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With just 250 thought to exist of the 22,000 built, all BMC Minis from 1959 are rare, but 981 GFC is more special than most.
It is the only known original survivor of the 33 Morris Mini-Minors boss George Harriman earmarked to be put at the disposal of the press for long-term appraisal.
Painted white, Cherry Red or Clipper Blue, these ‘FC’-suffix cars were registered between 5 August and 17 September 1959, and were in many ways pre-production ‘on tools’ prototypes.
The idea was hatched by Lawrence Pomeroy of The Motor after a pre-launch dinner at Cowley hosted by the Mini’s creator, Alec Issigonis, for the most influential motoring writers of the day, many of whom were the BMC designer’s personal friends.
Pomeroy could see that the superbly packaged newcomer, with front-wheel drive and transverse gearbox-in-sump engine, was going to cause a sensation, but perhaps he also sensed it would meet some initial resistance.
As a way of generating positive column inches, and generally spreading the word about a radically new and largely unproven British concept, the idea proved to be well worth the investment, particularly when the new compact struggled to catch on at first.
It is likely that at least some of the Morris Minis used on the 18-19 August press launch at Longcross test track were GFC cars, but because only the Austin Se7ens were wearing numberplates at that now-legendary event we cannot know for sure.
In any case, the records show that ‘981’ was not officially allocated an index number until 15 September.
It wasn’t long before the GFC Minis began to appear in the newspapers, sometimes with unforseen consequences.
When Roy Salvadori drove 381 GFC to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza for Sporting Motorist, he gave a certain John Cooper his first close-up look at the BMC marvel.
Other drivers who sampled this Clipper Blue base model included Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Carroll Shelby.
Meanwhile, The Autocar’s 667 GFC – the first Mini to get twin fuel tanks – was taken on an 8000-mile trip around the Mediterranean by Ron Barker.
Its subsequent disassembly by fault-finding BMC engineers is well documented.
The fact that many press cars were returned to Abingdon (then the BMC press office, as well as the MG factory and the competitions department) once the 12-month loan period was over has led many to suggest that some of the GFC fleet became donor shells, and parts for the early rally cars.
Whatever the truth, the fates of the other GFC cars are lost in the mists of time.
This is compounded by the somewhat liberal prevailing attitude to how numberplates were attributed to cars internally at BMC.
What we do know for sure is that Morris Mini-Minor 981 GFC, finished in Clipper Blue, was loaned to John Bolster, then technical editor of the weekly Autosport.
Like Motor Sport’s Bill Boddy, Pomeroy and other luminaries from the world of post-war motoring journalism, Bolster was among the guests at that pre-launch dinner.
Kitted out in his trademark deerstalker and bushy handlebar moustache, 49-year-old John Vary Bolster was one of the most instantly recognisable motoring writers of his day, and certainly one of the most influential.
This was an era when motoring magazines sold 250,000 copies a week – and what they thought really mattered.
Born in 1910, JVB had been taught to drive as a schoolboy by the family chauffeur.
A nasty accident in the 1949 British Grand Prix in the ex-Prince Bira ERA R5B ‘Remus’ ended his racing career, hence the move in 1950 to journalism – for a new weekly called Autosport – and racing commentary for the BBC; he even made a cameo appearance in The Fast Lady next to Stanley Baxter.
Bolster was a prolific author on motoring topics and wrote six books, including an autobiography called Motoring is my Business.
Some of the last things JVB penned before his death in 1984 were for Classic and Sportscar.
The son of a decorated WW1 officer, and co-creator (with his brother, Richard) of the fearsome JAP-engined special ‘Bloody Mary’, Bolster was friendly with Alec Issigonis through their shared interest in hillclimbing.
He was so enamoured with 981 GFC that, well before the publication of a glowing 10,000-mile report in Autosport in May 1960, he bought the little car with his own money.
It replaced a Renault 4CV as his daily driver (Bolster claimed he couldn’t afford to run anything that did less than 40mpg), and joined a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and his beloved 1903 Panhard et Levassor, as well as ‘Bloody Mary’, in an eclectic collection on his farm in Edenbridge, Kent.
JVB writes about driving 981 GFC to the Paris Salon in 1959, meeting Issigonis and giving him a favourable report of his journey.
He is known to have come fourth in a Mini race for journalists at Goodwood in 1960 (Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker won), but it is not clear whether he fielded 981 GFC in the event.
Early on, Bolster began personalising the car to make it more habitable for longer trips with the latest items from the rapidly emerging Mini accessories industry.
An ‘Interior Silent’ sound-insulation kit helped make the little buzzbox a shade more restful (Bolster’s testimony to its effectiveness was used in magazine advertising for the kit), but of more doubtful value was the £4 15s Smiths Rear Screen Heater & De-mister, which used exhaust heat harvested from the boot to clear the back window.
In truth, simply opening the sliding glasses in the doors did the same job more effectively.
SPQR of Haslemere fitted a ‘Major Change’ remote gear linkage to replace the original ‘magic wand’ that disappeared under the dashboard.
Bolster gave the £12 13s 4d upgrade a lovely write-up in Autosport in March 1961, having doubtless acquired it as a free sample in one of the greatest traditions of motoring journalism.
By that stage he had already fitted a rather dashing Walsall Wheels wooden steering wheel that the Mini still wears today.
Although 981 GFC was just another old blue Mini, Bolster was aware of the significance of the car and had a great fondness for it.
He was of an era when people tended to look after things rather than look for reasons to throw them away, and because 981 GFC lived under cover for most of its life it was relatively unrusty.
It had fallen out of regular use in the early 1970s, when it was supplanted by a Fiat 850 Coupé.
A decade later, when Bolster’s health began to fail (first with heart problems, then cancer), he gifted 981 GFC to his stepson, David Dunnell.
The Morris went to live with Dunnell on his smallholding in Wales for the following 20 years, sympathetically stored but generally unused, until Mini collector and restorer Dave Boswell persuaded him to part with it.
Boswell, who has an amazing collection of significant Minis (and new-old-stock BMC parts) then embarked on an expert restoration of 981 GFC, keeping the car as original as possible and using NOS parts where necessary.
Most importantly he preserved the character and features of the car, which is one of the best and most original early Minis in existence, quite apart from the cachet of being a former press car and the ex-Bolster Morris Mini-Minor.
Current keeper John Powrie, who also owns a 1964 1071cc Cooper ‘S’ in similarly pristine order, was brought up on Minis.
“I came back from hospital in a 1959 Mini – a white Morris – that my dad had bought when it was six months old,” he explains.“My first car when I passed my test was a Mini. I like that almost every family in the country has a connection with them.”
While he can geek-out with the best of us on 981 GFC’s early features, Powrie has little time for the Mini originality anoraks who generally emerge to point out the bits that are “wrong” when he turns up at shows.
He is quite clear that this is among the best of the ’59 Minis out there.
And when you add in the amount that Bolster wrote about the car and the accessories he fitted, few could disagree.
The ’screen washer, with its glass bottle, is part of the mystique of the first cars: they were soon changed to plastic when they began to crack in icy conditions.
Naturally, aficionados of the early Minis get very excited about these Wingard Bottles (Powrie has been offered £1500 for his) – ditto the super-rare A-frame jack, the heater attached by three (rather than four) bolts and those riveted 10in wheels. The ones that split when used in anger, a problem Issigonis would never admit to.
Rust issues came later, although it’s interesting to note that Austin and Morris versions of the Mini were made in different factories and even the steel to build them came from different sources.
The Morris cars were built in fractionally thicker-gauge steel and have tended to last better than the Austins, apparently.
Also part of 1959 Mini lore are the water ingress problems caused by the design of the floorpan, and the fact that the roof gutters had no drainholes.
Deluxe versions, such as this one, had twin sunvisors, an ashtray and extra chrome.
Beautifully preserved as it is, 981 GFC gets driven to events and is no trailer queen.
“I don’t think the SPQR change is all that marvellous,” says Powrie, as he sends me off in this precious piece of recent British history, “and the rear ’screen blower is not very good either – but find me another one. It’s useless, but rare!”
I have had so little to do with Minis over the years that driving this one is something of a minor epiphany.
It is tiny, of course, compared to almost anything modern. Yet it has a dignity about it, sitting so confidently four-square on its little 10in wheels.
It projects a timeless sense of purpose by making every inch of its footprint count, with no space for flab.
It’s easy to get into, the vision all round is sublime and the use of space in the door bins, on the dashboard and under the seats is pure genius.
The flecked trim on the fascia and seats is the original, slightly faded ICI vynide, with Bolster’s nicotine-stained fingerprints still in evidence; Powrie even has one of Bolster’s own deerstalkers on the rear shelf, kindly donated by his stepson.
Press the floor-mounted starter button, slot it into first and accelerate away to the shrill whine of the transfer gears in a ’box where changing down is difficult to achieve without a crunch.
The 848cc A-series engine is very flexible, so Powrie recommends starting off in second and doing most of your driving in third – which is good for a heady 60mph – then saving the relatively high top for motorways.
Whatever the gear there is an infectious enthusiasm to the way the Mini, even in its most basic 34bhp form, picks up speed.
In a world where small cars meant small performance, the light, big-hearted Mini was something really new, with acceleration to match many 1½- and 2-litre saloons and to make a nonsense of all the bubble cars in which 50mph was terrifying, never mind the stable 70mph-plus that this astonishing BMC baby was good for.
It was a relatively short step, from here, to the thrills and spills of the various Cooper versions.
Driving it at something near its potential at every opportunity feels both natural and safe, with its superbly precise yet light steering and an immediacy of response that set standards by which front-wheel-drive cars would be judged for decades – and in some ways still are.
Superbly agile without being nervous, it hardly rolls at all on its rubber springs, but this does not come at the expense of the ride, which is lively but not harsh.
Like the brakes (which are good) you don’t really think about it, but just revel in the feeling of this cheeky, cheerful car.
It speaks directly to the little child inside you who still remembers the sensation of piloting a homemade go-kart for the first time.
Something about the uncorrupted dynamism of the Issigonis Mini captures that feeling viscerally: there has never been anything quite like it since.
Cars intended for relatively impoverished people were not supposed to be this much fun 60-odd years ago.
In 1959, cheap generally meant miserable: bus, bike, Shanks’ pony or a clapped-out pre-war saloon.
It’s hard not to drift into tired clichés of the ’60s when writing about Minis but it cannot be denied that, as well as driving the bubble cars off the road, the Mini had all sorts of unintended social effects that chimed in with the spirit of the times.
Only BMC, bungling yet alternately brilliant, could have produced such a masterpiece and failed to earn a payday out of it.
John Powrie could easily earn one out of this car, too, but he is not especially motivated to do so.
He is a great custodian of 981 GFC: “People tell me that she should be in a museum, but any future owner would need to appreciate the car and its history as much as I do.”
Images: Luc Lacey
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