John Simister: The original Mini GT

30th October 2017
john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_04.jpg John Simister

Today's Mini brand has recently launched the Mini 1499 GT, a limited-edition model inspired by the 1275 GT of, yes, 48 years ago. That was the racy(ish) version of the square-fronted Mini, that side-turning in the original Mini's evolution that ran from 1969 to 1980, mostly as a low-power Clubman.


The new car doesn't have a square front, but it does have the 'sidewinder' stripes above the sills in the style first seen on the Ford GT40. And it is somehow true to the original 1275 GT in seeming to be a hot little car but actually having a low-power engine under the bonnet. It looks like a John Cooper Works, with all the spoilers and sportification, but has under half the power, 102bhp against 231.

Its engine is the most minimal of new-Mini petrol engines, with three cylinders totaling 1,198cc. Actually, it's a sweet, punchy engine which makes a fair fist of hauling the 1,165kg that even a car called Mini now weighs, so its power-to-weight ratio is 88bhp per tonne. For better authenticity, given the new editions' name, it should have had the current Mini Cooper's 1,499cc engine, but instead, the name relates to the number of examples that will be made.

Obviously, the 1275 GT had a 1,275cc engine. It delivered just 59bhp, a feeble effort given that the contemporary Cooper S extracted 71bhp from the same capacity. But the Cooper S didn't last long after the Mini range lost its Austin and Morris badging and became, from late 1969 with the launch of the MkIII generation (hidden door hinges, wind-up windows), a marque in its own right. British Leyland boss Donald Stokes famously terminated the agreement to use the Cooper name, regarding it as a waste of money, so that was the end of the Mini-Cooper (hyphenated back then).

You'd think the 1275 GT, billed as the new sporty Mini with its stripes, its rev-counter and, originally, its miniature Rostyle wheels, would have been given the twin-carb Cooper S engine, but no. Its power advantage over the regular 998cc Clubman's 40bhp was deemed sufficient, and given that the 1275 GT weighed just 675kg, 59bhp still gave a fair power-to-weight ratio of 87bhp per tonne. That's practically the same as its modern semi-namesake's, notwithstanding the inconvenient truth of the need to add the weight of the occupants.

As with all 'classic' Minis, the 1275 GT has a strong body of fans today. Despite its ultimately lazy engine, it's good fun to drive, with lots of torque at low revs and a burbly exhaust note. The first example I knew was a red H-plater, which belonged to a fellow student at Sussex University in the early 1970s called Judy O'Nians. She favored floppy hats and was a keen member of the university's motor club, as of course was I. For the club rallies, obviously. 

I came across another, in yellow, at the garage where I had a holiday job as a mechanic. It was in for a crash repair to its nose, the impact enough to have bent the front subframe. The garage billed the insurance company for a new subframe and all the attendant labour, but actually cut out the bent part, folded up a new piece from sheet steel and welded it in, leaving the engine and suspension entirely undisturbed. It was a neat job and no-one was any the wiser. That's how the motor trade worked, I was assured.


Years later, when I was working on Motor magazine, we decided each member of the road test team should buy a car for under £1000 including any required remedial work, and write about what a great bargain it was. I alighted on a T-reg 1275 GT in Russet Brown, a sort of mid-chocolate very fashionable in 1978, which seemed a good little car apart from its instant need for a complete exhaust system and four disturbingly expensive Dunlop Denovo run-flat tyres, by then standard 1275 GT equipment.

And then I looked a bit harder at the body, whose colour disguised rust rather well. There followed a short stay in my local body shop for a new front wing, a new 'flitch panel' (the one between wing and door), a new section of sill and a repair of doubtful long-term durability to the bottoms of the doors where they had bubbled behind the side stripes. That was the end of the side stripes, but at least everyone would now think it was a Clubman and harmless fun might be had at the traffic lights. In the land of low-powered cars, a 19bhp advantage is king.

NFC 776T was, in truth, not a great Mini, but our publishing director took a shine to it and bought it for his son, so we didn't have to worry about it anymore. After that, I thought no more about 1275 GTs until an unexpectedly interesting example popped up for auction in 2013. It was a late example in metallic bronze, which had never been registered but was nevertheless in a terrible state.

This was because it was used as a runaround by workers in British Leyland's Longbridge factory, where it was made, but that ceased when a storage container fell on top of it and squashed its roof. Undamaged parts were salvaged and the crumpled shell was abandoned in a tunnel under the factory. 

Thirty years later, in 2012, the tunnels were about to be filled in so a former worker at the factory, who remembered where the 1275 GT was secreted, got permission to extract it – making it the last Mini to have left Longbridge. It made just £1400 at auction despite the history, but then it was barely more than a crumpled shell even if a fair job had been made of straightening out the roof.

But here's a thought. In its publicity shots for the 1499 GT, today's Mini publicists show a pristine J-reg example of a 1275 GT in 1970-trendy mustard yellow. (There's trickery in those pics, judging by the way the enormous new Mini looks barely larger than the tiny original.) Wouldn't it be good, though, if BMW – owner of today's Mini brand – could acquire that mangled bodyshell and restore the final Longbridge exiteer? I can hear the chorus of enthusiasm in Munich already…

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