A racing car for £400
Go back to 1959, dig up the old race programmes, and you will probably find a name appearing oftener than most in what was then a startling little newcomer to British club racing. John Aley saw the competitive potential of Issigonis’ f.w.d. car at a very early stage and was quick to bring one to the starting grids. In the years which followed the introduction of the Mini, John and his wife Jean have gained considerable experience, not to mention their many successes, racing various forms of Mini both on British circuits and on the Continent and followers of this class of saloon car racing will need no introduction to the familiar, white JRA 85 which brought so much silverware to the Aley sideboard.
With such a wealth of experience at his disposal it was natural that he should eventually combine this with his engineering abilities. It therefore came as no surprise to his friends when he extended his workshop facilities and began preparing race cars for customers—Minis, of course.
As astute as ever, Aley realised that not only was the big-engined Mini a very business-like racing machine but, with smaller engine, was the ideal car on which beginners to the circuits could cut their teeth. Youthful aspirants to racing laurels are rarely sufficiently affluent to buy a competitive car, and all the trappings that go with it, at the outset, unless of course there is a fond parent on the scene. Aley, recognising this, set out to provide a car, as cheaply as possible, though not in terms of quality, capable of at least holding its own with comparable machinery. The result was a Mini racer for £400. Secret of the low price is the age of the cars which Aley puts into racing trim. But they are not simply second-hand Minis. Nor have they just had bits added. The practice is to purchase 848 c.c. Minis of between four and five years old. They are then systematically stripped to the bodyshell and rebuilt to a set specification, although the £400 can be exceeded if a customer requires additional work to be carried out.
The engine is completely dismantled and any defective parts replaced as a matter of course. In any case, new bearings are invariably fitted. A competition camshaft replaces the standard one, and the head is machined and polished to give a c.r. of 10.5 to 1. The valve springs are strengthened, and a 1 1/2 in. S.U. carburetter, fitted with special needles and jets, is mated to a production manifold which has been modified in the Aley workshop. The gearbox is standard, which matters little for a car of this capacity on most circuits, but a close-ratio ‘box is available at extra cost. The gear lever is extended. A Servais straight-through exhaust system replaces the standard one. Apart from routine checking for defects or distortion, the brakes are standard, with Ferodo AM4 competition linings fitted. The suspension remains unchanged, apart from lowering which can be carried out according to customer requirements. For most racing purposes two to three inches is regarded as right, but cars which have recently been bought by young rallyists have been lowered far less in order to accommodate a sump-shield and still maintain a reasonable amount of ground clearance. Armstrong competition shock absorbers are added and these are set for racing or rallying, whichever is required. Tyres are to customers’ own choice, and wheels are standard.
The interior is a bit spartan, but this is unlikely to trouble purchasers of the Aley Mini. A Smiths’ electronic tachometer is added, together with oil pressure and water temperature gauges. The dashboard switches have extended arms, and full harness is fitted on the driver’s side only. The steering wheel has been lowered a little, a modification which combines with the repositioned seat mountings to produce an improved driving position. The screen is replaced by a laminated one, presumably with scrutineers in mind, and an oil catch tank, designed and made by Aley, nestles in a recess behind the radiator. An extra throttle spring and Terry’s leather bonnet straps complete the mechanical transformation. and the next job is to respray the whole in Chinese white. Wheels are painted in a colour chosen by the customer and there is a matching flash running transversely across the roof just at the top of the windscreen. As an added touch, a set of self-adhesive numerals and a form of application for a Competition Licence are popped into a door pocket.
These basic modifications can, of course be extended at extra cost, a popular item being the Aley-manufactured roll-over bar which is quite a substantial structure indeed having an anchor on each side and a third on the rear window shelf.
Because of the absence of excessive trim, much of the underbonnet noise penetrates the interior, the most noticeable being the air intake note. The exhaust, too, is crisp, but not unduly so. Handling is much the same as any production line Mini, with understeer under power and oversteer on lift off. However, this theme can be varied by making alterations in the castor angle. Brakes were quite adequate and would satisfy most drivers’ demands in average-length races. A rally, however, with its hours of relentless pounding, is a different proposition and I would personally opt for improved brakes if I were taking the car on special stages.
The engine, which is hardly distinguishable from the standard unit except by an Aley motif, is hardly less flexible than that in a showroom car, but this is only to be expected considering the degree of tuning. It is instantly responsive and the tachometer shoots up with ease into the red, which begins at 7,000 r.p.m. Such a revolution level is hardly needed, though, for at around 6,500 r.p.m. the power falls off sharply. It completes the standing start quarter-mile in 20.6 seconds.
Although he intended it as a car for the circuit, John Aley is not as naive as to suggest to his customers that the £400 Miniracer is going to be an unbeatable race-winner. It is rather regarded as a practical means of introduction to the sport, although I would be the last to suggest that it will not win races. Given the right driver, this will remain to be seen. Another of its uses would appear to be in the rally field, particularly if its chosen events are those with classification according to engine capacity (some classify by crew experience). There is always a certain degree of reluctance to initiate a brand new car by pitting it against loose roads and hard banks but, although an Aley car has an excellent finish, I would imagine that its owner would be far less reluctant to use it in such a way.
But competition apart, we see no reason why the Aley Mini should not be put to use as a road car. Certainly its “secondhand” tag can be no drawback for all wrongs are claimed to have been righted. It is tractable enough, showed no evidence of being unusually prone to overheating, and is sufficiently potent to provide entertaining motoring, if such an adjective can be used in these days of increasing restriction.—G.P.