourced from Scotsman David Lockhart, who lives in Japan and has worked for local specialists whilst also writing about his own projects. “I’d always loved 10s, and when he posted them up, I had to have them,”’ says James. “The wheels came first, and as I got to know David, he was offering more and more bits and pieces that were not available to Joe Public. That’s how it all came together.”
Next up was the cool BL Cars front spoiler the car still proudly wears, as well as Garage Downton lightened flywheel and hub nuts. No these aren’t proper Downton bits from the ‘60s or early ‘70s, but were made by just one of the many Japanese garages that use UK-inspired names. Others including Janspeed, BMC Service, Longmans and Weslake, and there’s also Anglophile titles such as Land’s End, Penny Lane, Brands Hatch and, our personal fave, ‘Mini Cooper Factory Bagpipe’. But just because the names are borrowed doesn’t means the parts are cheap copies – quite the opposite in fact. Japanese parts are usually exclusive, extremely well made and jolly expensive.
James ran his Mini in a rat-look style until the end of 2014, when it came off the road for a full transformation. The Japan Mini Photography page on Facebook was becoming an increasing influence, and James’ collection of Japanese Mini magazines and catalogues was increasing. As his interest grew, and his contact list swelled, more and more parts began to arrive. A pal in Northern Ireland, Chris Gray, proved invaluable (as well as having a Japanese wife who worked in the Post Office!), while more parts arrived via
David Lockhart and fellow Japan-based Mini enthusiast David Ainley.
But before his vision could become a reality, the Mini’s bodyshell needed restoring – a great chance for James to put his newly-learnt welding and fabrication skills to good use. “It’s had a front panel, one wing, scuttle repairs, an A-panel, a reskinned door, a sill, floor repairs, the bottom of the quarter panels both sides, repairs underneath the side windows on both sides, a 10-inch section of the boot floor, battery box, hinge panel, rear valance, closing plates, two door steps, bonnet, bootlid and the panel under the rear window,” he explains. “Wherever possible I used proper Heritage parts, and what I couldn’t get was pattern, but good quality pattern.”
Further work required to achieve the desired look included removing the lip from the bonnet, and adding a metal Minivan grille insert from Magnum panels. The chunky arch extensions came from BL Cars in Japan (and are held on with titanium bolts), while the rear ‘duck tail’ boot spoiler was purchased from ABS Motorsport in the UK. The inside, engine bay and underneath were then painted by James himself, while the exterior was painted by Scott Chapman of Chapman Crash Repairs. This included colour-coding the grille panel and door handles for a distinctive look. The hue chosen was the original Austin Rover Targa Red shade. “I buffed it one day before I got it painted, and the red came up lovely,” says James. “It’s very close to Milano Red from a Honda Civic, which is what I would’ve gone for if changing the colour anyway. There’s no white roof as it isn’t a Cooper.”
Other cool external features include headlamps from NK Trading, GP-style mirrors from Murray Motorsport, earlier type indicators from Mini Spares and MkII rear lights. The linked wipers came from Mini Delta in Japan, and are probably one of the most talked-about features, while the show plates came from friend in County Wicklow. They are mounted on proper Japanese numberplate brackets, which on the rear is mounted onto a MkI plinth and illuminated by neat LED lights either side. Particularly unusual are the silver painted headlamp rims and bumpers. “It’s a Toyota Silver,” says James. “I’d seen it on a Japanese Mini in that colour and I just thought it would fit really well. Everyone has black or chrome.”
The running gear is equally well thoughtout and presented. Both subframes have been powder-coated with a camouflage finish, and there’s some top notch goodies to go with them. From Japan comes Alec Mini replacement coil springs and Hi-Los, Garage Downton bump stops and BL Cars steering arm spacers, which join a quick steering rack from local rally man Lloyd Hutchinson. Front and rear antiroll bars are de rigueur in Japan, so James has gone for trick KAD items, and there are also KAD tie-rods, rear camber and track brackets, 7.9-inch grooved and vented discs, four-pot aluminium callipers and anodised rear handbrake quadrants. Mini Spares adjustable bottom arms have been added to the mix up front, there are Spax dampers and polybushes all round, and everything else is either new or refurbished. “There are stainless bolts everywhere you can think of,” adds James.
The engine remains a small-bore unit, though not the original one. Paul and James are real fans of 998 engines and reckon this one was already a little rocket, but that hasn’t stopped them stripping it down for a full rebuild. The block has been bored plus 0.020-inch and rebuilt by fellow Irish Mini Owners Club member Eamonn Fahey to feature Calver ST/ Graham Russell pistons, a centre main strap and a Swiftune SW5 cam package including aluminium duplex timing gears. There’s also a modified carb with a Fletcher LCB manifold and a Japanese Valtain exhaust, while the cylinder head is a 12G295 Cooper item topped with Mini Sport 1.3-ratio roller tip rockers. The head has been converted to
“The engine remains a small-bore unit, though not the original one...”
unleaded with new valve seats, as well as being treated to new valve guides and double springs by Minifix itself. “That was all done on the bench,” says Paul. “It’s amazing what you can do in a shed.”
The gearbox has also been rebuilt, and features a four-pin diff, centre oil pick-up pipe, a 3.1:1 final drive and Swiftune straight-cut drop gears, while that Garage Downton flywheel has been mated with a Metro Turbo clutch. It’s yet to go on a rolling road, but James and Paul estimate that around 70bhp is possible, and it certainly feels pretty quick from the passenger seat.
As with the underside, the engine bay is all beautifully presented. The wiring loom has been tucked away out of sight, and there’s an abundance of cool anodised parts from DSN Classics’ RetroSport range. These include the heater outlet, thermostat housing, alternator bracket, bonnet hinges, slave cylinder bracket, master cylinder baseplate and corresponding blank, the wiper motor bracket and the engine steady. Some neat colour coordination includes various red brackets and the carb dashpot, there are some neat Hella Supertone horns, and blue silicone hoses are teamed up with a Thermex aluminium radiator. You may also be wondering about those unusual Mini Delta HT leads, which are earthed to the cylinder head. Again these are from Japan, this time via David Ainley. They’re certainly a talking point, as is the titanium bonnet stay!
BRIDE AND GROOM
The Japanese influence has had perhaps its greatest impact inside the car. Most obvious are the Bride seats, which are a mainstay of Japanese performance motors. These particular ones are Bride Brix 1.5s, bought second-hand. They are extremely comfortable and even fit using Cobra subframes, but were at odds with the rest of the interior. That wasn’t a problem though, for James bought some more Bride material from local firm Red Power Motorsport and had Christy Duffy at Duffy Auto Trim re-upholster the back seats and doorcards to match, as well as replacing the centres of the front seats and making up matching gear lever and handbrake gaiters. As for the old front seat material, that’s now a jack bag kept in the boot. The red-stitched black headlining was also custom-made, and extends right down the A-pillars.
Japanese Minis are renowned for their wacky and wonderful accessories, and this car has plenty. There’s the neat cup holder under the control for the MPi heater, and a replacement centre dash binnacle from ABS Motorsport featuring Japanese-made Defi gauges. An AEM air/ fuel ratio and TIM tacho appear too, as
“It’s a daily driver. Why bother building it to look at it in a shed?”
does a 200km export speedo. The cool throttle pedal is from Mini Delta, and the chequered floor mats from Kings Road, both based in Osaka.
The standard steering wheel would clearly no longer do, so James has gone for a 330mm Nardi item, which is also a very popular item in Nipponese Minis. This one’s bolted to a complete steering column with a snap-off boss from Go-Race Engineering in Tewkesbury, lowered on a Faxe Racing drop bracket. A neat Speedwell extension brings the gear lever closer, and a full push-button switch kit from Wired by Wilson completes the custom look. There are plenty of tunes too, courtesy of a Pioneer head unit, Focal 6x9-inch speakers under rear seat, Focal 2-way 6.5-inch components, tweeters on dash, two Pioneer amps and an MTX 12-inch sub in box. And talking of the boot, we particularly like the Tartan bootlid liner, which was sourced once again from Kings Road.
The car was finally returned to the road last September, and has immediately been pressed into regular service. Initially it hit the road on the SSR rims, but James has now swapped these for 6.5x10-inch Force Racing wheels. He initially wanted SSR Mesh rims, but the prohibitive cost means these are a great alternative and look almost identical. Other than that though, no more changes are planned. “When I was building it I did it with ‘ buy the best’ in mind so that I wouldn’t have to do anything again,” says James. “I just have to get in, drive it and enjoy it. It’s a daily driver. Why bother building it to look at it in a shed?”
Styling the Mini in such a way was a gamble, but one that’s really paid off. “It’s frightening when you have something in your head and it turns out a little bit better,” James continues. “Some bits were doubtful, like the boot spoiler, but when I got it painted it and saw it all together, that was it.”
Certainly the Mini scene seems to agree. At the recent BMC Mini Fair, James and Paul were fielding questions about the car all day long, and it was probably the most photographed Mini of all. It really stood out as something different, and is testament to James’ vision. Sure, the styling touches and parts may be a long way from home, but whether it’s London, Dublin or even a show ground in Staffordshire, Maggie fits in perfectly.
James estimates the smallbore motor is good for 70bhp.
Show plates have a lot of people fooled.
Murray Motorsport door mirrors look neat.
Rear anti-roll bar and the massive centre exhaust are typical JDM styling cues.
The tweaked 998 motor is very well detailed. Check out those plug leads and the lack of visible wiring loom.
Proper Bride seats with retrimmed centres.
Cool Nardi steering wheel on a snap-off boss.
Extra Defi vacuum gauge under the dash.
Neat Wired by Wilson switch conversion.
Modified ABS Motorsport dash binnacle.
Cup holder is a popular JDM accessory.
Unique bespoke touches are everywhere, and those seats are very comfy indeed!
The detail extends to real Japanese stickers!
Low, wide and awesome. James has really nailed the JDM look.
Force Racing Mesh split-rims look ace.
Awesome Garage Downton front spoiler.
James’ vision has become a stunning reality.
Bootlid spoiler was brave, but suits the look.