My automotive interests gravitate towards metal stamped “made in France,” “made in Italy,” or “made in Germany.” Most of the 12 or so classic cars and mopeds in my fleet fall into one of those categories, and my daily driver — a 60-horsepower, turbodiesel-powered 2007 Renault Kangoo panel van — does, too. I’ve driven and worked on classic Minis in the past, but I never seriously considered buying one until I spotted this forlorn-looking 1972 Morris 850 in the corner of a warehouse in Marseilles, France, in January of 2018.
I hadn’t ventured into the heart of Marseilles (a trip I usually avoid making) in search of a 46-year old British economy car; I only needed a flat-twin engine for my Citroën 2CV. The seller was emptying out his elderly uncle’s shop and he just happened to have both — and much, much more. Its story fascinated me.
It was parked in the warehouse that doubled as a shop in 1980 because its then-owner dropped it off for various repairs and never picked it up. It might have moved around the warehouse over the years, but it had certainly never left it. It was complete, though everything mechanical needed to be replaced, and significantly it was 100% rust free.
I couldn’t let it rot there; even my wife liked it. Several weeks later, I rented a Ford Transit flatbed and somehow maneuvered it around the swarms of unruly scooters buzzing through the narrow, winding streets of Marseilles without embedding one into the truck’s giant grille. The Mini had no key, and the steering wheel was turned and locked, so loading it onto the Transit took ages. I didn’t even have the time to wash it before dropping it off in my storage unit (about 40 minutes away) and returning the flatbed. Come to think of it, I still haven’t washed it. It doesn’t help that the unit has no running water and no electricity.
After buying an ignition switch, I purchased the parts needed to overhaul the entire braking system and started digging in. My goal is to keep it as original as possible; I have zero desire to turn it into a Cooper replica, or into a pseudo race car. I’m keeping the 848cc engine, the four drums, and the 10-inch steelies.
The Mini was unquestionably in rough shape but it nonetheless found ways to surprise me. The tires still held air, for example. The engine wasn’t seized, but its compression was low so I recently drove up to the Lyon area to buy an identical one pulled from a running car with terminal rust. I’ll drop it in after changing the worn-out clutch (remember: the transmission and the engine are one unit in a classic Mini).
It has never been welded, but it won’t stay that way for long. The passenger-side fender and A-panel both took a hit while it was in storage so they need to be replaced. The Mini has welded-on fenders, so I’ll have to cut it out and weld a new one back on. Matching the paint — which isn’t original — won’t be easy, and I may end up repainting the whole thing. Those are the last items on my to-do list, though. I’ll get it running, driving, inspected, and registered before I do any body work to it.
Deadlines are meant to be broken, aren’t they? In 2018, I optimistically figured I’d have the Mini back on the road within a year. It seemed feasible until I moved an hour and a half away from the storage unit I keep it in. Working on it suddenly became a much more complicated endeavor than it used to be. As I’m gathering parts left and right, and allocating my time and money to other two- and four-wheeled projects, I’m keeping an eye on the classifieds to find a trailer.
The Mini’s next move will be to yet another garage — the one its future engine is already in.