(first posted 3/6/2017) If one wants to know what undoubtedly inspired the ill-fated Aston Martin Cygnet, one has to just mention the words “Radford Mini”. In the sixties and early 70s, these Rolls-Royce-level luxury Mini conversions were the hot thing in swinging London. And if you thought the Cygnet was overpriced, this 1970 Radford DeVille could top out at more than an actual Rolls Royce. And why were they so hot, but not the Cygnet? There’s no accounting for fads.
And here’s the man that started the whole thing: Peter Sellers. In 1963, the very hot actor and car lover had the idea that he wanted a Mini for driving through the crowded streets of London, but with the luxury appointments he had quickly become accustomed to.
So he hired the famous coach works of Hooper to make it for him. Here he is at Hoopers to pick it up. They also presented him the bill, for £2600. As a frame of reference, a standard Mini Cooper S cost £695 at the time.
The Hooper Mini (a replica, actually) soon found its way into the movies, in “A Shot In The Dark”.
At least the soft Connolly hides must have felt good on Sellers and Elke Sommer’s bare backsides.
Hooper had no interest in getting into the luxury-Mini business, but Harold Radford & CO., which had specialized in converting Rolls Royce and Bentleys into the “Countryman”, a combination of town car, shooting brake and tourer, was quite interested, as the Countryman business had run its course.
And so they quickly offered the Mini De Ville in 1963, with many of the same features as Seller’s Hooper Mini, although not the wicker-effect on the sides. Here Sellers is shown driving one of the first ones out of its box, a birthday present for his very attractive new wife, Britt Ekland.
She seems quite smitten with it. As does her audience outside, with her. Look, but don’t touch.
The interior was completely redone, with the very finest materials and every available amenity.
Radford (and Wood & Picket, which soon got into the act too) Minis quickly became the hot item, and many of the hot stars of the time soon had one too. Here’s Paul McCartney and his wife Linda in theirs.
John Lennon had one, to complement his 1965 RR Phantom V, shown here next to George Harrison’s Radford, both sporting their new 1967-vintage paint jobs. And yes, Ringo had one too.
The first one in this line-up (OGO 668E) is Mick Jagger’s Wood & Pickett.
Someone getting measured for their bespoke W&P in 1968.
The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith got into the act too. You were nobody if you didn’t have a Radford or W&P in your long driveway.
The earlier versions kept the Mini’s classic face largely intact.
The 1967 Radford MkIII offered a hatchback, a feature the Mini could really have used.
And by 1970, Radford started fitting these expensive headlight units from the Facel III coupe.
Wood & Picket countered by adapting these Mercedes headlight units.
The boom petered out in about 1969 or so, and Radford called it quits in 1971. But W&P, whose Mini was called “Margrave”, carried on, including this Clubman conversion with Vauxhall-sourced pieces on its nose.
The 1973 energy crises gave W&P a bit of a temporary boost, but the image of these increasingly overwrought mini-Rollers was not the same anymore as it had been in their heyday in the swinging 60s. The whole point in the first place was to have a luxurious small city car that was largely anonymous on the outside.
Nevertheless, W&P continued to offer a wide range of customizing components and accessories for Minis, including the popular Margrave dashboard. It increasingly became more of a DIY affair rather than expensive bespoke coachwork. The stars had moved on to other hot new toys of the moment.
I would say a smaller, easy to park luxury car isn’t a bad idea in some areas. I always say I would drive a downsize Chrysler New Yorker if I live in CA, considering the parking and fuel price.
Or another type of Mini
What was in the Mini’s favor was that it was THE car to be seen in during the 1960’s especially in London. So, to do a bespoke version made a lot of sense.
Aston Martin didn’t have that advantage with the Cygnet. I doubt if the iQ was ever a desirable car to be seen in. Just another cheap Toyota.
I see these cars very rarely, and consider it a treat when I do. Nobody does interiors like the British.
“What was in the Mini’s favor was that it was THE car to be seen in during the 1960’s especially in London. So, to do a bespoke version made a lot of sense…”
Which is why these petered out, and why the factory Wolseley/Riley versions didn’t catch on with this crowd. They had so many pointless external mods glommed on that it looked like they were trying too hard to be something other than Minis, which defeated the “classless car” appeal.
I think the chap getting measured up for his Mini is Dave Clark.
Syke is right – the Mini was cool, the iQ wasn’t. And the Swinging London pop scene was very tight – everyone who bought a Radford (singers, models, movie stars) went to the same parties, went to the same tailors, danced to the same music, explored the same dubious substances. No surprise that they all fell for the same car too. Nowadays that sort of scene simply doesn’t exist.
It’s a pity (or not) that Lady Docker never got her hands on a Mini!
So is there a small car these days that has a special degree of coolness (not polarization) that sets it apart? I’m trying to think of a car that in that respect would have made a better base for the Cygnet, and coming up blank. Maybe in these days we don’t have the Mini’s equal.
Typical great CC story.
Bringing up Lady Docker: sheer genius.
Mini itself got in on this act a few years ago, taking advantage of corporate ties to Rolls-Royce.
Good call. Googling showed me a Mansory Mini, which was disappointingly normal looking!
Over on the UK mini forum there’s currently a restoration of another, rarer coach-built mini http://www.theminiforum.co.uk/forums/topic/323752-coachbuilt-oyler-contessa-the-countess/# In fact it has a decent chance of being the only surviving Oyler Contessa. Luckily the guy restoring it is something of a craftsman with very good form when it comes to restoring mini’s
What a Mini should be. I am loving that sumptuous interior.
It’s a shame Riley didn’t get into this, as the Elf I shot last month was nicely appointed for a Mini one-off, but nothing like that redone interior halfway up with the shag carpeting in the footwells.
The Riley and Wolseley Minis missed the mark, by quite a bit. The fact that these luxurious Minis looked mostly like regular Minis was an essential part of their appeal.
I seem to remember that Princess Margarets’ husband (Tony Armstrong-Jones) was an early adopter of the Mini, which helped to make the car “class-less” and “cool”.
Dont forget the Mini-Sprint , which had rectangular lights and a chopped roof, though I’m not sure you could fit four people in a Mini with a chopped roof.
Yes – Lord Snowdon’s Mini was modified by Hooper, I think. The car went back to BMC for some work and Alec Issigonis rather cheekily removed some of the modifications, as he didn’t think they added anything worth while.
Fun and well done article. The Broadspeed GT was another interesting variant.
Wasn’t there a Vanden-Plas version of the Mini, like BMC did with some of the 1100 and Farina body cars?
Happy Motoring, Mark
No VDP, just the Riley/Wolesley versions.
It is interesting to see this in view of the A-M Cygnet, as well as well-appointed B-segment cars like the modern Mini or Audi A1. I imagine they satisfy 99% of people and the 1% could be looked after by a creative dealer. I do wonder if there are still be the sort of second-tier-but-proper coachbuilder who could do this sort of thing, and have the right image/reputation for the clientele.
Leyland’s South African operation briefly sold a Vanden Plas Mini between 1978-1979 although the photographic evidence suggests it didn’t match the finish and build quality of the English-built cars which may account for the short life-span and it’s unclear whether the head office approved or even knew of this South African novelty prior to its few months of life.
The Cinquecento has been around for a long time now, but would have been an interesting candidate when new.
Trouble is that it isn’t just the cars that have grown blander and more indistinguishable over the years – the pop stars have too.
The Mini, the Beatles, the miniskirt, all had an egalitarian charm; and (thanks to their lousy record contracts, chiselling managers and high rates of income tax) the stars weren’t THAT much richer or sophisticated than the fans. The Mini was a perfect lifestyle accessory. Today’s stars are hidden away in anonymous top-of-the-range Range Rovers etc.
another car for my “if I ever win the lottery” car collection!
Wouldn’t you really rather have the Buick? I would.
As a Beatles fan, one of the Fab Four’s cars would do
Thanks for this excellent article! Never knew these were initiated by Peter Sellers.
The Vega headlights go rather well on the Mini, somehow. But the M-B units look really strange. Best to leave it with its normal face, really.
I’m not sure about these being more expensive than a Rolls, though. More than a Jag, yes — but factory-bodied R-Rs cost at least £5000 in the early ’60s, and more in special coachwork.
Anyone knows what car is the one in the photo from 1968? The American style car….
Thank you very much.
1968 Buick Riviera.
Thank you very much Paul! 🙂
This Radford Mini
was bought by a friend of a friend back in the seventies, then my friend bought it, fixed it up, and finally sold it last year on BaT. When I met my friend in 1974 he was driving an RHD Cooper S which I drove for a few blocks, my first RHD experience (we’re in the US) and my only Mini experience behind the wheel. At the time, my friend’s friend was driving an 850 Mini Moke which I rode in a few times but never drove. We were all young American college students, not rock stars.
Just curious. Does anyone know what this accessory on the floor? It looks a bit like Bonds early version of GPS on the DB5.
Oops! Here’s the zoomed in shot.
Just looks to me like a covered cubby for holding stuff.
The Mike Nesmith car makes me wonder how someone bought one for export. Was it drop shipped to Radford or W&P and then picked up and shipped with stock Minis across the Atlantic and to the West Coast, or did he buy a stock US-spec Cooper and a kit of parts that a local shop in SoCal installed?
Or was it all more ad hoc than that and it had to spend weeks or months on the docks or parked in Davy Jones’ parents’ driveway awaiting pickup?
There was the Panther Rio, a tarted-up Triumph Dolomite.
Oof. To me, this is not quite a swing-and-miss; more like they hit the wrong ball—those Mercedes W114-W115 headlamps with the squared corners. W113/Pagoda headlamps, with their round-arched top, would’ve fit more naturally and looked much more integral and elegant at the front of the Mini’s fenders.