LOTUS/MORRIS MINOR #1972
Colin Chapman never took it upon himself to craft a Lotus Minor Twin-Cam pick-up. But it’s the sort of thing he might have done… Words: Daniel Bevis images: Matt Woods.
There are few figures in motoring history that have caught the imagination as broadly and all-consumingly as Colin-Chapman . The Lotus founder’s uncompromising approach to engineering and development led to deserved success and a firm fixture in the annals of internal combustion lore, with his iconic badge acting as a mark of quality on every slice of retro quirkiness from cigar-tube F1 racers with experimental aero stacks to wedge-shaped 1970s sports cars, via any number of tweaked iterations of Fords, Sunbeams, and Vauxhalls.
His overarching ethos of ‘simplify, then add lightness’ has been adopted as the mantra of countless hobbyists, engineers, backstreet tuners and top-flight race outfits. After all, it’s just common sense. And a question that raises its head surprisingly often is ‘What would have happened if Chapman had decided to tune one of these?’ – it’s this line of thought that leads to twin-cam 105E Anglias, Minis with ingenious chassis mods, Coventry Climaxes appearing in unexpected places… and the development and construction of this rather unusual Morris Minor.
“My vision was to have a vehicle that could have been a factory alternative at the time of production to the likes of the Lotus Cortina or Escort Twin-Cam,” explains owner Adam Kent-Smith. “On many occasions throughout the build it was difficult not to go with modern alternatives, but I remained loyal to my vision of how it should look, and the uniqueness offered by a Lotus Minor pick-up that could have been a factory option at time of manufacture – Colin Chapman didn’t make a Lotus Minor pick-up, but if he did…”
Adam’s clarity of vision speaks for itself really, and he’s been incredibly fastidious in his quest to only use period parts and methods in the creation of this Minor LCV – well, aside from the odd modern concession for performance and usability, such as the coilover suspension and USB ports!
But let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? The spirit of the project lies in the fabled and once-ubiquitous Morris Minor light commercial vehicle (LCV), of which around 326,000 were churned out over the Minor’s lifespan. Arguably the hardest-working were the pick-up variants, their exposed utilitarian rears acting as an open invitation to chuck stuff in with carefree abandon, and as such there really aren’t very many left, having been comprehensively battered in the line of duty.
“This 1972 pick-up is actually one of the final 800 built – it’s an Austin build, hence the crinkle grille,” Adam explains. Now, Adam’s always had a soft spot for Minors, his broad and varied personal car history encompassing examples powered by Pintos, V6s, and proudly boasting superchargers, alongside a colourful cast of classic BMWs, Triumphs, Sunbeams and Jaguars, but it was the idea of a Morris commercial that really flicked the switch for this project. “I’ve always liked them, and it was inevitable that I’d return to the model at some point,” he says. “Seven years ago I found this one which appeared to fit what I was after – it required a full restoration, and didn’t so much resemble a vehicle as a pile of parts.
However, a key attraction was that the cab was intact.” Having a pretty decent knowledge of the vagaries of Morris parts supply, Adam knew what was findable and what wasn’t, so he snapped up the rot-free cab along with its jigsaw puzzle of panels and cavalcade of spares, and stacked it all up in his garage. Without wanting to fall foul of unexpected costs, he then bided his time, playing the long game, collecting up all the parts he’d require to fulfil his Chapmanesque vision. “It sat there for three years before I actually began restoring it,” he recalls, although he hadn’t been dragging his heels in the meantime. Far from it. No, he’d been accumulating a rich and vibrant platter of ingredients to stir into the twin-cam stew – not least that piquant and jewel-like motor.
“I’d decided at the outset that a standard upgrade wasn’t for me,” Adam grins, “especially as I don’t have the patience to pootle along at low speed! While there’s obviously a trend with modified upgrades to go for the latest technology, I decided I didn’t want to follow the herd and fit a K-series, Honda VTEC, or Zetec, so I started searching for a suitable alternative – something that would have been available in the 1972 era of the vehicle.” So what manner of madness led him to shoehorn a Lotus twink in there? Adam admits that it wasn’t by any means his first choice. “It wasn’t until an old friend turned up in his Lotus Elan that the powertrain caught my attention,” he recalls. “While looking in the engine bay, curiosity got the better of me and out came the tape measure.”
A few quick calculations confirmed that, with some minor fettling, the unit would fit in the Minor bay, and so the game was afoot. The next stage, then, was finding one…
“I searched various websites and threads in an attempt to purchase an engine, but was surprised to find how much these old twincams retain their value,” Adam reveals. “After many failed bids and much baulking at inflated ‘buy it now’ prices, I was given the contact details of a respected Lotus engine builder - John Smirthwaite at JRS Motorsport. I did a little research on JRS and found he has supplied a number of successful Lotus race engines and has a strong reputation.” Decision made, then – it certainly pays to source such things from known quantities, rather than paying through the nose to an eBay stranger. Indeed, Adam spent some considerable time running through the project plan with John, chewing over what was desirable and what was achievable, and between the two of them they drew up a solid plan of attack: it would be a period-themed build, but not an obsessively geeky one, with a focus on quality and, of course, Chapmanlike engineering. “It was important that the car would be no slouch,” Adam laughs, “and able to hold its own on track days as well as fast road driving.” Admirable sentiments indeed, given the perceptions that the average person might have upon spying a Morris Minor pick-up. This would be a build as much about surprise as performance.
An idea was forged, then, but the guys were still starting with little more than a pile of bits. Happily, the initial impetus for the build came in the form of a rare-as-hen’s-teeth original new old stock chassis, which tied the whole concept together and gave them the motivation to forge onward. This was complemented by a whole twinkling galaxy of NOS panels – the front wings, pick-up tailgate, doors, flitch panels, engine bay floor, cab rear, rear floors and wheel arches all offered a fresh rust-free start for the aesthetics, and it was Jonathan Heap of JLH Restorations who was charged with the task of bringing the whole thing together. “The initial job was to assemble the pick-up in order to gain an understanding of alignment before fitting new panels,” says Adam, and this work was swiftly followed by the necessary trimming of the engine bay to allow the twin-cam in, as well as a conversion to coilover suspension (“one of the few elements of the build not available in 1972…” he admits). As the separate-chassis Minor LCVs are only bolted together in a handful of places, JLH also embarked upon a programme of strengthening in order to cope with the anticipated stresses of throwing a very naughty engine into a basic shell that was designed to be a puttering commercial runabout many decades ago. Hey, if Chapman were to take a Minor pick-up on track, he’d have done the same thing.
The body was coming along nicely, and the engine builder had his tasks to complete, so it was time for Adam to start thinking about the interior. After all, this wasn’t to be a strippedout track monster, but a properly usable classic. “Keeping the era of the vehicle in mind, I searched and trialled various options for seats, none of which really seemed to fit,” he recalls. “I wanted seats that would hold you in place, and while bucket are an obvious thought, due to the rear rake these were not feasible as the space inside is limited. I’d had in my possession some old Austin Healey seats that I’d earlier disregarded while considering alternatives, but after twelve months of trying different options, guess what - I tried out the Healey seats and they fitted wonderfully!”
Another win for the ‘it would’ve been a feasible option in 1972’ checklist then, which was further improved upon the suggestion of the upholsterer with a retrim in tan leather with blue piping. “I had my suspicions at first, but I’m glad I trusted him – it really works with the exterior colour,” Adam beams. The paint colour in question is a BMW Mini shade, Ice Blue, which may be another modern concession but is so close to an old-school BMC colour that it’s entirely forgivable. It gives it a creamy, buttery, almost cartoonish quality, doesn’t it? Something complemented by the jarring aesthetic of having 15” Minilites and noticeably lower suspension on an old commercial vehicle such as this. Almost Hot Wheels-like, really.
The dash represented another chunk of fastidious interior work: “While I’m aware that you can buy aftermarket clocks that have many dials in one, this wasn’t available in 1972, so we had to conjure up a solution that ensured we retained the iconic hump in the dash,” says Adam. “The solution was to cut the dash in the centre, and extend the hump to create space for the five dials now required. This also meant the glovebox lids had to be shortened to look standard, and the glovebox insert had to be cut, reshaped and manipulated into place.” It’s all in the details, and it’s a sort of hidden Easter egg for true-blue Morris nerds. And the quest for interior perfection continued – Aldridge Trimming were drafted in to create custom carpets, gaiters and headlining to ensure a belt-and-braces finish.
With the aesthetics perfected and the chassis treated to such performance-oriented treats as a Panhard rod and Hi-Spec brakes, the drivetrain was offered a real chance to shine. John Smirthwaite had been a very busy boy, boring out the twin-cam to 1,660cc and fitting forged pistons, high-lift cams, big valves, and a lightened and balanced crank, all of which coalesced to create effervescence truly deserving of the Lotus moniker. This was all then bolted via a lightweight flywheel and competition clutch to a Ford Type 9 ’box, its ratios altered to suit the engine’s torque. An LSD out back helps to ramp up the levels of mischief too…
“A complete new wiring loom has been fitted, allowing for modern day improvements such as a 12v charger socket and a USB slot, and it’s all covered in a period braiding to keep it looking appropriately 1970s,” says Adam, casting a fond eye over his flawless creation. And that solution serves as a metaphor for the build overall – sure, the intention was to build something as close to 1972 specs as possible, employing various options that could have been considered at the time. But Colin Chapman was a forwardthinking engineer and, if he were to embark upon such a build, he would of course make use of the latest technological developments in instances where they made the most sense. It’s taken Adam nearly seven years, with the help of a team of experts, but now his vision is complete: he has a track-ready sports car with a sumptuous interior, that also happens to be a Morris Minor pick-up. He’s right – if Chapman had decided to make such a thing, this is how he would have done it.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION: Lotus twin-cam, bored out to 1,660cc, forged pistons, big valves, crack-tested and gas-flowed head, new bronze guides, competition high-lift cams, lightened and balanced crank, balanced con rods, lightened and balanced flywheel, AP competition clutch, high-pressure oil pump, twin 40 Dell’Orto carburettors, Ford Type 9 gearbox with heavy-duty bearings, quickshift and custom ratios, concentric slave cylinder replacing conventional release fork and bearing, Ford English axle with Quaife LSD, Ford RS halfshafts, custom aluminium fuel tank, header tank, radiator, water bottle and oil catch tank, custom wiring loom inc. 12v charger and USB input.
CHASSIS: 5.5x15” (front) and 7x15” (rear) JBW Minilites with 195/50 (F) and 205/50 (R) Dunlop DZ03G, new old stock chassis, front coilover conversion, wide-bottom A arms, Hi-Spec 4-pot front calipers with 260mm vented/grooved discs, softer rear leaf springs with coilovers, Panhard rod and radius arms, 8” rear drums.
INTERIOR: Austin Healey seats in tan leather with blue piping, custom dash, Willans harnesses, custom carpets, headlining and gaiters.
EXTERIOR: BMW MINI Ice Blue paint, new old stock front wings, pick-up tailgate, doors, flitch panels, engine bay floor, cab rear, rear floors and wheel arches; Austin grille.
THANKS: “A shout-out to myself first of all, for supplying all the funds and persevering when in doubt! Also, Mrs K-S (The Blonde General) for those quiet evenings when I was embedded in the PC searching for parts etc, seeing the garage accumulate parts, not giving me too much of a hard time when a one-hour pop out became half a day - and your support for letting me indulge. Thank you. The children, for letting me sell the Old Trusted Pick-up to partially fund this one. (It was worth it.) Richard (The Decorator), for being Richard. JRS Motorsport – John Smirthwaite for making the engine growl yet sing, and sharing countless entertaining racing stories. (Such a knowledgeable person and a real character.) Finally, JLH Restorations. Jonathan Heap and his team who have embraced what I wanted to achieve and made it a reality with such a high level of dedication, perfection and collaboration. They really are a company who go unnoticed but have delivered so much to me and others. Respect!”
“I decided I didn’t want to follow the herd and fit a K-series, Honda VTEC, or Zetec, so I started searching for a suitable alternative...”