Written by Tom | 28th May 2020
The Mini Cooper has been a British icon for decades and a few models in particular have helped make it one of the most desirable and luxurious cars in Britain. Between Harold Radford’s Mini de Ville and the Wood & Pickett Mini, these cars were customised with lavish features that took the ordinary Mini to new, luxurious heights. We asked classic car expert Luca Gazzaretti to tell us more about them and their impact.
Petrolhead or not, most people have heard of the Mini Cooper. It’s been a stylish drive, a heist vehicle and a race car. It’s a car of reinvention but it’s always distinctly a Mini, says Luca. “There is nothing comparable to a Mini. Born in 1959, thanks to the English-Greek 'estro' of Sir Alec Issigonis, the Mini was one of the most successful cars ever. It even won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, something we often forget!”. The customisable Minis produced by Radford and later Wood & Pickett were seminal designs – providing something new and yet reflective of the time.
In order to understand the significance of these Minis, Luca says that it is important to look at the cultural context of the time. “We have to go back to the 60s and recognise what was then the spirit of Swinging London", he explains. “Rockers and mods were the prevalent subcultures and they were partly recognised by the vehicles they chose to drive. Rockers chose the noisy BSA bikes while the mods opted for the romantic and simple Vespas and Lambrettas. Beyond that, it was a time when Mary Quant invented the miniskirt. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were the bands of the moment and one of the most distinctive cars ever made, ‘The Mini’, was parked almost everywhere in the UK. It was so tiny and so special”.
Piccadilly Circus in the 60s reflected the burst of entertainment London was experiencing.
But while certain vehicles were being claimed by various groups, there was demand among the wealthy and celebrities for something new. “London's car coachbuilders came from the 1950s, where "posh and wealthy people" wanted something more distinctive than a "normal" Rolls Royce or Bentley when they bought a luxurious car”, explains Luca. “Harold Radford was one of those famous London coachbuilders. As luck would have it, he met Peter Sellers who was in the midst of the pre-production stages of The Pink Panther series and the owner of several cars, including a Mini. Sellers asked Radford to customise an Austin Mini Cooper S in left-hand drive form for the series first film. And so The "Mini de Ville" was born”.
The impact of this car was seismic among London’s elite. Everyone wanted a piece. “Sellers even asked for a second car, identical to the one in the film, to be built for his then wife Britt Ekland!”, Luca exclaims. But what was it that made this model so appealing? On the outside they weren’t drastically different but the interiors were something entirely new. These weren’t just ordinary Minis, they were extravagance on wheels; buyers could expect walnut dashboards, leather seats and deep-pile carpet to name a few things.
Both customisable Minis came with a range of elegant furnishings including walnut dashboards and leather seats
From 1963 until the end of the 60s, most major British celebrities owned a Mini de Ville. “This modified Mini has really only been successful among VIP”, says Luca. “The list includes movie stars like Peter Sellers and Steve McQueen, famous musicians such as John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison (who had one painted in the psychedelic colours of The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour), and fashion icons like Twiggy and Mary Quant. These Minis were incredibly expensive and wildly different from the Minis you’d find in town, which was of course why they appealed to many. The dogma was: luxury, luxury and luxury”.
The Mini de Ville may have enraptured the 60s but Radford’s Minis began to price out even the most wealthy. Fellow coachbuilders Wood & Pickett spotted an opportunity to swoop in with their own build. “The Radford Mini de Ville was the first of its kind and was perhaps even more luxurious than models nowadays, but the Wood & Pickett Mini was also a high-level car”, explains Luca. “There was a lot of competition between the two companies, made more competitive due to the fact that Radford’s former director Eddie Collins managed The Wood and Pickett company”. W&P knew how to market their own cars and they even strategically located their business in Abbey Road, close to the studios. They did well to do this as Ringo Starr of The Beatles ordered one of the W&P Minis, modified to accommodate his drum kit.
The twin headlights were another distinctive feature in some W&P Minis
For motorists of the time, these modified Minis were the stuff of dreams. “Basically every W&P Mini (like Radford’s) was unique”, says Luca. “Customers at the time wanted a hyper-customised car and the list of the accessories possible was basically infinite”. Tinted and electric windows, sunroofs, leather retrims and for the shy celebrity, small opera windows were an option. The following decades has seen W&P continue to make Minis and they’re still building custom Minis from donor vehicles. Radford’s company has been resurrected by former W&P workers and the Minis are making a return. And while the glittering glory days of the 60s Mini may never return, these cars proved it’s never too late to reinvent a classic.
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