Taken from Performance Car - September 1989
The Mini is 30 years old this month but it is not about to start acting its age, As John Simister finds out with these exuberant hot Minis:- BAC M30, ERA Turbo and MiniSX
Hot Minis, everywhere. That's how it used to be; Coopers, Downtons, Broadspeeds, Osellis, Mangoletsis and countless others, never mind the Mini demons that blasted out of BL's own Special Tuning Department. They shaped the performance-consciousness of the baby-boomer generation. But that generation has since moved on to more sophisticated things, to GTis, and XRs. Where are the hot Minis now?
Three of them are here, reincarnated to haunt and humble once again the egos of those in bigger, fatter machinery. And they're hotter than any Cooper S ever was this side of civilisation. The Mini concept, its brilliance untarnished, is perhaps less relevant to the needs of mainstream motorists than once it was, but the idea of endowing the tiny box with crazy power has lost none of its mischievous appeal. After all, it's always fun to see faces with a bit of egg splashed on them.
Two of our trio have been created to mark the Mini's 30th birthday, to be celebrated on 26 August. One, the BAC M-30 with a Sprintex supercharger and lashings of luxury, is the first of a limited run of 30 cars, each bearing a £30,000 price tag. The costliest Mini ever? It's hard to dispute; my first house cost less. The other anniversary special is the ERA Mini Turbo - a snip at £11,950 through selected Austin Rover dealers.
Our third Mini represents a third tuning approach. It shuns forced induction in favour of bigger cylinders, with an engine bored out to 1400cc. Created two years ago by Peter Waller of the now-defunct Sussex Performance Engineering, and much enthused over at the time in the motoring press, the Mini SX epitomises conventional tuning technology - and adds to the entertainment by looking completely standard. Even those Minilite-lookalike wheels, fitted by Waller when he built the car, are just as now used on Austin Rover's own limited-edition Mini 30. Waller has moved on to other things since closing SPE, so you can no longer buy a copy of D951 WRP, but he's kept the car. He can't bear to part with it.
All told, just 35 big-bore Minis left SPE, including a Mini 25 (the last birthday celebration car) with 115 bhp instead of the regular 100. Its 60-year-old owner terrorises the roads of Norfolk in it. But Mini Turbos will be far more prolific: ERA plan to sell 1000 of them over the next couple of years, so we can look forward to some more widespread ego-battering.
Indeed, the Mini Turbo is considerably more than an anniversary special. It's a thoroughly-developed, type-approved production car, created at the Dunstable factory of Engineering Research and Application. If you recognise the ERA initials, but equate them with rapid racing cars of a few decades ago, you're perfectly correct. The former English Racing Automobiles company were given their present title in 1954, and since then have specialised in development work on engines, fuel systems and transmissions for many major manufacturers.
One of ERA's more recent projects was to hone Austin Rover's M16 engine, so the link with British Aerospace's c division was already in place when the Mini Turbo was conceived. Yet the Turbo, known in-house as the ERA M-type is the first complete car to bear the ERA badge for 35 years
Put simply, it's a Mini with a Metro Turbo engine, a plush interior, fat wheels and a bodykit which makes the car look though it's sinking in a tank of concrete. But there really is a lot more to it than that.
That Tonka-toy styling is the work of Dennis Adams, who stylistic successes include the Marcos Mantula and whose failures include the Marcos Mantis. It adds to the tiny cars toy-like aura, but it also ensures that the 165/60HR13 Goodyear NCTs, and the 6Jx 13 five-spoke Track Star wheels within, are properly shrouded. And do you recognise that grille? It's the one that used to grace Italian-built Innocenti Mini-Coopers.
The left hand air vent in the front spoiler leads, via ERA's own design of filter, to the Garrett T3 turbocharger that is part el of the Metro Turbo's 1275cc A-Plus engine. Thanks to modifications to its electronic control unit, the turbo is allowed to liberate more boost than in the Metro - up to 0.48bar at 6000rpm, but tailored back at lower engine speeds to keep combustion pressures below the detonation threshold.
There's no intercooler - it's hard to imagine just where you could fit one in a Mini's engine bay - so the compressed air is blown directly into the SU HIF 44 carburettor and thence into the venerable , but still voluble, motor. Its job done, it makes its exit, along with all the products of combustion, through a large bore exhaust system.
Compared with the Metro application, maximum power goes up by 1bhp to 94bhp at the same 6300rpm, while torque climbs, to 87lb ft at 3600rpm instead of the Metro's 85bhp at 2650rpm.This massaging of output, plus a kerb weight that's 1681b less than a Metro Turbo's, promises poke a-plenty; ERA claim 8.8 seconds for the 0-60mph dash, and a maximum speed in the region of 110mph. It's hardly surprising, then, that the suspension and braking have been looked at very carefully.
Indeed, where Sir Alec Issigonis's sketches once sufficed, we find fine-tuning by computer simulation. What the computer suggested was 1.5 degrees of negative camber and a shade more toe-out for the front wheels, plus a lowered ride height, and a rear anti-roll bar. Then, to minimise bump steer with the new;longerer, front suspension bottom arms, the steering rack gained longer, slightly-cranked track rod ends. High-capacity, adjustable dampers (Koni on our car, Spax on some of ERA's other Mini Turbos), plus the ventilated front discs and four-pot calipers from the Metro, complete the mechanical changes.
The body, which starts off as that of a partly-built Mini City, undergoes more than just the fitting of glassfibre addenda. A hole is cut in the bulkhead to accommodate the turbocharger (fear not, new metal is let in behind it), and the bonnet gains an air scoop to help blow away the extra heat. And, inside, the Mini Turbo is a revelation.
Gone is the bleak expanse of shelf that is a normal Mini's dash. In its place is a full-width padded facia, with a binnacle for the VDO speedo and tacho in front of the driver, and two rows of three smaller instruments in the centre. Beneath the standard switch panel, with its pull-out-for-off heater temperature control (the symbol is of a fire in a grate), is a console which includes a rather tacky digital clock, the three auxiliary switches that normally threaten your right knee, and a Philips stereo.
The gear lever and chunky-grip handbrake are shrouded in grey leather gaiters, the three-spoke steering wheel is leather covered, and the same goes for the side panels of the mainly tweed seats. These, designed by ERA and seemingly half as big again as the normal items, are positioned to take advantage of the lowered steering column. Here is a Mini with a driving position verging on the normal, instead of mimicking that of those large, chauffeur-driven red Daimlers you see in city centres. There's extra sound-proofing, too, and a glass sunroof.
It's almost Wood and Pickett all over again... but then you haven't seen the BAC M-30.
Now this isn't the BAC that got swallowed up into British Aerospace; nor, therefore, is it British Aerospace doing that for which its car division used to be famous: dragging up an old marque name to maximise the nostalgia factor. (Thinks: the BAC One-Eleven was announced just as Minis were getting really fashionable, so perhaps Austin Rover have missed out here.) No, this BAC actually stands for the grandly-named British Automobile Company of North Perrott in Somerset, run by Simon Saunders of Kat Design fame.
A Cat Mini is one thing (and now available, too, to help the old A-series to a cleanliness of exhaust that Austin Rover never expected to have to offer), but a Kat Mini is quite another. Not surprisingly, the M-30 sports Kat Design visuals: these take the form of a deep front air dam which covers most of the grille area, side skirts and arch extensions which blend more easily into the Mini shape than the ERA items, and a deep rear air dam.
Saunders points out that 30th anniversaries are celebrated with pearls, which is why the M-30 sparkles in about 500 coats of pearlescent paint. This is carried through to the handles, the mirrors and the light bezels; there's no brightwork, apart from the hallmarked, numbered, solid silver M-30 badge on the boot. Compomotive wheels, shod with cute little Yokohama A008 asymmetric-tread tyres of 175/50VRI3 dimensions, complete the visual message - those, and meticulous attention to detail which ensures that every panel gap is straight, every seam is even, every spotweld depression is filled.
Open the door, and you see the fate of six cows and at least half an elm tree. The leather comes from Bridge of Weir, who have also upholstered the Houses of Parliament (as well as numerous Rolls-Royces and Aston Martins). It covers the two huge, heated Recaro seats with their electric tilt and backrest adjustment, the centre console and tunnel, the rear seat, the roof pillars, the roof lining - everything, in fact, where red carpet (with edges bound in contrasting cream) or polished wood haven't staked a prior territorial claim.
That burr elm is found in the door and rear quarter-panel cappings, plus the full-width facia panel, with its battery of VDO gauges (again), rows of Jaguar-like rocker switches and another silver M-30 emblem. And - three cheers - an analogue clock. Fronting the facia is a bizarre, single-spoke Ital Volante steering wheel, whose mounting angle on the steering column is adjustable, providing you're strong enough to undo the knurled nut. Unfortunately, the column itself is in the standard PSV position, so the steering wheel is far too high and you can see neither the bottom half of the major instruments nor half of the warning lights. This will be remedied on future M-30s. Naturally, the tinted glass includes electric door windows which close automatically if the remote central locking alarm system is fired, and the door mirrors are electrically adjustable.
Impressed? We haven't finished yet. This is a £30,000 Mini, remember. When the late Sir Alec designed the Mini, he intended the space beneath the rear seat for specially-shaped storage baskets which never made it to the options list. So, what better place to put a CD changer with slots for six discs? This, the world's smallest, is by Alpine; and for those who know about these things, it feeds its signals to a 5953 control unit and thence to a 7385 radio cassette with RDS. Three amplifiers (the bass amp is in the fully carpeted boot), and six speakers, with two 6560 two-way passive dividing networks to share the signals between them, complete the system. Here is a Mini with a new role: a sound pressure testing chamber. Let's hope they've seam-welded the body.
Oh yes, there's a car phone. Made by Nokia-Mobira, this is another world smallest. It sits on the leather-covered box that conceals the base of the handbrake, mutes the stereo when a call is in progress, has hands-free operation and can even be used in conjunction with a fax machine. The city businessperson never had it so good. After all, what other mobile fax bureau would you be able to park in a space just over ten feet long?
The bonnet release is still outside; they've slippe up here - ERA put theirs inside. Under the bonnet is an MG Metro 1275cc engine, with the finned-aluminium body of the tiny Sprintex supercharger nestling between the matching finned rocker cover (the same as ERA's) and the bulkhead. On one end of the Sprintex is the ubiquitous SU HIF 44 carburettor, with a tiny conical air filter; on the other is a pulley driven by a poly-vee belt from the crankshaft.
The Sprintex, a screw compressor superchargerwith two rotors, can supply up to 0.69bar of boost and suffer no lag at all. It offers a tempting solution to the performance problem, the more so as it promises a torque curve which is all but flat. To cope with the extra loads, the engine is balanced; strengthened and the compression ratio is lowered. Spent gases emerge through a stainless steel manifold and free-flowing exhaust system, and an uprated clutch and an oil cooler help keep it all functioning happily.
Power is claimed to be 115bhp; cynics would argue that the M-30 needs all of that just to shift the weight of its chattels. Nevertheless, BAC reckon on a top speed of 115mph. Adjustable suspension heights and damper settings help the M-30 to use its power with a modicum of decorum.
After the joyful overkill of the M-30, it's almost a relief to sit in the sanity of the Mini SX. Think of it as waking up in your suburban semi after a long night at Stringfellow's. Mountney wheel on lowered column, Cobra high-back seats and that's
about it; the rest is 1987 Mayfair, pure and simple. Outside, too, apart from those Mistral wheels which even retain the standard 145/70SR12 tyres (Pirelli Cinturato CN54s-remember them?), it's Mini as usual. Only the observant would spot that the suspension is lowered by an inch, and has Spax dampers at the front.
Looking under the bonnet won't give many more clues, either. Apart from an oil cooler, the engine looks like the motive force behind any 1-litre shopping trolley. Until, that is, you notice the HIF 44 carburettor, beloved of larger A-series units, and the LCB (long centre branch) exhaust manifold which feeds into a large-bore RC40 exhaust system.
Why no twin carburettors, as found in the Coopers? The clues lie in the parts you can't see. The bored-out block - which, with its balanced and tuftrided 1275 crankshaft, gives exactly 1400cc - uses Omega racing pistons, with crown depressions to optimise the combustion chamber shape. The chambers themselves are polished and have larger valves, serviced by enlarged and polished ports, and actuated by one of the more adventurous camshafts in Kent Cams' 1987 catalogue.
This camshaft has little overlap but lots of lift. It's a good recipe for strong low - down pulling power, but to make the most of it, and gain a reasonable tickover, you need the high gas speeds that a single carburettor encourages. Add a duplex timing chain, a distributer with an advance curve to suit the camshaft, and a cleanable K&N filter in the standard air box, and you have 100bhp-plus heart of a very quick Mini.
As quick as a Mini Turbo? Or a Mini M-30 perhaps? Fold yourself into any of them, and find out. All three, you instantly, discover, would leave a Cooper S for dead. By Mini standards they each show spectacular pace, a pace to faze completely the drivers of other cars who have forgotten just what a hot Mini can do. By the time they've remembered, you're gone – gone.in a car that is twice as accelerative as the regular Mini l000.
And as you scuttle through lanes, aiming confidently for the tiniest gap and wondering why today's hot hatches suddenly feel like puddings, you discover something to widen your grin even further. Simple turns out to be best. Complicated development work surrounding forced induction wasn't really needed.
The fact is that, on the road, the big-bore, Clark Kent SX is all but uncatchable. Look at the performance figures and you'll see why. In outright acceleration, the SX and the M-30 are practically identical, the M-30's extra power offset by its greater weight. The SX hits 60mph in 8.4 seconds, and 90mph in 21.0; for the M-30 the times are 8.5 and 20.8. Meanwhile, the Turbo (with 94bhp instead of over 100) trails slightly with times of 9.0 and 22.4 seconds.
But the fourth gear figures give a clue to the inside story. Below 60mph, the SX pulls with greater gusto than the M-30, which only comes into its own above that speed. The Turbo steers a middle course, outgunning the M-30 at low speeds and the SX as the pace goes up. However, it's more complicated than that. And throttle response is the key.
That of the Mini Turbo is soft and, at low engine speeds, there's some lag - more, subjectively, than you'd find in a Metro Turbo. You need to rev the engine hard to get the best from it, especially as the intermediate gears are more widely spaced than in the other two cars, thanks to the longer overall gearing that results from the larger-diameter tyres. Yet you sense the engine is not a natural revver; valve bounce steps in at 6800rpm, and the power is tailing off noticeably before then.
So, while the Mini Turbo can blast across country at a blistering rate, its exhaust growling contentedly, you've got to work at it; the promise of effortless turbo torque fails to materialise. Perhaps, instead, the Sprintex will shine.
Yes - and no. Where you might expect the M-30 to sparkle, at the bottom of the rev range, it actually stumbles and stutters. You can't use large throttle openings below about 2500rpm because the engine will simply fizzle out. Above that, however, it hurls the M-30 forward with an eager whine from the Sprintex and a deep-chested blare from the exhaust. Its high-revs energy and crispness make up for the low-revs indigestion, with BAC's recommended 6500rpm limit no more than a killjoy intervention.
MAKING THEIR MARK
No wonder the M-30 has the highest maximum speed, 111.7mph recorded on a blustery day which showed the worst in the three Minis' terrible aerodynamics. The ERA Turbo couldn't better 106.1mph, while the SX, without the benefit of a bodykit to make the best of a bad job, trailed at 102.6mph.
But you'd never notice the SX's all-out deficit on the road. You'd be too absorbed in a crispness, a responsiveness, a spread of muscle from 1000 to 7000rpm and beyond, with a second wind at 4000rpm as the note hardens from Cooper S burble to an enthusiastic howl. Without hiccup or hesitation, this engine pulls at a touch of the throttle in a way neither forced-induction car can approach. It's an engine that excites, always, with a response that's ever there when you need it. This is why the SX outruns the others in the real world of roads, why nothing touches it in traffic, and why its driver wears the broadest smile.
Cubic inches help with fuel frugality, too. Our trip to Wales and back saw the SX record 31.1mpg, with 28.2mpg for the ERA and a worrying 22.9mpg for the M-30.
This last figure might have been better had the Mini not overheated in the sweltering two days of our drive. The next 29 M-30s will have larger-capacity radiators. Anyway, if you've £30,000 to spare you can probably afford the fuel.
The SX's engine is the smoothest, as well. This doesn't make it the best cruiser, though. Longer gearing (19.6mph/l000rpm instead of the SX's 18.9 and the M-30's 18.8) and better soundproofing make the ERA the best here; the proximity of the whining supercharger to the bulkhead makes the M-30 the worst. But none could be called restful. Your ears will sing to the tune of wind roar and idler gears long after you've left the motorway, especially if you've been amusing yourself among the company Cavaliers.
B-roads are best for quick Minis. Here they can perform their inertia-defying feats to the best advantage, as you snick up and down the gears revelling in a snappy, short-travel clutch and a fast gearchange of surprising slickness. The brakes, short travel again, rise to their task with willing enthusiasm should you be too generous with the power; the ERA's equipment is especially effective. But it's round the corners that Minis really make their mark - just as they have for 30 years.
CORNERING THE MARKET
All three baby bombs have the light, go-kart-quick steering that is sadly lacking in today's stodgy superminis. All turn in with glee at the merest flex of the wrist though, if the power is squirted liberally on to the road, it's the skinny-tyred SX that understeers the strongest. But back off, and the nose darts back into the bend in true first-generation front-wheel drive fashion.
The M-30 behaves similarly but can corner at much higher speeds, thanks to the sticky grip of those fat Yokohamas. It shares the SX's slightly nervous disposition, looking for the chance to torque steer if you let it, but this merely heightens the feeling of excess power trying to burst out of a small space.
ERA's suspension tweaks, however, have done as intended. The idea was to banish torque steer, and it works. The power on/power off attitude change is less, with reduced understeer and a taming of lift-off tuck-in that feels almost alien to a Mini. It doesn't spoil the fun, though: in fact, it makes the ERA the easiest of the three to throw down a twisty lane, because it has such smooth, progressive responses to make the most of its huge grip. After a brisk dash across country, you don't emerge feeling as though you've spent four hours in the gym.
Hurtle into a tight bend on a trailing throttle, then accelerate, and the Turbo seems to trip over its outside front wheel and pull it further on to lock, instead of scrabbling with understeer. It's odd, but useful in a tight spot; we've not known a Mini to do this before. Perhaps it's the rear anti-roll bar at work.
The ERA has the best ride, too-though we're talking relative terms only, here. Like any Mini, it bounces tirelessly because of its tiny wheelbase and short suspension travel, but the bouncing is better-damped and ERA have banished much of the pitching. You tolerate it happily after a time, as your standards readjust and the suppleness of modern cars is forgotten.
Those new seats help but, like the Cobra items in the SX, they prove short of lumbar support over a long drive. They're no match for the M-30's Recaros. Yet, fabulous plaything that the M-30 is, there are some things money can't buy for a Mini. A truly decent ride is one. A noise level low enough for you to appreciate a stereo as mind-blowingly brilliant as the M-30's is another. Yet if these traits were banished, it wouldn't be a Mini any more, would it?
Simon Saunders doesn't intend his car to be taken seriously. On the contrary, he emphasises its outrageous fun factor. The fortunate few who will blow £30,000 on the ultimate town car will go along with that, and enjoy this gloriously over-the-top celebration of the Mini's 30th. They'll love the car that's tantamount to a pocket-size Bentley Turbo R.
The ERA Mini Turbo is more serious. For a start it's more accessibly priced, though you've still got to be a Miniphile to justify nearly £12,000 on a souped-up minibrick instead of, say, a Golf GTi. But the fun factor is huge, the chassis' competence is remarkable and, as a package, it has been honed well. It's just a shame the engine isn't more muscular. What we need is an ERA Mini with the big-bore, naturally-aspirated engine that makes the SX, the car you can't have, so utterly addictive. Over to you, Mini-tuners. The one-third century celebrations beckon.