ERA in Miniature
Taken from Sports Car International - January 1990.
The BMC Mini has survived corporate death threats, the advance of technology, and three complete decades of production. One of the most durable icons of the post-war automotive world, the Mini has also been a favorite among tuners, John Cooper perhaps being the most famous; Jesse Cross drove the latest hopped-up Mini, ERA’s Turbo.
An anniversary Mini 30 served as the yardstick.
Do you recall racing photos from the sixties showing shoebox-sized Mini-Coopers competing shoulder-to-shoulder with all the big engined sports cars of the era? Or reading of Paddy Hopkirk's miraculous Monte Carlo performance in 1964? Or remember the first time you saw a Mini squealing around a tight corner, its suspension fully extended, its inside rear wheel just lifting off the ground?
Although gone from America for many years, the Mini has survived in Europe and England, looking much as it did 30 years ago on the day of its birth. And, 30 years later, small tuning firms are still building giant-killer Minis. One of the latest comes from ERA of Dunstable, just north of London, which is building a limited edition of 1000 Mini Turbos. We drove one back-to-back with a Mini 30, the Rover Group's own tribute to the Mini's thirtieth anniversary which, though equipped only with the standard 1.0 liter four cylinder engine, provided a good yardstick by which to judge the chunky ERA projectile.
ERA is a company many enthusiasts will recognize as the racing car constructor which was in business between 1934 and 1953. Where ERA once stood for English Racing Automobiles, it now means Engineering Research and Application. They haven't built a racer for 36 years, but did decide last year to produce this Mini Turbo.
It is powered by the turbocharged, 1275 cc A-Series engine from the Metro Turbo, the Rover Group's contemporary mini-car, with just a little modification to the engine management system to raise the power slightly. The entire engine/transmission unit is taken from the Metro Turbo, in fact. It fits easily enough because the design (without turbocharger) was lifted from the Mini in the first place.
It's an all cast iron, four cylinder engine sitting atop an alloy gearbox casing with alloy end cases. The A-Series is mounted "east to west" in the Mini so the carburetor and exhaust system are at the back. Original prototypes had "west to east" installations, but the forward-mounted carburetors would ice up during cold winter weather.
Such an arrangement made fitting the Garrett AiResearch T3 turbo unit a bit tricky. But fit it does, delivering a non-intercooled 8psi of boost at 6000 rpm blowing through an HIF 44 SU carburetor. The ERA Turbo develops 94 bhp, one horsepower more than the Metro Turbo. Torque is up to 87 lbs.ft at 3600 rpm from 85 lbs.ft at 2650 rpm. The Mini Turbo can live with the torque peak at much higher revs for one very good reason. At 1624 pounds, it weighs 251 pounds less than the Metro.
As you might expect, the Mini is much quicker. The Metro will reach 60 mph in 10.4 seconds, and that's fairly unspectacular in modern small-car terms. The ERA Mini romps home in just 7.8 seconds, which would put an American-market Honda CRX nearly half a second behind. A Shelby CSX would only be two-tenths of a second ahead. The Mini can move, and quickly.
The basic Mini 30 is not in that class, nor is it intended to be. With only 48 bhp on tap, together with 50 lbs. ft. of torque from its 998 cc engine, performance is modest indeed; It might surprise you to learn, therefore, that the modifications made to the ERA Mini's chassis are fairly undramatic. The ride height is standard, though the wheel arches have been opened to accommodate 6.0 x 13.0 inch alloy wheels (one inch bigger diameter than standard), and all the rubber spring cones remain standard, too. The front lower suspension arms are longer, to create more negative camber, and the brakes are lifted from the Metro Turbo parts bin; ventilated front discs with four-pot calipers. There are drums on the rear, and the whole lot is servo-assisted with a split, dual hydraulic circuit.
The transmission remains exactly the same as the Metro Turbo's, with four speeds only and a final drive ratio of 3.21:1. In top gear that gives 18.9 mph for every 1000 rpm, which adds up to a comfortable 3700 rpm at 70 mph.
The body kit for the ERA Mini, which is arguably heavy in appearance, leaves you in little doubt about the car's purpose and, at least, properly covers the big tires. They are 165/60HR-13 Dunlop SP Sports and are much bigger than those of the little Mini 30, which rolls down the road on 145/70SR12 Pirelli Cinturatos.
Inside, the ERA Mini is luxurious. There is now a full width, leather trimmed dash instead of a tray and rudimentary instrument binnacle. The seats are custom made, there's a fancy leather steering wheel and center console, and lots of auxiliary dials to bring out the boy racer in you. Work on the interior is much more subtle than the array of instruments would at first suggest.
In the Mini 30, the steering wheel is offset and the column stands nearly vertical, forcing a rather truck-like driving position. The ERA Mini benefits from an extra column mounting bracket (a favorite modification of Mini tuners) to lower the wheel a few inches towards the legs. Offset of the column is accommodated by the simple expedient of mounting the seats slightly more inboard. It makes little difference visually but the ergonomic improvement is instantly detectable. Not only does one no longer feel like the driver of a microscopic bus, but the instruments are far more visible than the primary dials in the Mini 30, which are in great part blocked by the steering wheel. The ERA's seats themselves are tremendously supportive, and much more comfortable than the specially trimmed ones of the anniversary Mini 30.
In action, the Mini has some specific traits. Its nose-heavy, front-wheel drive design means it understeers when pushed hard into turns, and the rear wheels are mounted on their trailing arms with a significant amount of toe-in to increase that characteristic still further, producing a very stable and safe car.
Stable as the Mini may be, and though there's a pressure regulator in the braking system to prevent rear-wheel lock-up, entering a corner fast and easing firmly on the brakes will push the tail out. This is a favorite technique of racing Mini drivers to control the car's attitude in a four-wheel drift. The ERA Mini Turbo is more resistant to such trickery than the standard car, mainly due to its wide tires. The modified front suspension geometry helps, and the engine/transmission unit is restrained better as well: there are four stabilizer bars instead of two. The engine starts to pull strongly at around 2500 rpm and will withstand 7000 rpm, though using much more than 6000 becomes uncomfortable. There's plenty of flexibility and very little turbo lag. Cruising in a high gear is simple and relaxed, the turbo endowing the little car with big car characteristics.
Shifting is light and positive, the gears being found with relative ease and quickness. No Mini gearshift is lightning-fast, but when you remember that the transmission shares the engine oil, it's surprising how good it is.
Torque steer is not overwhelming. ERA's development engineers went to some trouble with that front geometry and the adjustable shock rates (they even used computers),but the hard work has paid off. Steering is moderately heavy, and perhaps just a little dead feeling as a result, but still good enough to please.
Turn into a corner at speed with the power on and the understeer begins building immediately. But initial response is instant on all Minis, and even standard versions handle like sports cars. Under hard acceleration, the ERA hunts just a little, because of the big tires, and the steering wheel might tug at you, this way and that, but generally the modifications cause virtually no upset.
The ERA Mini is very good indeed. Built from a bare shell, it is certainly one of the best Minis ever made and frankly, one wonders why Austin Rover didn't do it themselves. They must have thought of it. And while the Mini 30 costs $8846 in England, including taxes, ERA's version costs nearly $18,000. Quite an increase, but then it's quite a lot of car for the price.
And the U.S. market? Well, the basic Mini's design (exterior welded seams particularly) means that it is just barely legal in England, and there are a number of waivers in the government's homologation specs because the car is so well established. The only way to legally import one into the U.S. would be as a kit car, though ERA has no specific plans to accommodate that.
There are plenty of Minis in the U.S. already, though. That much was demonstrated when many American owners turned up at the thirtieth anniversary meeting at Silverstone race circuit in August, complete with their cars. Austin Rover organized the event, and on that weekend the roads of Britain were thick with Minis of all shapes and sizes heading for Northamptonshire.
Seventy-five thousand people were expected, but in the end 25,000 Minis arrived together with somewhere in the region of 120,000 people. Never before have so many examples of one make ever been gathered in one place, and it's unlikely that they ever will again. It's the very least that the little car deserves.