Son of pearl

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We ended our report on the new ERA W Mini (Motor Sport, August 1989) with the words “the Mini is still a sweetheart amongst the specialists”. No sooner were these words printed than we received notice of yet another celebration of the model’s 30th, or pearl, anniversary. And we were stopped in our tracks firstly by its specifications and secondly by its price…

Any car listing 40 major improvements on the original had to be worth looking at, particularly when one of them was a supercharged engine.

The BAC M-30 is intended as a showcase for the British Automobile Company of Somerset, which was formed in 1983 by Simon Saunders (whose background includes Aston Martin Tickford) and Francis Skeete. They planned to produce a special Mini for the 25th anniversary, but lack of interest from Austin-Rover caused them to reconsider; they concentrated instead on coachbuilding, upholstering and customising before deciding to revive their concept five years later, though still without support from the manufacturer. Rather than using a shell from the factory, a new car is bought and stripped down. Structurally the body remains untouched, no an opportunity to de-seam it and make it look less dated has been lost.

Out comes the standard 1000cc engine, to be replaced by a supercharged version of the 1300cc Metro Turbo unit which has been balanced and strengthened throughout. DPR of Yeovil, which was commissioned to supply the Sprint en supercharger, originally considered supercharging an engine bored out to 1400cc, but the idea was dropped as the level of tolerance was too fine. The cylinder head, however, has been modified to improve gas flow, and the compression lowered.

The supercharger is the smallest Sprintex available, and is driven by a poly V belt from the crankshaft. Some 115 nervous horses are now available, which compares favourably with the 94 bhp of the Metro Turbo, the figure no doubt helped by modifications which include a new stainless-steel tubular manifold and an enlarged 44mm-diameter SU carburettor. Easily identifiable from other Minis by its glass-fibre body-kit and beautifully finished pearlescent paint developed by ICI, the car features additional front and rear foglamps and the halogen headlamps have been given a flat lens.

Ultra low-profile 175/50VR13 Yokohama tyres are fitted to Component Automotive five-spoke 6×13 alloy wheels. Quite unlike any standard Mini, the interior exudes luxury. The smell is alnaost overpowering, for the leather trim extends even to the head lining and sun visors. The seats are different and newly positioned, and between them is the latest Nokia-Mobira car/portable telephone.

BAC is very proud of the stereo radio, tape and compact disc players, made by Alpine and only just introduced into the country. The disc player is the smallest yet, but is capable of holding six compact discs. Located under the back seat, the changer is controlled from the dashboard and can be programmed to play tracks from different discs in any order. A bitch on heat has nothing like the pulling power of this little car. Every Fiat 131 Mirafiori Sport driver, MkII Capri jockey and XR2 pilot gets so excited and to close to the rear end that there is the real darters the maroon stunner being mounted. Putting things into perspective, however, I was told that from the passenger seat it seemed more akin to a pools handbag! The mixture of cream and maroon interior was rather vulgar, even though it did complement the beautiful paintwork, but to be fair to BAC interior and exterior colour-schemes will remain the customer’s choice.

It has been many years since I drove a Mini, but the memories came flooding back. The steering wheel is smaller on this car, the column lowered, and the revised seating allows a better driving position, but the car still felt and drove like a Mini. Despite a revamp of the dash, the buttons for choke and heater remain the same, while the VDO instrumentation has been relocated in one long line consisting of matching speedometer, rev counter, fuel, oil pressure, water temperature, volt and boost gauges — and an analogue clock, completely out of the line of sight on the left-hand side.

Despite this ostentatious luxury, many things disappoint. The sun visor on the Passenger’s side does not have a vanity mirror, and knocks the mirror out of alignment when lowered. The indicator stalk is not self-cancelling. The steering wheel is horrible, with an unusual gnarled knob at the back. The door handles are those found nn the 1100, but resprayed in maroon to match the decor.

The heater has the original Sixties control with a one-position fan. The test car’s control was continuously on, and even when the knob was pushed in it would take only five seconds to pop back out. The vents at the base of the windscreen have not been modified, and ventilation is generally poor. The electric mirrors take some getting used to, for you need to think in reverse: if you want to adjust them upwards you push the switch down, and if you want them to go right you push left. Around the footwell all the heater pipes and the loose wires are left exposed.

Although not the fault of the manufacturers, the state-of-the-art CD/radio stereo system is not really all it is cracked up to be. For one thing, the buttons are too small for a car radio. To change station or adjust the volume when driving should require just one quick press of the button so that full control of the car can be retained; when you need to hunt around for the right button, and then require the pinpoint accuracy of a fighter pilot to hit it squarely without finding two other buttons at the same time, it takes the edge off whatever the sound quality is. In fact the sound quality really is not that important anyway, for the car is very raucous indeed. True, you can set the volume so high that the vibration sets your spine tingling, but on the whole the effect is deadened by engine noise.

Unfortunately the bite that goes with that bark is toothless. As I understood it, a supercharger is meant to give continual power at all engine speeds. Burnt anything below 3000 revs, this car is as lively as the English cricket team.

Admittedly, once revved up, it shifts, but at such cost! I was never able to assess properly just how thirsty it was, because within the first ten miles of the test the speedometer had come out on strike in sympathy with the boost gauge. But by the time I reached the service area on the London side of Swindon the tank showed half-empty, even though it had been filled to brimming at a petrol station just off the M4 near Reading — and despite engine speed being kept to just over 4000 revs.

I had originally intended taking the Mini to Germany the following weekend, so I was very relieved indeed when a sudden change of dates by BAC shortened its availability and forestalled that idea. It would have been necessary to stop at virtually every service area en route! As a motorway cruiser it was simply terrible, the driver being preoccupied with the partially hidden fuel gauge rather than the rev counter (or speedometer if it was working).

In fact the whole car smacked of being put together by keen novices. Little things, from the badly positioned rear numberplate light from a Ford to the poorly finished wing-mirror with a sawn off bolt still showing, were inexcusable even if this was the prototype.

Much as BAC has angled the car in that direction, its Mini is not an ideal town car, especially with its competition clutch and stiff steering. It is at its best on country roads, where the wide Yokohamas further augment its prodigious handling. It is not difficult, however, to get the tyres scuffing against the bodywork even when cornering nowhere near the limit. Since the suspension can be adjusted to suit urban or rural driving, that problem can presumably be dialled out, but the duality of the suspension is typical of the whole car. It cannot decide whether it wants to be this year’s fashion, bought more or less as an adult toy, or an off-duty racer. Heavy controls and wrong gearing militate against it being a townie’s car, but I cannot imagine anybody buying it other than for posing purposes.

Even without the sound system at full blast, the car suffers from vibration. On the overrun between 3400 and 3000 a tremendous hum emanates from the dashboard, while from 2200-2000 there is more of a rumbling sound from the front of the car.

The ventilated discs of the Metro Turbo were discarded when it was found that the car locked up too easily, but it is a surprise to find standard Mini drums at the back.

The gear ratios in first and second are incompatible with a car of this character, being too long-legged, but the four-speed gearbox with which BAC is saddled is a minus point anyway. The torque-steer of the test car will be missing on the production models. Only thirty of these little monsters will be made, and they will be distinguishable by hallmarked solid silver badges bearing the production number on the dashboard and boor lid. Since only standard locks are offered (though there is a burglar alarm installed), both of these are such an invitation to vandalism that I cannot see them lasting long …

For a 30-car special edition of a 30-year old model, our criticisms of the M-30 may seem a little harsh, but there is another figure which includes the number 30 which forces us to judge it in this light. I think can truthfully say that I have never con across a car that is worse value for mom than this one at £30,000. WPI

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