Britain's Beetle alternative 'a joy to drive'

George Siamandas found his 1958 Morris Minor 1000 in the 1980s poking out of a lean-to in a River Heights back lane. Fortunately for him, the owner at the time was looking to sell it. (Larry D’Argis photos / Winnipeg Free Press)

George Siamandas found his 1958 Morris Minor 1000 in the 1980s poking out of a lean-to in a River Heights back lane. Fortunately for him, the owner at the time was looking to sell it. (Larry D’Argis photos / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Morris Minor began production in 1948. Built in Britain and designed by Alec Issigonis, the styling was all-new, as was the all-steel, unibody construction incorporating a full-steel floor pan.

Rack-and-pinion steering and torsion bar front suspension gave the Minor what was billed as “Lull-Above” ride, and handling that was well beyond what one could expect from a roomy family car. For power, the 918.6-cubic-centimetre L-head four-cylinder engine, developing 27.5 horsepower at 4,400 rpm was a prewar carry-over, but by 1956, the Minor would see a new engine. The Minor, wearing the 1,000 designation badging featured an A-series 948-cubic-centimetre, overhead-valve four-cylinder engine, would produce 30 horsepower. The car was available in two-door sedan or four-door sedan body styles, as well as the now much-loved and collectible Traveller “woodie” two-door station wagon and two-door convertible.

Although the 1950s is remembered as the decade of the chrome-laden large car era in North America, there were those buyers who were seeking out more austere vehicles for their motoring needs. The import market opened the door for buyers seeking roomy, small sedans, with good handling, ample trunk room and fuel-efficient engines. These cars were a real alternative for families on a budget.

By 1958, the Morris Minor 100 was a common sight on the road in Europe, Asia and North America. A true family-capable vehicle, now boasting 37 horsepower thanks to a modest increase in compression, its top speed was nearing 112 kilometres per hour with a zero-to-96-kilometres-per-hour time of 31 seconds. Selling nearly 150,000 units per year, it was typically purchased by those wanting a well-engineered small car with familiar mechanicals, without the idiosyncrasies of the air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle.

For George Siamandas of Winnipeg, the Morris Minor was the car he first learned to drive. “At age 16, while I was working at the Hollow Mug Cabaret at the International Inn, I learned to drive on a Morris Minor owned by a fellow busboy,” Siamandas says. “As we got off late, past the time the buses ran, he often let me drive the car home.”

The Morris remained a powerful memory for Siamandas, and in 1986, he found one poking out of a lean-to in a River Heights back lane. The young man who owned the car had received it from his grandfather and really wanted to sell it and buy his dream Firebird. Siamandas purchased the Morris with 43,529 original kilometres on the engine, and spent the summer bringing it back to life. A basic tune-up, thorough cleaning and general maintenance got the car back on the road.

Primrose in colour, the two-door Minor had received a repaint in the late 1960s, otherwise it is complete and mostly original. Almost entirely rust-free with acceptable chrome trim and bumpers, it has a very nicely kept red-leather bucket-seat interior. With a four-speed manual transmission, manual choke and pull-start switch on the dash, it’s an extremely bare-bones vehicle in comparison to any newer models. It even has a small access hole in the grille to insert the metal crank handle, to start it in the event of a dead battery.

Over the years, Siamandas has maintained the car and used it sparingly as a summer driver. It now has about 64,373 kilometres on the odometer. “It’s a joy to drive and very easy to work on as everything is simple and accessible,” says Siamandas, who admits his Mazda Miata convertible takes him most places during the summer, so he doesn’t have many occasions to drive the little Morris Minor coupe anymore.

The Morris Minor was a milestone of automotive accomplishment — not only Great Britain, but for the world. It was Britain’s first million-unit seller, making it a true “people’s car,” with more than 1.5 million built before production ceased.

A final engine upgrade occurred in 1962, when a 49-horsepower A-series 1,098-cubic-centimetre engine became standard. The badging remained 1,000, however, in a bid for familiarity with prospective customers.

With the Morris Minor now enjoying its 70th anniversary since its introduction, it’s ubiquitous at collector car events in Britain, in much the same way 1955 to 57 Chevrolets or early Mustangs are in North America. Though much less common in the U.S. and Canada, there is still a following for these exclusive imports.

57ford@mymts.net

The Minor has a classic feel with red-leather bucket seats and a pull-start switch on the dash.

The Minor has a classic feel with red-leather bucket seats and a pull-start switch on the dash.