Sprinted from new, Dr DePersio’s 1967 Cooper S was given a no- expense- spared Wood & Pickett rebuild in 1970 for export to California. Nearly 44 years, two transatlantic crossings and one robbery later, Peter Jurgens has finally finished the car.
The fascinating tale of Peter Jurgens’ unique Cooper S MiniSprint, customised twice by Wood & Pickett at great expense in the 1970s.
Afeature car without history is a motoring journalist’s greatest challenge – a daunting task of piecing together a story from a car’s appearance and spec sheet. Thankfully this is not one of those cars – far from! So read on for a tale of pioneering ‘ 70s customisation, vehicle recovery at gunpoint and a dream come true for a British car specialist in California.
But first we need to head back to London in 1967, in the midst of the most influential era for the Mini. No car of today can claim to be as universally appealing as the Mini in ‘ 60s Britain; it was many families’ first car, a motorsport hero and even a fashion accessory for the rich and famous. The Beatles, Steve McQueen, Enzo Ferrari, Mike Nesmith of the Monkees, Lord Snowdon and many more besides all had Minis lavishly coachbuilt to custom perfection. Visit a dealership today and you can spend a fortune ‘ speccing- up’ a very personal car, but back in the ‘ 60s you’d have to visit a coachbuilding firm to really stand out from the crowd. Radford and Wood & Pickett were at the forefront of such conversions for the Mini, and the latter
was the specialist of choice for a certain Dr DePersio from California.
Registered as a MiniSprint from new, the doctor found the custom Cooper S for sale in a second- hand showroom in 1969. By 1967, Neville Trickett’s body- sectioned and roof-chopped ‘ MiniSprint’ conversions had largely been taken on by Morris distributor Stewart & Arden, so this 1967 S is most likely a S& A MiniSprint, especially with those signature Citroën Ami 6 headlamps up front. The made- to- order cars were expensive and rare – Mini expert Jon Pressnell suggests that only around two dozen were built for S& A by various bodywork specialists around London. The work was far from simple, with around two inches removed from the roof pillars, the beltline and also the lower section of the shell. This in turn created all sorts of fitment issues in search of a lower, more aerodynamic profile. The glass had to be trimmed down, the fuel tanks and radiator modified, the front grille reprofiled and, well, the list goes on.
Peter Jurgens of US- based British Sports Cars is the current owner of this rare beast, and his son Justin was on hand to tell the story: “The car was purchased by our client in England in 1969 and sent to Wood & Pickett in late 1970,” he begins. “When the car was finished in 1972, it was shipped to Marina Del Rey, California. We’ve got a stack of paperwork that documents the whole history of the car and the original logbook that shows it was registered as a Sprint from new.”
The paperwork offers a fascinating insight to ‘ 70s transatlantic communications, with the doctor’s electric- typewritten letters to and from AW Wood, aka Bill Wood of W& P. The letters date back to December 1970 as the car was delivered to W& P’s workshop in Park Royal, London. Judging from the early correspondence, the car had presumably visited W& P before, for custom trimming
“Only around two dozen MiniSprints were built for Stewart and Arden...”
“And the cost of this work? £ 3281.53, or roughly 18 month’s wages in 1972...”
after the body mods. This would tie- in with other MiniSprints of the era in any case.
There are further discussions over the final specification and costs, instructions to convert the car to left- hand drive, fit electric windows, a fold- down rear seat with access to the boot, a ‘ Margrave’ dashboard and a whole host of extras. There are also discussions on installing a 110bhp Downton- tuned engine and a shipping quote of £ 168, which later increased to £ 175. The request for a five- speed ‘ box was turned down due to compatibility and the final W& P invoices are extremely detailed. These cover everything from new battery terminals and valve caps to the Recaro ‘ N’ leather seats, four yards of headlining cloth and 100 square feet of black leather for the plush retrim. And the cost of all this work? £ 3291.53, or roughly 18 months’ wages for your average UK resident in 1972!
There were some unexpected costs too, to quote Bill Wood’s letter from January
1972: “The car is now ready for shipment except one problem. The vibrations caused to the bodywork on the extensive road test ( 500 miles) have cracked the paint around the door hinges, caused by the faulty design of these hinges when the car was originally converted to MiniSprint specification.”
The problem was rectified before export, but there was an additional charge of £ 60 to repair the paint and fix the hinges. The MiniSprint was resprayed in a Mercedes silver paint at the time, and would have been one of the most exclusive Minis money could buy with its lightweight magnesium Minilites and custom interior. Not surprisingly, the doctor was apparently delighted with his purchase once delivered to California some time later. But the story doesn’t end there...
Of all the valuable cars to steal, the obvious choice would be something inconspicuous; a
“It would have been one of the most exclusive Minis money could buy...”
car that’s easy to sell on without unwanted attention. A Mini Cooper S then, which in itself was pretty rare in America thanks to safety and smog regulations ending all sales in 1967, was not the most sensible choice. However, stealing a one- off coachbuilt MiniSprint was just asking for trouble.
“When the car was stolen from Marina del Rey in September 1972, our client posted a wanted ad with a $ 2000 reward,” continues Justin. “The story goes that he found the car in LA and it was rescued at gunpoint. Funnily enough, the first day we had it on the road, a customer stopped by and said he’d seen a car just like it in an LA tow yard in 1973. It had to be the same car!”
Sadly the Mini had been damaged during the theft, and two years later it was decided to ship it back across the pond, which is a fair journey from the west coast! Instructions to W& P were to repair the damage, modify the bodywork to suit US number plates, install a Becker radio and speakers, plus some extra sound deadening to muffle those twin split Webers. A third name joins the paperwork conversation in 1975 – EF Collins, W& P’s managing director and formerly of Radford.
As it happens, we managed to speak to Eddie Collins recently, and asked if he remembered the car from its last UK visit in 1975. “The name Dr DePersio I remember very well – the letters and correspondence,” says Eddie. “I don’t recall the car in great detail,
but looking at the pictures, the interior and headlamps – that was definitely one of ours. From being involved with a small trimming company, we were suddenly part of this fashion scene, meeting famous people of the time, but who didn’t mean a huge amount to us. I didn’t realise quite how astonishing it all was until later...”
Bac k for good
Returned to its former glory by W& P, the MiniSprint was back on a ship for the third time in three years. “It was then used for several years before going into storage in the late ‘ 70s,” adds Peter, the current owner. “Originally the car was fitted with a Downton engine but a new Longman 1380 was installed in 1977 – the same engine the car uses today.” And there to confirm it in the pristine selection of paperwork is a hand- written letter from Richard Longman himself, dated April 15 1977.
The MiniSprint then went off the radar for over 30 years, or at least as far as we know. It was laid up in storage soon after gaining the wider arches, in the next stage of body mods that were apparently never completed.
And this is when the two parts of the story begin to tie up. Peter originally lived in Manchester, but was persuaded to emigrate to California in 1980 to set- up a Britax sunroof shop. “It had always been a dream to own a MiniSprint,” he says, “as I used to race cars
“It had always been a dream to own a MiniSprint and I always wanted a W& P car...”
in the UK and was very familiar with Sprints. I also always wanted a W& P car and had even built my own replica with the signature front lights, but could never afford the real thing.” One thing led to another, and Peter’s business evolved into a British car specialist garage, just as BL pulled the plug on its official dealer network in the US. There was a huge market for British soft- top classics in California, so Peter’s company, British Sports Cars, went from strength to strength.
It also put him in touch with many local classic car owners, one of whom mentioned a MiniSprint that his boss had stored away in a warehouse. “We went down to buy another Cooper in Nevada,” says Peter’s son, Justin, “and in the paperwork we spotted a wanted ad from 1973 for the Sprint. It listed our client as the owner and contact for the stolen car.”
Peter had heard about the car for some 20 years, but until this point he’d doubted that it even existed. Once he knew it was still around, he had to persuade the doctor to sell his pride and joy, which would clearly be a tough task. Still, the car would be in capable hands at British Sports Cars, and four years ago, Peter finally managed to realise his dream and buy the MiniSprint.
“The car had been sitting in Los Angeles in storage since the late ‘ 70s,” continues Peter. “The body was in fantastic condition with no rust, but it needed a restoration.” The MiniSprint would be kept in Peter’s personal collection of classics, so the restoration had to make way for customer cars, and it inevitably took some time. But the bodywork was eventually repaired and sprayed in a new coat of shiny black to compliment the chromework. This was handled by Ken’s Body Shop, nearby in San Luis Obispo. There were a few difficulties with all the aging W& P electrical extras, but the car was finally finished and back on the road for August 2013.
Plans are now to use and enjoy the car regularly, and to visit a huge annual car show later this year in San Francisco, where it will really create a stir. A classic Mini of any description looks positively miniscule in the US, so this one is set to really stand out from the crowds. Peter admits that he prefers building and driving his cars, but we think it’ll be fantastic to show this one off to as many car fans as possible – that has to be a much better existence for this rare Mini than gathering dust in a warehouse.
“He regularly mentioned a MiniSprint that
his boss had stored in a warehouse...”
Peter’s son, Justin, from British Sports Cars in San Luis Opisbo, California.
Exotic magnesium Minilite wheels are super lightweight. The wide- arched bodykit was late-’ 70s California addition.
Citroën Ami 6 headlamps sit in squared- off front wings. Almost everything on this Cooper S was modified in the Sprint process.
Metal- blade cooling fan for the shortened radiator.
Twin split Weber carbs were top spec in the ‘ 70s.
Even the heater tap was relocated to suit the chop.
The rear chrome bumper bars were made locally in California, after a set sourced in the UK were rejected by W& P.
The rear seat back has been removed, with a fold- down hatch into the boot.
Twin fuel tanks were modified to suit the bodyshell’s lower profile. The rear lights are Altissimo units fitted by W& P in 1975, as on Innocenti Minis of the time.
Original Wood & Pickett plates on the door steps.
Recaro leather seats, Becker sound system, extra dials and an arm rest for this no- expense spared 1970’ s W& P coachbuilt interior.
Interior map light and the W& P dash.
Momo wheel replaces the original 1970s Nardi.