The reimagined Mini: Driving the 1970s Innocenti
23 December 2019 - autocar
Innocenti pulled off its own Italian job with a reworking of the Issigonis icon. We celebrate the Mini’s 60th by tracking one down
Happy birthday, Mini. How could I possibly celebrate? I did toy with the idea of driving my Mini Cooper to Izmir, now in Turkey and the birthplace of Sir Alec Issigonis.
Alternatively I could hack out another Mini book and cash in on the anniversary. I really fancied the idea of buying an original Mini and not being charged extortionate 'classic' car tax, as it's an expensive business.
If I was going to get another Mini it would have to be different from my Cooper. A Moke would be fun but not cheap, but I could make a business case for any commercial. Otherwise, real-world money buys a dreary '90s Mayfair. So I would have to look further afield for a Mini I don't actually need.
Once the idea of buying a Mini, and specifically a different Mini, was inside my head, the search was on for an Innocenti. Here was a Mini that didn't actually look like a Mini. This was December last year and none was for sale in the UK. There didn't appear to be any in Europe, either – well, not the pure early example I had in mind. The later Daihatsu ones and turbos were around, but by then it wasn't exactly a Mini. Then I spied a bright red example on autobelle.it.
I was barely a couple of minutes into looking for an Italian Mini and already I was sending a message asking for more details. Yes, that escalated quickly. From the pictures – and the seller emailed dozens – it looked very straight and rather perky. Plus there was some supporting documentation that suggested the car was exactly as described: a 1977 Innocenti Mini 90 SL. The money being asked was roughly mid-'70s rusty Mini City, if you're lucky. I did feel lucky. I also had to put a lot of trust in Google Translate.
I asked about 'ruggine' – that's Italian for 'rust', if you haven't guessed. I established the seller wasn't a dealer, just an enthusiast who needed the space. I think. The car lived in Bologna and, tempted as I was to buy unseen and get it helicoptered home, the reality was that I had a wonderful excuse for a trip to Italy, and I was rather keen to drive it back.
We exchanged emails over Christmas and in my head I was planning the return leg over the Alps and through France. Should I sleep in the back? Take camping gear? It will be January, but I'd wear thermals. Lots of thermals.
Then the owner admitted that the tyres weren't all that, so best not to drive it back. I asked if there was a nearby tyre fitter. He was evasive (later I discovered I would have probably died in the Alps due to the dodgy brakes and ancient rubber).
On a wet Friday at the end of January, Ryanair took myself and Mrs Ruppert (she's my designated minder) to the northern Italian city of Bologna. We checked into Il Canale hotel, which was as quirky and attention-seeking as the Innocenti Mini. The place was packed full of absolutely fantastic tat, like a carefully controlled explosion in a hipster shop: an old push bike, stuffed animals and loads of empty but colourful biscuit tins.
The next day we went to a bleak, industrial part of the city, with car dealers, random commercial units and what turned out to be a smallish underground garage in which the Innocenti resided.
The car was driven out into the daylight and it seemed straight enough. It certainly started without much bother, although a blowing exhaust made it sound a teeny bit rough. At some point it had been indifferently resprayed, but it was still on a par with how most Leyland products left the booth in the 1970s. There were no major dents, just some less-than-brilliant panel gaps, but again, it was all very '70s. Under the bonnet it was stupendously clean, though, and the togetherness of the upholstery was quite a shock.
It was too damp to get right underneath the car. The sills seemed a bit crumbly and there was a colossal amount of black underseal of a certain vintage. Some work would be needed, not least on the basis that it's from the '70s and I have never seen any car, let alone a Mini, without some degree of ruggine or other. We drove down the road and around the industrial estate. It was bouncy and noisy and I reckoned it needed things doing. Mostly, though, it worked. The hard-to-get parts and bodywork all seemed intact, and the oily bits are all easily obtainable A-Series components and as cheap as chips.
This Innocenti would make one hell of a 60th birthday present, so I bought it. But was I going to drive it home? Er, no. I booked a trailer.
Exporting from Italy
You need the Italian registration papers, a declaration of sale (signed at the local ACI office), Italy's MOT equivalent and UK insurance (use the chassis number). Cool Italian number plates belong to the seller: you need their permission to drive off with them and they must trust you to post them back once you're home – or you hang around for days for export plates. In the UK you have 14 days to notify HMRC via its online NOVA service. No import tax on EU cars over six months old. Get an MOT and complete the V55/5 form to register, which costs £55.
The Mini 90 and 120, styled by Bertone and introduced in 1974, were the first official hatchback-based Minis, and they preceded the Metro by six years. They were among the first superminis.
Underneath was standard Mini A-Series running gear (998cc and 49bhp in the 90, a 65bhp 1275cc in the 120), yet it was only marginally larger than the old car, being just 2.6in longer and 3.5in wider. Leyland Innocenti went bust in 1975 and De Tomaso took a controlling interest in 1976. In 1982 its Mini 3 had Daihatsu power and the British connection ended.
by James Ruppert