There was no shortage of groundbreaking cars in the ’50s, from the fuel-injected Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing and the futuristic Citroën DS to the wild concepts emanating from Italy and space-age land yachts from North America.
But the most lasting impression on the world of car design came from a product not of Turin’s design studios but of Longbridge, a triumph more of perspective and approach than cutting-edge technology, in the pint-sized form of the Morris Mini-Minor.
Everywhere we go, 667 GFC seems to draw a crowd. From excited kids who’ve likely never seen a car so small to seasoned campaigners, misty-eyed at memories of their youth, there is no end to the noses pressed to its sliding glass windows.
Even aficionados seem impressed, the more knowledgeable noting the external door hinges, ‘magic wand’ gearlever and neat oval tail-lamps that distinguish it as an ultra-desirable Mk1 – one of around 250 thought to survive from a production run totalling some 22,000.
As an examplar of Alec Issigonis’ genius concept, the first iteration is comfortably the most fitting – before the myriad improvements and tweaks that marked the transition from design icon to, at least by the end, something of a retro throwback.
667 GFC is as fine a Mk1 as you’re likely to find, too, but it isn’t without its curiosities.
First, there’s a chassis number of just 100 – earlier in the running order than the oldest-known Mini, 621 AOK.
Then there’s the bodyshell, a 1960 pressing that doesn’t quite tally with the apparent age of the car, and an engine dating from mid-’60; the rest of the mechanical components are as early as they come.
The discrepancies can be traced to a fascinating initial life tied to the promotion of the model.
That the Mini made such a splash when it was launched in the summer of 1959 wasn’t solely down to its ingenious solutions to everyday problems, but also a mammoth marketing campaign by maker BMC that included some 2000 cars being shipped to all corners of the globe for a spectacular simultaneous unveiling across 100 countries.
As part of the PR push, BMC handed out press cars like sweeties, with 33 ‘GFC’ registered vehicles going to all the major motoring outlets that ran long-term press cars.
Of that cohort registered in the summer of 1959, 667 GFC was particularly significant, spending its earliest days in the care of The Autocar magazine with renowned journalist Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker and junior Paul Rivière, who hatched a plan to test the car’s long-term ownership credentials.
Today that would likely involve a trip to the shops and a contrived photo opportunity with a Christmas tree lashed to the roof, but budgets were more generous in 1959 and the publisher agreed to finance something rather more ambitious.
An 8000-mile thrash around the Mediterranean, passing through Europe and returning via North Africa, would allow Barker to assess the Mini’s capabilities, and BMC to analyse the longevity of its components.
Effectively an ‘on tools’ prototype, 667 GFC was, by and large, mechanically identical to production models – though with a few choice modifications.
A sump-guard was added to cope with the rigours of rural roads, and an export-strength six-blade fan was fitted for the warmer climes along with a secondary fuel tank that would enable the car to double its range – vital for covering distance across remote areas.
After being flagged away from London’s Royal Festival Hall by none other than Jack Brabham on 26 August 1959, Barker and Rivière began their journey by flying from Ferryfield to Le Touquet.
A real Boy’s Own adventure that included all manner of capers, from outrunning a pursuing police car to bartering for fuel with a half-bottle of Black & White whisky, the drive was an incredible test of the Mini’s endurance.
From high-speed autobahn runs to conquering the mighty Grossglockner Pass, the little Mini took it all on, though not without incident.
A cooling problem that first manifested itself when crossing the 48km-long Austrian pass plagued the car for the rest of the journey, while the pre-Hydrolastic suspension also felt the strain with a damper bracket working loose amid violent crashing of bump-stops.
Later, passing the Libyan ruins of Cyrene along a treacherous, undulating road marked by blind crests and deep gorges, Barker performed what the pair described as an ‘extravagant manoeuvre’ mid-corner.
Blushes were spared when the nearside rear damper was found to be hanging loose, the result of a sheared lower mounting pin.
Almost as impressive as the Mini’s ability to take on the challenge is the apparent global reach of BMC, and the number of visits paid to representatives along the route.
Remarkably, the only spares sent ahead of the car comprised a set of wheels and tyres that awaited the crew in Beirut, though a number of minor repairs were carried out along the way.
Following its adventure, 667 GFC was given the new chassis number of 100 to replace its ‘583’ identity issued by Cowley’s Experimental Department, and lived a largely unremarkable life in High Wycombe after being sold as secondhand in 1962.
Once its famous past came to light, it was bought by collector Naoki Baba and has lived – unrestored – in Japan since 1978.
It was only when the car returned to the UK to be rebuilt that a fuller picture of its life post-adventure began to emerge.
On closer inspection, the shell was found to be a February 1960 pressing that differed in a number of key ways from the earlier body around which the car was originally built.
It featured certain modifications and improvements not found on 1959 cars, such as channels over the door locks to prevent water from running inside.
The roof, meanwhile, boasted a riveted drip-rail – a temporary fix that was missing from early cars, and rationalised for production on later models.
That the shell was different to the original car isn’t too much of a surprise when you consider what would have been involved in stress-testing the monocoque.
It’s unlikely to have been properly analysed without it being cut up, to the point where it would have been little more than scrap.
Other mechanical components are more likely to have been salvageable, with ‘even wheels stripped of their paint and checked for indications of fatigue or failure’, though it must have been tempting, both in cost and time terms, to just squash the whole thing into a cube and slap the registration plates on to a new car.
Fascinatingly, that doesn’t appear to be what happened.
As specialist Nippy Cars dug deeper, all the evidence seemed to suggest that the Cowley team painstakingly disassembled 667 GFC and refitted the majority of its original components into a new bodyshell.
Curiously, the shell is missing some stamped numbers, suggesting that it never passed down the production line and was instead reconstituted by hand.
Everywhere you look there is evidence of early Mini parts, from the papier-mâché cowling surrounding the speedometer to the first-generation magnesium-cased gearbox, while the dashboard switches and electrical components are dated to early summer 1959.
Even the early ‘three-hole’ heater box is present, as are the black seats found only on the earliest examples.
The front subframe, meanwhile, has holes where the sump-guard was fitted – though the guard itself is notably missing from the car today.
Looking back at the final written instalment of the adventure, that is perhaps understandable.
The car first boiled dry while crossing the Glossglockner Pass, a problem that persisted throughout the trip and was eventually traced to faulty seating of the pressure cap in the header tank – but the sump-guard didn’t help.
Engineers found that it obstructed airflow, reducing cooling, and The Autocar noted that, in any case, it was probably an ‘unnecessary precaution’ given the ruggedness of the sump casting.
The engine didn’t fare too well, suffering a burnt-out exhaust valve while on the home straight through France, and when the block was stripped down one of the pistons was found to be heavily scored.
No doubt as a result of this, the unit was scrapped, with the replacement motor dating to mid-1960.
Combined with the date of the shell, you get the impression that the rebuild took a considerable amount of time.
We also know at which point it was finished, thanks to another fascinating snippet from 667 GFC’s early life: on 10 September the car took part in a scratch race of Minis organised for the 43rd Members’ Meeting at Goodwood.
Drivers were chosen from the ranks of professional journalists, among their number none other than Steady Barker and Paul Rivière, each of whom took the wheel of near-identical Minis to do battle with the likes of Motor Sport’s Bill Boddy and Autosport’s John Bolster.
A close race that was ‘as amusing as it was ingenious’ according to Motor Sport, the event pitched eight Morris Mini-Minors against eight marginally slower Austin Se7ens.
Steady Barker took the chequered flag an ace ahead of Roger Bell, each at the wheel of a Morris, with John Anstice-Brown coming in third, just a second ahead of John Bolster.
Exactly who was driving what is now a mystery lost to time and fading memories, but the race programme offers a glimpse: of the Mini-Minors, just three were red and assigned to Bolster, Autosport chief photographer George Phillips and commentator James Tilling.
However, period photographs show Bolster behind the wheel of a white car, leading us to believe that 667 GFC was likely driven by Phillips or Tilling.
It’s with some excitement that the little 850 is fired up with a twist of the key and we take the first tentative steps on to Goodwood’s hallowed asphalt for the first time in more than half a century, slotting back into second with a wave of the wand and accelerating down the start/finish straight towards Madgwick.
As someone who has only experienced later Minis, I’m surprised at how modern it feels, and how sprightly, despite a power output that would seem disappointing even for a moped.
Quickly making its way through the gears, 667 GFC buzzes along like a bee, as eager as it must have been in 1960, cheerfully devouring corner after corner.
Despite its age, the steering is sharp and direct, with a fleetness of foot from its short wheelbase and tiny wheels that makes it feel something like a go-kart – but with all the appointments you expect from a proper car.
It also feels genuinely brisk, despite never breaking more than around 40mph.
By now I’m relishing the task, fizzing along behind the camera car and kissing each apex without a care for road positioning or the frantic hand gestures coming from photographer Williams.
But I’m quickly reminded of the car’s earlier life, as smoke begins to emanate from the dashboard accompanied by a rather rum smell.
I pull over, fearing that I’m about to become the man who burned down a piece of Britain’s motoring heritage, but it’s nothing more than history repeating: the block is hot – probably for the first time since restoration – and is burning off sealant that has seeped from between the face and head.
No great drama, but it’s enough to recall early Minis’ propensity to overheat and a timely reminder to quit while we’re ahead.
We’ve only spent an afternoon with the car, but the thought of something happening to it brings on an almost physical pain.
Not so much out of deference to the car’s significance, but because it’s that rarest of things: a survivor.
Having made it back in one piece after its 8127-mile adventure around the Mediterranean, then dicing with danger at the Members’ Meeting before travelling halfway around the world, it’s fair to say that 667 GFC has earned its gleaming restoration.
And probably a rest, too.
Images: Will Williams