With room for four adults and some (small) luggage squeezed into dimensions of 3054mm x 1410mm, the original Mini is arguably one of the motoring world’s best-packaged ideas. But in an attempt to keep the sales marching in the UK, more luxury and an extended boot section were added to the mix with the arrival of the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet in 1961. And South Africa got the extension too, albeit eight years later and somewhat different in style. Stuart Grant looks into the unique-to-SA Mini Mk3.
Although maintaining the Mini wheelbase, the Riley and Wolseley versions were longer, with a finned rear boot added by Fisher & Ludlow to give a more contemporary three-box family sedan appearance. With vertical running chrome grilles and some tarting up inside the cabin, the pair were marketed as more luxurious offerings than the regular Mini and the idea of selling them in South Africa was bandied about in model-planning meetings at the Blackheath plant late in 1968. The reason for the eight-year delay was that the panel presses would not be made locally but would be imported when the UK production came to an end.
A three-stage plan was laid out, starting with an Elf model which would make use of the Riley rear section but stick with the front of the then current ‘round-nose’ Mini. At the heart of the matter would be the SA-built 998cc engine, and rubber cone suspension was used instead of the Hydrolastic set-up used overseas. Not only did these adaptations keep the cost down but they also aided in the vehicle meeting the stringent local content requirement.
The second stage was scheduled for early 1970. Again, the Riley rear would be used but this time tagged onto a Clubman front, and a first-generation 1098cc engine at the heart. This new nose was chosen as it would allow for a larger radiator – needed to help with cooling issues that engineers felt might hamper the 1098cc engine. Stage three (set for the last quarter of 1970) would be minor. There would be no aesthetic remodelling, only the addition of the new second-generation 1098cc lump manufactured at Blackheath.
With the plan outlined and given approval by BMC in Longbridge (UK) in November 1968, the manufacture could kick off so that the Elf could be launched locally in March 1969 to run alongside regular Minis on the showroom floors. Only it didn’t. It hit the floors in September ’69 and no mention of Elf was made, with the car being branded as the Mini Mk3 (or MKIII or Mk.3 or Mark III, depending on what literature you read). Elf was seemingly abandoned, with another manufacturer having already registered the name for a commercial truck.
The reason for the delay was probably that South African production relied on the Riley and Wolesley manufacture coming to an end in the UK and the panel presses being packed up and shipped down south. Added to this BMC South Africa was also going through changes, re-organising itself as Leykor and moving its manufacturing operation from Port Elizabeth, with the sub-contracted work being done by Motor Assemblies in Durban. The reshuffle also had Leykor rationalising its range with the result that the Morris and Wolseley brands were dropped from the list and Mini took centre stage.
These points, combined with the realisation that the Australian doors (external hinges with roll-down side windows and quarter vent) being used in SA Minis wouldn’t work in the booted offering, saw to it that the three-stage plan was somewhat revised. In the end, the Mini Mk3 made use of the English-sourced Riley rear, concealed hinge doors with one-piece roll-down windows and, although the Clubman ‘square-nose’ Mini was nearing readiness, the Mk2 Mini grille was given the all-clear. A 998cc power-unit was fitted and nothing came of the talk to go with the 1098cc.
Measuring 216mm longer than a regular Mini meant the addition of 36.3kg to the equation, but introducing an all-synchromesh four-speed gearbox, sealed cooling system, wider front brake linings, bigger bore rear brake cylinders and pressure relief valve to stop the back locking up put the Mk3 at the forefront of the Mini 1000 range and justified the price premium – to the marketing crew at least.
Car magazine were the first to test a Mk3 in September 1968. Only it wasn’t really a true Mk3. It was in fact a hastily cobbled-together prototype and launch car – given away by the fact that it sported the Australian doors. The test unit did however include the new four-speed synchro box with 1st and 2nd gear ratios adapted to give the car more lower-end pull, which despite the added weight meant that it came close to regular Mini 1000 acceleration figures: 0 to 40mph and 60mph at 9.0 and 23.6 seconds respectively, while the shorter Mini recorded 8.6 and 21.1. The brake mods worked too, with the testers claiming the feel to be similar to that of a boosted system, heat build-up to be minimal and fade non-existent. Also non-existent was the flow of air through the cockpit – just imagine if they had tested an actual production unit without quarter windows for ventilation!
Praise also came for the fact that suspension had reverted back to the rubber-cone set-up. This gave the ride that ‘firm and bouncy’ characteristic much loved by original Mini fans and removed the pitching trait that the smoother-riding Hydrolastic cars had introduced. The Mini felt alive again and fears of the extra length in the rear causing the back end to pendulum out of control when lifting off the loud pedal mid-corner were quickly allayed; claiming the extra weight seemed to aid rear-wheel adhesion.
All in all, the Mk3 received some rave reviews and, to the media at least, made the selection of Minis on offer near perfect. Sure, you couldn’t tow a caravan but there was the option of the entry-level 1000, the station wagon, bakkie, panel van, locally developed 1000 S performance offering and now a real family sedan Mk3 (although I doubt the golf bag shown in the adverts actually fits in the boot).
But sadly the buyers were not convinced, and with the fresh styling of the new Clubman winning favour Mk3 sales were a little lacklustre. Just 3 871 units sold over the two-year span and in December the Mk3 was given the boot.
1969 1970 1971 1972
MINI MK3 R1 398 R1 475 R1 620 R1 620
MINI 1000 R1 296 R1 296 R1 450 R1 648
MINI 1000 S R1 593 R1 599 R1 740 -
MINI CLUBMAN 1100 - - R1 675 R1 795
MINI CLUBMAN 1275GT - - R1 995 R2 098
MK3 TO THE MAXI
The pictured Mini Mk3 is no show pony and owner Eric Ackroyd must be a hot contender for holder of the ‘Taking a Mini to the maximum’ title. He restored his 1969 version between 1987 and 1990 and used it for regular running around and classic events. Nothing unusual here…
But then in 2008 the idea of taking part in the African Odyssey cropped up and the lunacy began. The African Odyssey is an adventure tour for classic cars, organised and led by Roger Pearce, which on this occasion started in Johannesburg and went via Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya to reach the equator – that’s approximately 6 000 kilometres.
Preparation for the event saw the front and rear suspension rebuilt, cones, bushes and shocks were replaced and adjustable lower suspension arms were fitted. A 13kg, 5mm steel skid plate was fitted but the original 10-inch wheels were kept so as not to compromise originality. Repatriation insurance consisted of a custom-built 16kg collapsible A-frame which bolted onto reinforced front tow hooks.
With the power of positive thought and the mantra ‘Never underestimate a Mini’, Ackroyd and the Mk3 set off, eventually meeting up with fellow Mini owners at the Schweppes Africa Classic Car Concours in Nairobi 15 days later. From there it was on to the equator and the end of the African Odyssey. Of course, a quick six-day, 5 000km trek home followed. The Mk3 and Eric managed 800km a day – including four border crossings, illegal arrest, corruption, potholes, loose wires and a violent mob – and reached Johannesburg 23 days after departing.
Enough of a Mini adventure? No! In May 2013 the pair, accompanied by wife Celeste and four-year-old son Daniel, decided to attend the annual Pietermaritzburg Cars in the Park. Naturally the N3 wasn’t a logical option, and neither was the old single-carriage road. Instead, in homage to the original Roof of Africa, a route through Lesotho was chosen. The route presented snow-topped mountains and spectacular views, as well as Tlaeeng Pass (highest road pass in Southern Africa at 3 275m) and Thabana Ntlenyana (highest mountain in Southern Africa at 3 482m). It also meant doing Black Mountain Pass in the snow and descending a wet and muddy Sani Pass; it was a wise move to bring back-up in the form of Scott Rainer, who left the Landy at home and brought his own Mini, of course.
A few mechanical issues and some nerve-wracking driving experiences later, the mighty Minis rolled into Maritzburg sporting a suit of mud and the odd battle scar.