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The Mini – success on and off the track

Practical, affordable and fun for at least three generations of buyers, Minis will always have a

place in Kiwis’ hearts


Out of the five million worldwide units produced, New Zealand scored 60,000 Minis. It proved to be a successful model, and just like in its country of origin, it was a popular weapon on the track.The Mini arrived in New Zealand just three months after it was launched in the United Kingdom in late 1959 where it proved an immediate hit — but buying the hot one was not easy here.


At the time, New Zealand law required purchasers of completely imported cars to hold a bank account in another country, which meant the sporty John Cooper fettled Mini was a rare sight. The privileged few, such as overseas funds earning farmers, preferred bigger cars such as Jags, so it’s likely most Mini Coopers went to ex-patriot Englishmen.


However regular New Zealanders could more easily buy the regular Minis produced in New Zealand in kit form in Auckland, Wellington and Nelson, with 58,768 being manufactured at these plants between 1960 and 1976. Australian K (standing for kangaroo) versions, featuring an upgraded interior among other options, were priced at a premium and were either imported or manufactured locally in limited numbers.


The Mini proved successful in rallying as it won the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967, while it crossed the line 1-2-3 in 1966 it was disqualified for a headlight infraction. This was thought to be contrived by the French to prevent another Mini clean sweep.


The likes of rallying legends Timo Mäkinen, Paddy Hopkirk, Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Fall led the way to a Mini domination of the era, though the World Rally Championship was still 10 years away.


This was matched on the circuit racing scene as Warwick Banks won the 1964 European Touring Car Championship, while John Rhodes and John Handley took class victories in 1968.


Spanning a long history in motor racing and an even more illustrious 40-year span as a road model, the Mini’s longevity ensured it started many racing careers. In fact, New Zealand racing legend Jim Richards began his career in a Mini bought by his parents, fielding it in a quarter-mile sprint at Tamahere before swapping it for a Ford Anglia 105E.

Bruce McLaren through his link of the Cooper Formula 1 team became one of the first to race a Mini Cooper in his native country at the New Zealand Grand Prix in January 1962 held at the Ardmore Circuit.


McLaren’s Mini featured racing tyres, polished cylinder heads, larger carburettors, a balanced crankshaft, larger exhaust and fibreglass front bucket seats. Clocked at an impressive 102mph, McLaren scored second in a scratch race, but won the next week at Levin where he defeated a more powerful Jaguar and a modified Austin A40.

Protested out of results at Teretonga, McLaren raced a different Mini for the Australian distributor where he put on quite the show at the 1962 Australian Grand Prix meet at Caversham in Perth. He won both the Grand Prix in his regular Cooper Climax and a 20-lap race event in the Mini.


The next summer, McLaren imported another Mini Cooper, which proved very successful, including a popular victory at Levin when he came from third to win on the last lap.

It was later revealed by Cooper himself that the original idea to modify the Mini emerged from McLaren and Jack Brabham.


Continuing its success in New Zealand, Jim Mullins took a Mini Cooper 1293S to success in the 1965/66 National Group 2 Saloon Car Championship as with Lin Neilson he won the Three Hour Challenge at Pukekohe.


Australian Brian Foley’s race was spectacular but he just failed to defeat Frank Bryan’s Ford Mustang at the New Zealand Grand Prix meeting in 1966.

Another well-known Mini champion, Rodger Anderson, demonstrated the Mini’s versatility by not only winning the 1968 National Saloon Car Championship but contesting rallies, trials and hillclimbs as well.


Others to win titles were Rod Collingwood and Reg Cook, who were joined by the likes of Alan Boyle, Barry Phillips, Graham Watson, Peter Harris, Peter Sharp, David Strong and Rex Hart.


Across the ditch, international rallying star Aaltonen joined Bob Holden to win the Gallaher 500 at Mount Panorama as the Mini dominated the results finishing in the top nine positions, before the advent of the muscle car.


Foley, Peter Manton, John French, John Harvey, and more spectacularly hurled the Mini around Australia’s top circuits in the touring car competition.

The Mini is still used today as a racing platform in New Zealand featuring only one major rule change since its establishment in the 1970s, with the 1000cc engine being introduced in 1996.


After ownership changes, the Mini brand was purchased by BMW in 2001 and six years later a one-make series was launched in Australia as well as New Zealand, but was stopped more than a decade ago.


Mini’s sustained success in the showroom and the racetrack continues to this day, while its role in The Italian Job cemented its place in cultural history.