Premium

1966 Mini Cooper S driven: big fun comes in small packages

May0064496 Motoring; Pic shows a restored 1966 Mini Cooper S that is being auctioned next week. Seen being driven by Chris Knapman near Taunton, Somerset. 19-8-15
Credit: jay williams

The 2019 Goodwood Revival from September 13-15 will be featuring myriad races for the evergreen Mini, which has just turned 60. But it’s not just on a racing circuit that the little car shines.

As a motoring journalist it is vital to perfect what is known in the trade as the road tester’s face. Its secret lies in a slight lean of the head, the steely gaze, and an expression that hides an underlying intensity behind a calm facade. It is a face that says you are in the zone, a professional at the very top of their game.

I’ve always been satisfied with my efforts in this area, until I drove this Almond Green Morris Mini Cooper S. Because at no point when thrumming along in this little gem did I look like a man who was making mental notes on the quality of the secondary ride, or assessing the nuggety-ness of its helm. Rather, I wore the simple grin of somebody who was having a riotously good time.

That’s partly what happens when somebody who tests new cars on a weekly basis is thrust behind the wheel of something from 1966. But it's also testament to the still unmatched brilliance of an old Mini.

If you’re wondering why I’ve been permitted to have so much fun, the clue lies in the age of the car, because 1966 is the year that racing at the Goodwood motor circuit came to an end after 18 memorable years. This was the point that race teams got to grips with aerodynamics, and with that came much faster cars. Put simply, Goodwood just became too dangerous.

Unfortunately you can't see the 'road tester's face', but this shot shows how clever packaging provided a relatively large amount of space in such a small car Credit: jay williams

As the years passed, however, so the opportunity arose for the track to come back into use, and in 1998 the then Earl of March (now the Duke of Richmond) marked a long and meticulous restoration project by hosting the first Goodwood Revival meeting, reintroducing cars of the correct period to his circuit in West Sussex. It would soon grow into what is arguably the greatest annual historic motorsport event in the world.

This really is an event like no other, and not just for seeing priceless racing cars being driven flat-out. It's also in immersing yourself in an event where people (and yes, that includes visitors) dress up in vintage clothing, browse shops and stalls selling retro goods and enjoy all kinds of trackside entertainment, from live music and funfairs to mesmerising air displays. It is no exaggeration to call it extraordinary.

And the Mini? Well, I must confess it is a personal indulgence, because it is the sight of these cheeky little cars (or the earlier Austin A40s) battling with the vastly bigger and heavier saloons in the St Mary’s Trophy touring car race that always serves as my personal highlight of the Goodwood Revival weekend. Forget the million pound exotica, there is no finer spectacle than seeing a Cooper S scuttling and sliding around, locked in battle with a giant Ford Galaxie.

This Cooper S is as nippy and as lively as you ever dared hope Credit: jay williams

It therefore follows that there can be no better conveyance in which to whet one’s appetite for such a spectacle than a spin in Malcolm Bennett’s gorgeous 1,275cc Cooper S.

Bennett is a serial Mini owner, having bought his first shortly after passing his driving test in the 1960s. “I kept it until I was 19, then bought a 998cc Cooper, but my fiancée also had a Mini 1,000, so we ended up keeping that and selling my car,” he told me.

Years later, in 1978, Malcolm spotted this Almond Green Cooper S advertised in a local paper for £200. “I used it a lot for about the first five years,” he says. “Then we had kids and the car ended up being stored in a barn.”

The 1,275cc A-series engine has been tweaked to deliver 84bhp Credit: jay williams

It wasn’t until 2007, when said barn was needed as a party venue (the kids - again), that KLE 833D broke cover, a trip to renowned Mini expert John Baker marking the start of a nine-month restoration.

That the car covered a mere 2,000 miles since is evident in its flawless bodywork. Indeed, the odometer (housed in what is believed to be a Billie Dulles instrument binnacle) shows just 43,000 miles, a figure that is reflected in the patina of the original seats, gear lever and steering wheel.

During that time, the Mini had been driven by only Baker and of course Malcolm himself, and never in the rain. So all credit to its owner for letting me, a complete stranger, take it for a spin on a wet summer’s day, in order that I may kickstart my journey back in time. If looking at the Mini’s diminutive body and dinky 10-inch wheels doesn’t do it, then leaning into the interior and inhaling the distinctive classic car aroma certainly does.

A huge, thin-rimmed steering wheel and original seats make this an experience like no other Credit: jay williams

This is the second Cooper S I’ve driven, but the first with the later 1,275cc engine. Malcolm’s has been tweaked by Mini specialist Steve Harris, with bigger SU carburettors and a new manifold pushing power up to 84bhp. The result is a firecracker of an engine which sings through the four gears. Even with a self-imposed 4,000rpm rev limit, the Cooper S has more than enough go to keep pace with modern traffic, and a throttle response that’s as refreshingly crisp as a perfect Sauvignon Blanc.

“Go-kart handling” is the much-used cliché for old Minis, but there’s an initial slackness to this car’s turn-in that means it can’t quite be applied here. Blame the massive, thin-rimmed steering wheel and skinny tyres, but also know that once those Dunlops bite into the Tarmac this Cooper S is as nippy and as lively as you ever dared hope, while the interlinked Hydrolastic suspension means it’s also more compliant than many a modern city car.

Note the original Mini's ridiculously small 10-inch wheels, external door hinges and sliding windows Credit: jay williams

With superb visibility, decent feedback from the clutch and a willing gearbox, it’s also markedly easy to drive for a 49-year-old machine.

The clincher for choosing this car in particular, though, isn’t its age or even the fact it has a very trusting owner. Rather, it’s that if you’re in the market for an appreciating classic then such a car could be the perfect accessory to take along to the finest historic events such as the Goodwood Revival.

For tips and advice, visit our Advice section, or sign up to our newsletter here

To talk all things motoring with the Telegraph Cars team join the Telegraph Motoring Club Facebook group here

A-Z Car Finder