Mini: The Celebrity Choice We drive Princess Margaret’s Downton-tuned Mini, one of the celebrity endorsements that transformed the model’s fortunes. Words Martyn Morgan-Jones Photography Laurens Parsons.
THE CELEBRITY CHOICE Princess Margaret’s Downton special, plus the celeb Minis
Royal Approval Princess Margeret and Lord Snowdon often chose a Mini above their Rolls-Royces and Astons. We drive their Downton-tuned delight to find out why
Britain’s oft-conservative buyers were initially wary of the Mini’s tradition-busting looks, advanced format, and modest external dimensions.
‘Downton’s technicians could turn cast iron into automotive gold. This isn’t engineering, it’s alchemy’
Fortunately, the motoring press saw the bigger picture and soon clutched Issigonis’ automotive apogee to its collective heart. That resulted in escalating sales thanks to the glowing reports, not to mention the motor sport success and, crucially, a host of celebrity endorsements and purchases. Even the Queen was seen driving one. A massive PR coup. But her sister, HRH Princess Margaret, went one better. In 1964, thanks to her husband Lord Snowdon – a friend and passionate promoter of Issigonis, and a huge fan of the modish Mini – she took delivery of an Austin Mini-Cooper 1071S. Issigonis, who personally oversaw this car’s build – and who’d gifted Princess Margaret a white Mini 850 as a wedding present in 1960 – was intensely proud of Britain and its Royal Family. Indeed, he venerated the Establishment.
‘The power is delivered seamlessly; I can see why enthusiasts eulogise over Downton engines’
Under his direction, 999 FYL would be further enhanced in terms of its appearance and power, despite being a ‘top-of-the-range’ variant. This appears somewhat dichotomous; Issigonis had a dislike of the superfluous, and a well-documented reluctance to see the Mini developed as a ‘performance’ car. However, this was 1964, and the success of the Cooper and Cooper S – and the favourable publicity that resulted – had led him to a change of mind. In 1964, 999 FYL was taken to coachbuilder Hooper & Co, a company intimate with BMC’s baby and indelibly associated with the Royal Family. The Westminster-based outfit preferred to work on prestige vehicles, which is why it only converted around 40 Minis for its very special clients, compared with the hundreds that passed through the workshops of Wood & Pickett and Radford. Hooper also rebadged 999 FYL from Austin Cooper to Austin Mini, apparently a request from the Snowdons – the ‘A’ in Austin representing Anthony and the ‘M’ in Mini for Margaret.
The cosmetic improvements were only part of the metamorphosis. In 1966, Issigonis had the Mini delivered to Downton Engineering in Wiltshire, famed and fabled for its tuning expertise, and umbilical tie to BMC’s competition department. Downton’s engineers removed the 1071S engine and installed a special XSP (experimental) 1293cc unit in its place – a swap that turned this already-rapid car into one of the quickest road-going Minis in the country.
Stepping into 999 FYL, I’m instantly reminded of just how space-efficient the Mini is. And, how its slim pillars and plentiful glass area afford excellent all-round visibility. Which is a good thing considering how valuable this car is… and how much power it produces. The dyno sheet that Downton supplied in 1967, when the car was returned for some minor upgrades, shows that the 1293cc A-series was blessed with 86bhp at 6500rpm. Plenty to shift the Mini’s 645kg.
Despite the performance modifications, it’s a ready starter and, once the engine has fully warmed up, it settles down into a steady idle. The first thing that I notice when pulling away is the almost hair-trigger throttle response, common to all the tuned Minis I have driven. The merest brush of my foot on the accelerator pedal has revs soaring. It’s mightily swift too, and the power is delivered in a seamless, linear manner. Although red-lined at 6500rpm, the engine, as eager as it is potent, is apparently good for more. Well, I’m happy to let the needle caress the red-line, but not overstep the mark.
In a sanitised modern world of electronic fuel injection, complex circuitry and cutting-edge technology, this Downton-finessed delight entrances its driver with twin SU carburettors, a high-lift camshaft and perfectly machined and balanced internals. It’s pure Sixties, and very straightforward.
Indeed, the A-series is an uncomplicated, even quite archaic affair. Yet this particular engine feels so much more modern. Downton was never about slavishly seeking headline-grabbing, high-power outputs. True, its engines delivered good power, but the company’s forte was its absolute mastery of cylinder head tweaks. Modifications that imbued its engines with astonishing driveability, especially in the all-important mid-range.
Hours and hours were spent gas-flowing, reshaping the valves and combustions chambers, lightening and polishing the rocker assembly, even reshaping the pads at the ends of the rocker arms into a horseshoe shape in order to provide better contact, and for lightness. The Downton dyno sheet bears testimony to the efficacy of its workmanship. Torque peaks with 81lb ft at just 4000rpm, and an impressive 71ft lb is on offer from a mere 1500rpm. Downton’s technicians could turn cast iron into automotive gold. This isn’t engineering, it’s alchemy.
I’d fully expected my drive to be accompanied by a strident soundtrack, but even at higher revs it’s not overly vocal. Sure, the twin SU’s have a voracious appetite for air when I’m accelerating hard, but the period-correct air filters – combined with the soundproofing Hooper & Co installed – cut quite a few decibels, making this Mini much more civilised than it might be.
Not that’s it’s what I would call quiet. Factor the Downton long-centre-branch exhaust manifold and straight-through single silencer system into the mix, and the result is a car that’s invariably heard before it’s seen. Yet has a wonderfully sonorous quality. I can imagine just how it must have felt back in the Sixties, when it was being driven around London by Princess Margaret, on her way to meet such luminaries as Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole. Often portrayed as the original Royal rock star, Margaret – a witty, charismatic, rebellious but most glamorous woman, and a royal fashion icon who was fond of short skirts and plunging necklines – must have revelled in the delights of this nimble and potent car. It was as much of a break with tradition as she was.
However, it was Lord Snowdon who spent most of the time behind the wheel of 999 FYL. He adored fast cars, and loved driving them with enthusiasm. Snowdon – who, along with Margaret, was attributed with revitalising the monarchy – is said by people who knew him to have ‘wrung the neck’ of the Mini as he tore from one engagement to another.
It’s clear why he enjoyed using it so much – in contrast to other tuned Mini’s I’ve driven, the engine feels far less peaky. This characteristic, coupled with the plentiful torque, results in smooth and swift progress, even up steep hills. This is why enthusiasts eulogise over Downton engines. I’m fast becoming a convert.
Gear selection is good and the ratios spot-on, although the action is rather physical and far from quick. I’ve experienced this in other Minis that have covered just a handful of miles since a rebuild and I’ve no doubt that the gearchange will ease and improve with use. The clutch, a pukka competition item, has short travel requiring a firm push, though it also manages to be smooth and progressive. The same is true of the servo-assisted front disc/rear drum braking system. In fact, it’s a very nicely balanced set-up. The servo helps, but, thankfully, doesn’t take over proceedings. All-in-all, the brakes have plenty of feel, lots of bite, and are well able to handle the power.
The chassis still impresses, too. The incredibly space-efficient, extremely advanced, all-independent rubber cone dry suspension was a motoring milestone when the Mini was launched. Combined with adjustable dampers, it makes for invigorating, if occasionally bouncy progress; a legacy of the short wheelbase and rubber cones. A properly set-up Mini like 999 FYL provides the driver with such an intimate connection with the road. This car is so tactile, and with such ultra-direct steering, it flows from one bend to another. Naturally, there’s a tendency to understeer in tighter corners, but it generally dispatches bends with contempt.
I do have one criticism though – the period-correct crossply tyres tend to follow road irregularities and cause the front end to wander, requiring a tad more steering input than I’d anticipated. Radial ply tyres were an option with the introduction of the 1071S, and were later fitted to this car; if it were mine I’d trade authenticity for precision and fit radials, keeping the crossplies for show arenas. Otherwise, it’s pretty much perfect and a wonderful reminder of how and why the Mini was such a revelation, and why it commands so much attention and respect today.
Owner Dave Boswell, a renowned Mini collector and restorer, has a long association with this royal example. He restored it himself, along with rigorously tracing its history. ‘From 1964 to the early Seventies, the car was in regular use,’ he explains. ‘The majority of the driving was done in London, which explained why it has only covered around 31,000 miles. Unfortunately, in 1973, it was involved in an accident. Snowdon was driving it through Putney and collided with a Jaguar. It was on a roundabout I believe.
‘The damage wasn’t sufficient to write the Mini off, but enough to convince Snowdon to buy a new Mini 1000. He had originally planned to have the supplying dealer swap 999 FYL’s drivetrain over. However, because of differences in the transmission tunnel size, the swap wasn’t possible. In the end, just the registration number was transferred.’
For whatever reason, the damaged Cooper S languished, gathering dust, until the late Seventies, which was when Dave was made aware of the car’s existence and learnt that it was stored in a lock-up behind a main dealership. When he went to view the car, it was in the condition it had been following the accident. And very dusty of course. The only thing missing was the passenger door. ‘It had been cut off by the firemen who attended the scene,’ explains Dave. ‘After a lot of searching amongst the junk in the lock-up, I found the remains of the damaged door. This was lucky, because it meant that I could salvage parts, including the special lock that Hooper had fitted.’
There has been speculation that the accident was so severe it had resulted in the Mini being written off and re-shelled. Dave has more than fifty Minis, three of which have been re-shelled – but 999 FYL isn’t one of them, as corroberated by independent marque experts who witnessed the bare bodyshell of the car during its rebuild.
‘I only started the restoration in 2002,’ says Dave. ‘There were a number of reasons for this. Other projects had kept me busy but it was mainly because that was when I acquired the remains of the Snowdon’s Mini 1000 – also crashed – and all of the documentation showing that the 999 FYL registration was transferred to this car from the 1071S. This gave me the incentive to start the restoration.
I was also able to reunite the 1071S with its original number. ‘I did some of the restoration work but then put it on hold again because of other commitments. I returned to it just two years ago.’
Prior to the final phase of the restoration, and to garner some first-hand knowledge about 999 FYL, Dave got in touch with the royal household and started communicating with Lord Snowdon via email. ‘This was 2016,’ recalls Dave. ‘To be honest, I was surprised by just how keen he was to talk about the Mini. He obviously loved the car. In fact, as well as mentioning how much fun it was to drive, and stating that it was faster than his Aston Martin, he expressed an interest in seeing the car when it was finished. Sadly, he passed away before this could happen. I’d have loved to have shown him the restored car.’
During the restoration Dave fitted a replacement passenger door, a front wheel, nearside inner and outer sills, and a section of the floor. Everything else was intact. Dave was surprised, and relieved, to discover that interior was virtually unmarked and just needed cleaning. Even the special Hooper instrument binnacle was intact. Hooper only made four of these binnacles. One was fitted to Enzo Ferrari’s Cooper S, another to Paul Newman’s Cooper S, but the destination of the fourth remains unknown.
Mechanically it was good, but Dave has stripped and rebuilt all of the running gear. And the engine. A task he was eagerly anticipating. ‘It seemed fine,’ tells Dave smiling. ‘However, because it hadn’t been run for such a long time, and because I was intrigued to see Downton’s handiwork up close, I opted to strip and rebuild it anyway. Well, it was in fabulous condition. I was truly impressed by the way the engine had been modified and assembled. I was also surprised to discover that it had a special billet crankshaft and Spite/Midget conrods. These are much stronger items.
‘I paint all of my cars, but it did take me quite a while to get the correct colour match. It’s Rolls-Royce Brewster Green. Eventually, I found someone who could mix the correct shade. I then aged the paint to give it the correct factory-finished appearance.
‘Of all my special Minis, this one is among my favourites. There’s its Royal connection, which makes it unique, but it’s also a very nice car to look at and to drive. It’s a keeper!’
The BMC Mini, arguably the original classless car, is undoubtedly an icon of its time. It led, others followed. And, in many ways, this free-spirited front-wheel-driver, small in size, yet most definitely a technological giant, is the perfect embodiment of that era. Of course, being a Hooper-converted car, one with Royal connections, 999 FYL became distanced from its humble roots.
Hooper, along with companies such as Radford, was a master of the Mini makeover. Some of the conversions were quite simply exercises in excess but, undoubtedly by Royal request, 999 FYL was treated more sympathetically and looks very classy, restrained even. The seats, special binnacle, walnut door cappings, extra instrumentation, Moto-Lita steering wheel, Aston Martin sun visors, cigarette lighter, and driver’s side winding window, are exactly as originally fitted by Hooper, creating a striking yet subtle effect. The special grille, complete with spotlamps, was fitted during 1965.
Owning 999 FYL undoubtedly gave the Snowdons great pleasure, and thanks to the sensitive restoration, period parts, and provenance, it’s giving great pleasure to those who see it today. For a model whose success can be attributed to its classless appeal, this regal Mini shows just how classy it could be.
Princess Margaret’s car was one of the more restrained celebrity-special Minis, with the focus on dynamics. Far left: Lord Snowdon unlocks the car for Princess Margaret in 1964, before its Hooper tweaks Above: Moto-Lita steering wheel Below, clockwise from left: Austin Mini badging and revised grille fitted later; tweaked experimental 1293cc engine; window winder and bespoke instrument panel.
1963 Downton/Hooper Austin Mini Cooper S
Engine 1293cc, four-cylinder, ohv, twin 1½in SU carburettors, 544 camshaft, fully modified cylinder head and valve gear, Downton LCB manifold
Max Power 86bhp @ 6500rpm
Max Torque 81lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: independent, wishbones, rubber cones adjustable dampers; Rear: independent, trailing arm, rubber cone, adjustable dampers
Brakes Servo-assisted, front discs, rear drums
Weight 645kg (1425lb)
Performance Top speed: 105mph approx; 0-60mph: 9.5sec approx
Cost new £700 approx (Hooper conversion £1500 approx)
Approximate value in 2019 £90,000-100,000
Owning 999 FYL
‘I grew up around Minis, and have been collecting and restoring them for decades,’ says owner Dave Boswell. ‘Compared with others I have restored, this was relatively straightforward. The panels are readily available, even for the very early cars. It’s just a matter of taking the time to ensure that the repairs are invisible. Straightening the passenger seat occupied a lot of my time. It was twisted in the accident. I had to remove the cover and straighten the frame as best as I could. The cover was fine, and could be teased back into shape.
‘Of course, not everything goes smoothly. For example, while refitting the rear screen I heard a very loud noise. The screen had cracked at one corner! I had to buy a replacement, which is a great shame because I really wanted to use the original. I’ve kept the broken screen though.
‘As a project it’s given me more pleasure than I expected. I particularly enjoyed rebuilding the engine, seeing how well Downton had modified it.’