Long Trip

Words: Dave Smith, photography: Martin Drake

Back in the late Seventies, an aspiring young customiser called Andy Saunders was idly doodling an idea for a shortened Mini in his schoolbooks. In 1983, with Andy only just into his twenties, he debuted MiniHaHa at the Belle Vue custom show. There were a couple of other mental Minis to follow in his repertoire, but, 17 years later, he built this one, MiniHaHa II if you will, just for something to do on a dull weekend.

Andy famously lives on the south coast, but when he sold this car at auction, the new owner took it north. Quite a long way north. A “much further north and we’ll run out of British Isles” way north. Orkney, in fact.

It’s owned by Maureen Firth, who lives in Kirkwall. “My granddad and dad collected ‘stuff’,” says Maureen, “and my dad and I set up the Orkney Fossil and Heritage Centre museum on Burray. We spotted the car in the Bonham’s auction at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, in 2002, and dad bought it. He ran it about for a while, and it was often parked up outside the museum, but when he became unable to drive, he just put it in his garage.

“Ten years ago, I suggested that dad might like to give me the car as a birthday present… and he did! I used to drive it to work at least once a week, and go to the local vintage rally, but then life got in the way of novelty cars, and my garage was not handy for the house, so it was left to sit again.

“Some months ago, a chap called Niz Hasham posted about it on Facebook. I thought I recognised the name – I went to school with him! Anyway, I got in touch and said he should come and visit the car. He messaged back and said he was coming, and Martin was coming along with his camera, so I thought I’d better be quick and get it back on the road!

“I got all the paperwork for the car from my dad, including an open ‘to whom it may concern’ letter from Andy Saunders to the new owner. I’m not a car freak, even though I have a freaky car, so I looked Andy up on the internet, and on his site he said that this car had gone to a museum on Skye! I had to set him straight…

“Andy said he made this car for himself as a quick project, and made it because he hated the look of the then-new Smart car, and this was his answer. When I needed a car cover for this car, the only one I could find to fit was one for a Smart, and it’s still too big!

“It’s such fun to drive. It’s surprisingly heavy, because there’s no power steering, the wheels are wide and the steering wheel is tiny, plus I’m only 5’6” and I’m still cramped, but people double-take as you drive past, smiling, pointing and laughing; they just enjoy seeing it about. You don’t drive this to look cool; you drive it to have fun. It was certainly fun leading a convoy of three Mustangs and an El Camino through Kirkwall with it!

“Just a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to someone here who couldn’t believe there was a Saunders car in Orkney – he’d followed Andy’s career from the start. I feel quite privileged to own it. It’s special to everyone else as a Saunders car, but it’s doubly special to me because it was a present from my dad, who died a couple of years ago.

“I’ve thought of selling it a few times, because it doesn’t get used as often as it should, but when I get it back on the road after periods of sitting idle, I remember, ‘Yes, it was THIS much fun’! I know how special it is, so I’ll probably keep it. I do have family, but I haven’t let any of them drive it because I know they’ll have too much fun…”

I asked Andy Saunders for his recollections of building MiniHaHa II.

“I built it in 2000,” says Andy. “I’d been out on the pop, and the taxi driver on the way home was Trevor, a friend of my dad’s. He mentioned that he had a Mini, but his wife had just run into the back of someone, and did I want to buy it?

“I went to have a look, and apart from the accident damage, it was lovely, straight and rust-free, so I gave him £400 for it. I fitted a new front panel, wings, and later A-pillars with internal hinges.

“I wanted another shorty, but I wanted it to look standard from the front and back, hence it retained the seams, and it has big wheels but they don’t stick way out of the arches. I did it really quickly; I just got stuck in, and from cutting it in half to spraying the paint took just 10 days. It was quite an easy job after the first MiniHaHa.

“I took 2’7” out of it the floorpan to bring the leading edge of the rear subframe mounts within half an inch of the box section under the front seats, then seam welded and boxed it. It’s very strong. The rear of the roof panel needed to be widened about half an inch, and the front narrowed by the same amount, about two inches up from the gutters. Inside, the rear seat became the front seat, though the squab needed shortening six inches to clear the gear lever. The C-pillar is the original shape, and I made a new door shut from a sill repair panel and the piece containing the latching mechanism from the original B-pillar, then cut the door to suit the new shape. Fitting the door shut to the C-pillar meant that I had to send the fuel tank away to be modified, and the rear seat bulkhead had to be cut back, too, to clear the doors.

“It was my daily driver for about a year. It was a lot of fun!”