Words and pics by Stuart Grant
Back in the March 2019 issue, I doffed our cloth cap to 60 years of the mighty Mini with a look at a 1275E variant, one of the last versions made at South Africa’s Blackheath production plant. But when the chance came to join in the 60th celebrations at the Knysna Motor Show, I teamed up with a trio of Mini’Formance-prepared cars on an epic 2 500km road trip in the big daddy of locally assembled Minis – a 1967 Cooper S.
I know what you are thinking… a Mini isn’t exactly a Gran Tourer made for swallowing up the kilometres. But hey, in the 1960s many a family would have holidayed in similar cars (probably not even as fancy as a Cooper S), so who was I to complain? And besides, it promised to be an adventure.
At 6am on Friday, following some choking of the twin 1¼-inch SU carburettors, I arrived at the starting point – the Grasmere One-stop. Soon I was joined by a cream race-prepped Cooper S sporting a very cross-sounding crossflow 7-port aluminum head and twin Weber carbs, an 1100cc MG Midget and a MkII 1000 that was freshly built to 1275cc Cooper S-spec and enjoying its run-in drive. In true economy-run style, all the cars were filled to one click on the automatic stop, so fuel consumption could be measured. In the case of the Cooper S pairing, this meant adding juice to both the left- and right-side tanks.
As the autumn sun rose, we set off for Bloemfontein. The Cooper S pairing, fitted with longer 3.1:1 diff ratio, proved the most comfortable at the speed limit but word from the owner of the MkII was that the standard 3.44:1 was not overly busy and more than up to the task of highway cruiser. The Midget also seemed up to the task – that was until 30 kilometres from Bloem, when it rolled to a stop… it seems a 25-litre tank is just not large enough. But this was not entirely unexpected, and a Jerry can in the boot had been pre-loaded with 10 litres.
What this little delay brought to the fore was that everyone seemed to have an emotional connection with the Mini – almost every car that shot past hooted, trucks honked and the occupants waved. Nearby road workers came up and started up a conversation by calling me ‘Mr Bean’ – a name that was shouted at us in almost every town we passed through or stopped in thereafter. Although clearly unaware of the differences between a Cooper S and Mr Bean’s ride, this showed the global appeal of the Mini and, of course, Rowan Atkinson’s onscreen character.
Back on track, we ambled into a filling station in Bloem. Again, first click was the rule and the calculations had all four of us sitting between 7.5 and 7.7 litres per 100km. If you do a trip in an old banger like these, be prepared for the paparazzi – petrol attendants and other travellers whip out the cell phone cameras and ask a million questions. And you know there’s something on the go in the classic world when you stumble across other classics at each stop en route. Here it was a Sunbeam Rapier that the driver had bought the day before in Pretoria and was heading for Knysna before taking it home to Pringle Bay in the Western Cape. The petrol attendants also mentioned seeing a pair of old race cars strapped onto some trailers heading the same way.
From Bloem the dual carriageway became sporadic, with overtaking lanes the order of the day. The A-series-powered gang impressed, all able to pull past trucks, buses and other cars with ease and without the need for stirring the gear levers. Colesburg was the next stop and also where we spotted the next classic: one of only a dozen or so South African-made Fiat 131 racing homologation specials that was being towed down to the show and would be staying on for the week to take part in the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb.
In the fuel-consumption competition, it was down to literally a few millilitres’ difference between all four cars. From Colesburg we split onto the N9, passing by the likes of Noupoort, Nieu-Bethesda and on to our overnight stop in Graaff-Reinet. Accommodation was booked on the way down and somehow we missed the fine print about it being 30km past the historic town, on a farm… which could only be reached by driving along a 6km stretch of dirt road. There was nothing to do but put the Cooper S rally credentials to the test and hit the rough stuff. The quartet excelled. The evening was spent checking over the cars, turning a few chops on the braai and taking in the expansive star-filled sky and sounds of the Karoo.
The morning was fresh, made even more so by a low-lying layer of mist which sat with us for about 140km. Next stop was a roosterkoek brunch and fuel top-up in Willowmore before blasting past the Beervlei Dam and Uniondale, down Outeniqua Pass and into George. If you’ve never driven the N9, do yourself a favour and make it your next road trip. The tarmac is in brilliant condition, there are plenty of awesome mountain passes, the variety of scenery is breathtaking and there are loads of points of interest along the way.
Here are a few facts we stumbled across:
From George to destination Knysna is just 60km or so on the N2, however if you are in a classic (and especially one with the dimension and dynamic of a Cooper S) then take a left in town and hit the Seven Passes road. Again, we can thank Mr Bain for this section of motoring heaven, although this time he worked closely with his brother-in-law Adam de Smidt. The 75km route used to operate as the main road between George and Knysna, crosses 10 rivers and seven gorges by means of historic bridges, and winds through dense bush, forest, farms and small settlements.
So there you have it. 1 137km of trouble-free motoring in unbelievable cars and a landscape that can’t be beaten. What could be better than that? Driving them home again, of course. And we did just that a week later after watching the 7-port Cooper S compete in the Jaguar Simola Hillclimb.
In the end I won the economy race, recording 7.4 litres per 100km – just better than the 7.6 achieved by the rest of the gang… not bad considering we maintained the speed limit for the entire journey.