Take a compact economy car chassis and make it into an inexpensive utility vehicle for your country’s armed forces. In Germany, this formula produced the Volkswagen-based Kubelwagen (“Bucket Car”), a successful design that was the Jeep of the German armed forces during the Second World War. After the war, the Kubelwagen would begat the civilian market Type 181 Thing, which became a popular beach cruiser, still seen on the road in far-flung sunny places from California to Bali. In the United Kingdom, this formula produced a more esoteric vehicle: the Mini Moke.
“Moke” is an informal British word for donkey, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and the name is an indication of the vehicle’s origins. Sir Alec Issigonis, the designer of the Mini, also designed the Mini Moke in an attempt to fill a British Army request for a lightweight, air-transportable utility vehicle. Prototype open top vehicles based on the Mini platform, with the same 80 inch wheelbase as the Mini, were produced in 1959-63 for British Army, Royal Marine, and Royal Air Force trials. They included a 4WD version with dual engines and drivetrains, front and rear.
The lack of ground clearance and low power of the Mini Moke doomed it as a military vehicle from the beginning, though. Predictably, the only interest from the British armed forces was in using them on completely flat surfaces – on the flight decks of Royal Navy aircraft carriers. The Australian armed forces used a small number of them, but they were a fringe vehicle.
The Mini Moke instead found its place in the civilian automotive marketplace, as an open-topped beach cruiser. A 30 year production run followed, in multiple countries, under several parent companies. BMC produced the Mini Moke in Birmingham from 1964 to 1968 and in Sydney, Australia from 1966 to 1982. British Leyland moved production to Portugal in 1983, where it continued until 1989 under Austin Rover Portugal. Cagiva, an Italian motorcycle manufacturer that owns Ducati and MV Agusta, bought the rights to the Mini Moke in 1990 and continued production in Portugal until 1993.
This view next to a Honda Civic shows why the Mini Moke was destined to be a fringe vehicle in either military or civilian use. It has to be one of the smallest, lowest four wheeled vehicles ever produced. There are big wheeled ATVs that are comparable in length and width.
The Mini Moke has its charms, though, and it is easy to see why it lasted for 30 years and continues to have an enthusiastic following. Like the original Mini, it is a full four seater, provided that the four people are not very big and are friendly. Just the thing (pun intended) for couples zipping around a beach resort. A golf cart will perform the same function, but it is clear which does it with more character.
In addition to being as small as it gets, the Mini Moke is as simple as it gets. Flat seats, simple central instrument panel, open package shelves, exposed heater hoses and windshield wiper motor and mechanism – the driver of the Mini Moke gets an honestly mechanical view. The front passenger gets a grab handle and little else.
The two rear passengers get their own grab handles and their very own shock towers, and that is all. If they sit down carelessly, they get a shock of a different sort. All part of the beach vacation experience.
Everyday life packages you into plain white boxes, but on vacation, you get to go wild and crazy and topless. The Mini Moke, like the VW Thing, is misplaced in the former but fits perfectly into the latter. Beach cruiser is a strange destiny for designs that began as military vehicles, but it has given these two cars a sort of automotive immortality.