Ask Mowog

Buying a Used Mini

For a car that hasn't been made in Australia for sixteen years, Minis represent pretty good value for money in the used car market. Despite their age there are quite a number of good examples available for sale at reasonable prices. The ready availability of new parts has helped to keep most Minis in good mechanical condition and away from the wrecking yards.

The first thing you have to decide when shopping for a Mini is whether you want a Mini Mini or just a Mini. If you want a Mini Mini then you would be looking at the earlier round nosed Minis and most probably after a Cooper S. Genuine Cooper S's command atleast twice as much as standard Minis and as a result there are probably as many fakes on the market as real ones. Determining a fake from an original requires quite a bit of homework, depending on how original you want it to be and is out of the scope of this article. Plenty of advice is available from club members and speciality Mini restorers.

Now if you just after a plain old Mini your work is much easier. Basically your after a sound car that goes well and won't give any trouble for a while. Probably the best car to fit into this criteria would be a Clubman built between late 1974 and 1977. Even though the Clubman has typical 1970's styling, it is basically the same as the earlier model but does offer a number of refinements and advantages. First of all, the later the car was made the less it will have travelled and the better shape it should be in. Minis after 1974 started to get a number of nice features including full height bucket seats, inertia reel seatbelts, sunroofs, wider wheels, factory mags, tacho etc. Around 1977 Minis started to be fitted with anti-pollution gear using air injection. This system was introduced to meet ADR27a emission requirements but also reduced engine power. The air injection system proved to not be very durable and few cars today would have a fully working system.

So now that you know what you're after, you've found an example for sale. How do you determine what condition it's in?. Well, lets start with the bodywork first. In nearly twenty years of motoring nearly every Mini has been involved in an accident of some kind. The question is, how well has it been repaired. The answer is if you can tell its been repaired then it wasn't a good job.

The most common accident for a Mini to be have is a front end collision, due to the car's poor brakes. Evidence to look for includes wrinkles in the inner guards, a replace apron panel, and body filler in the guards around the headlights. The danger with front end collisions is that the front subframe can be easily twisted which throws the front suspension out of alignment. A car with a twisted subframe can exhibit a variety of symptoms including severe vibration at certain speeds, pulling to one side and unusual tyre wear.

The Mini's monocoque structure (which means the body panels form the structure of the car and it has no chassis) is particularly susceptible to accident damage. Any major knock, especially in the rear corners, will twist the bodyshell. Things to look out for here include buckles in the roof, windows that don't fit, and unusual tyre wear, especially on the rear.

Be on the lookout for areas of body filler. Excellent repairs shouldn't require any, good repairs will use some but bodgie repairs will use a lot. I've seen a car where the body filler was up to one centimetre thick in places. A fridge magnet is useful here for detecting body filler - it won't stick if the filler is too thick.

Rust is the other main killer of Mini body shells. Our climate is a lot kinder to steel bodies than the UK so don't be scared by some of the horror stories appearing in the UK magazines. Serious structural rust is usually only seen in cars that had suffered years of neglect but most Minis will have some signs of the dreaded disease. The first place to look is the front floor pan. Leaking windscreens let water soak the carpets which eventually rust out the floor pan. Don't be too alarmed if the floor pan has large dents in to near the wheel wells. These are usually caused by idiots with jacks. Replacement sections of the floor pan are available and not to difficult to fit.

Doors tend to start rusting from the bottom and are quite easily detected before the problem gets serious. While your in this area lift up the rubber sealing strip around the door frame. Rust can sometimes start under this strip and eat its way down into the sills undetected.

Looking at the front of the car, common rust spots include the front subframe mounting points and around the headlights where mud gets splashed up from the wheels. Inside the engine bay it is not unusual for the fire wall to have a lot of surface rust. Brake fluid spills strip off the paint and the heat from the exhaust accelerates the rusting process, however leaking engine oil usually coats this area offering some protection.

Moving back the next area to check is the apex panels where the door hinges bolt on. Rust can start behind the hinges and progress to the extent that they can break away. Look around the rain gutters for any signs of rust which can cause leaks into the head lining.

Probably the most serious structural rust occurs just in front of the rear wheels where the rear subframe mounts onto the body. Mud gets trapped in this area causing rust to eat into the ends of the sills. Once the rust penetrates water can enter into the sills and start rusting them from the inside out. If you suspect rust in this area remove the lining from the rear storage bins and check the condition of the tops of the sills.

Finally check for rust in the boot. You will always find rust in the battery box but fitting a replacement box is no big deal. Rust can also occur in the spare wheel well and, most seriously, along the seam where the boot floor joins the panel behind the back seat.

Now that we've sized the car up bodywise its time to look at the mechanicals. First look at each tyre and check for uneven wear which will indicate that something's out of alignment. Give each wheel a good shake gripping it at the top. Any movement or clunking noises will show up worn wheel bearings, ball joints and control arm bearings.

Look at the height of the car off the ground. If it appears low it may indicate a leaking hydrolastic system or sagging rubber cones. The car should definitely not be sitting on the upper bump stops when park on flat ground.

Sticking your head under the hood check the state of the oil leaks. Minis leak oil, no two ways about it, the question is how much. Be suspicious of a car that doesn't have oil drops under the engine, especially if the under body is coated in one big oil slick, it may have been treated with some Stop Leak in the oil. Look under the oil filler cap and inside the rocker cover for any signs of mayonnaise, indicating water leakage into the oil. Also check the radiator water for signs of oil.

Start the engine and let it warm up. It should idle around 800-1000 RPM and the oil light should definitely not come on at idle. Check the exhaust for smoke - blue smoke being oil burning and grey smoke being running too rich. Remove the oil filler cap and check for blow-by gasses. If the piston rings are worn you will be able to feel gases coming out of the oil filler and possibly some smoke. On anti- pollution pollution cars removing the oil filler cap will make them idle roughly if the setup is working correctly. Check around the engine and radiator for water leaks.

Rev the engine a few times and listen for any knocking sounds. Constant knocking will indicate a worn big end bearing but knocking only when the engine is decelerating may indicate excessive piston or bore wear resulting in piston slap.

Now its time to test drive the car. Try starting the car off in different gears to assess the engine power. It should start off in second with no problems and in third with a few revs and some clutch slip. Turn the steering from lock to lock and check that it doesn't bind anywhere. Drive the car around in circles with steering on full lock in both directions to check the CV joints. Any clunking noises will indicate worn CV joints. Also a clunking noise when you lift your foot on and off the accelerator will indicate loose engine mounts or worn driveshaft couplings.

Check that the brakes pull up nice and evenly with out too much peddle travel or shudder. Drive the car up to 100km/h and check for excessive vibration in the steering. Listen for any whining sounds from the gearbox and try accelerating and decelerating through the gears. Signs of gearbox wear include vibration through the gear lever, especially in third, and jumping out of gear on deceleration, especially in second. Both indicate a gearbox rebuild is looming.

These checks should give you a good idea of the condition of the car and help you avoid buying a lemon. If you have any doubts get it checked out by an experience Mini mechanic before you part with your cash.

Main Menu  |  Ask Mowog  |