Motorsport

Once labelled untamable, the Cooper-Buick V8 Mini is restored – and meaner than ever!

by Gavin Braithwaite-Smith
14 November 2022 6 min read
Once labelled untamable, the Cooper-Buick V8 Mini is restored – and meaner than ever!
Photos: Simon Goodliff and Peter Flanagan

It seems like some sort of escapee from Scrapheap Challenge, yet this Mini Cooper with a Buick V8 mounted in its boot driving the front wheels was considered a serious racing contender at the height of Mini mania.

But when things didn’t go to plan, the wild Mini’s days of tyre-shredding came to an end and it was effectively abandoned in an under-the-arches lockup for three decades.

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Now the son of one of the creators of the Cooper-Buick Mini has tracked it down and taken on custodianship of the outlandish machine. Hagerty caught up with the story of the most unruly of Minis…

Brian Redman: “It’s dreadful!”

Having tested the Cooper-Buick at Aintree, sports car legend Brian Redman described the handling as “dreadful”. He may have had a point. Later, on its first road run, it veered left unexpectedly on changing gear, crossing the road, demolishing a bus shelter, and ending up in a garden.

At the wheel this time was the late Harry Ratcliffe, a big name in Mini circles, who was rarely photographed without a pipe in his hand. There’s no word on whether he was smoking at the time of the incident, but he probably required a stiff drink after the event. Some would argue that you’d need to be under the influence of something to get behind the wheel of a Mini with a Buick 3.5-litre V8 in the back.

It was one of the craziest creations to emerge from the Mini’s craziest era. “Possibly the quickest Mini in the world”, is how Autosport’s Allan Staniforth described the Cooper-Buick in 1964, pointing to the engine’s 155bhp at 4400rpm and the fact that the first runs around Oulton Park were “easily accomplished in top gear”. Changing gear was risky in the mega-Mini, although at least there were no bus shelters lining the track at Oulton.

Ratcliffe, who built the car with long-time friend and business associate, Jeff Goodliff, once described driving the car at speed as ‘like trying to throw a sledgehammer shaft first’. The precise quote has been lost in the sands of time – Ratcliffe and Goodliff passed away in 2016 – but it’s a wonderful description of a Mini with a huge slice of Detroit ‘iron’ in the boot.

Cooper-Buick 131
If we stand here, nobody will notice what’s in the back

On the plus side, the Buick V8, supplied by Redman for £100, was lighter and more entertaining than a pair of back-seat passengers, with weight distribution tackled by the six-gallon fuel tank, radiator, battery and final drive unit at the front. Redman also supplied the Jaguar E-type four-speed gearbox and differential.

Visually, it differed little from other 1071 Cooper S cars, with wider arches to house the 13-inch wheels at the front, some venting and a slight bulge in the boot lid, along with twin exhausts, wonderfully described by Autosport as “twin megaphones”. 

Why the Cooper-Buick Mini was built

It would be easy to dismiss the car as a folly; little more than a publicity stunt for BRT Developments and the sponsors Vitafoam Ltd., but it was anything but. Ratcliffe and Goodliff saw it as a way to exploit a change in regulations, essentially releasing the shackles for Britain’s race teams. Saloon car racing’s equivalent of Group B, if you like, with the same short-lived window of opportunity. By the time the Cooper-Buick was ready to race, the regulations had changed again.

Cooper-Buick in period
No smoke, no mirrors

But not before the car had secured a chapter in the history of mad Minis. Following its first outing at Oulton Park, the Cooper-Buick raced at Mallory Park on Boxing Day 1964, and later at Silverstone and Castle Combe. Ratcliffe described it as “the best and worst thing” that he ever did, pointing to the publicity it generated as one of the positives.

“It was front-wheel drive, which is why it oversteered so nicely because all the weight was in the back. In a race you had a chance of being well up the field because nobody could get past, due to the car skating about all over the place.” That, combined with the smoke – from the tyres, not Ratcliffe’s pipe – would have made it a formidable obstacle for fellow racers. “By the time the season opens I think we shall have sorted out the roadholding,” said an optimistic Ratcliffe in 1964. “I hope it will prove some real opposition in saloon car events.”

It wasn’t to be. The Cooper-Buick was too much of an animal to be driven in anger, such was the car’s notoriety for lift-off oversteer. A standard Cooper S could lap a circuit in a faster time, albeit without the tyre smoke and soundtrack. Theatre and a fast lap time rarely go together, so following the participation in a few hillclimb events, the car was retired.

For three decades, the car lived under railway arches in London. Its retirement history is sketchy, but Gerry Marshall reportedly owned the car for a decade before it ended up in Wales. It was from here that it was extracted by JD Classics, who listed it as a ‘period British competition car’.

Keeping it in the family

A little research shows that the car was first advertised for sale in 2014 and purchased by former racer Jonathan Buncombe, who was keen to preserve the legacy of one of the most famous modified Minis of the 1960s. Today, after a faithful restoration by Buncombe and Richard Walters of Nippycars, the Cooper-Buick is almost complete.

It’s also in the hands of a new owner, Simon Goodliff, the son of the car’s creator, who is understandably emotional about the purchase. He told us: “My aspiration was to collect the cars my father and Harry raced in period. I’ve got the Morris Minor [PDK 495] that Harry originally raced and there are others still out there.

Cooper-Buick photo shoot
Cooper-Buick, not parked in a garden

“I never joined the dots that there could be an opportunity for me to own this car. Jonathan found creative ways for me to own it, having realised that he is of an age that means he won’t be doing anything with it. He felt strongly that it should return to the family and wants me to actively campaign it.”

Goodliff says he is indebted to Buncombe’s generosity, saying: “He’s a gentleman who wants to preserve its legacy. He outbid other potential buyers who were keen to return it to factory spec.”

The Cooper-Buick began life as Reverend Rupert Jones’ Fiesta Yellow 1071 Cooper S, before morphing into multiple Vita D cars. Prior to the V8 conversion, the car raced at the 1964 Targa Florio, with Motor Sport reporting that “the Mini of Rupert Jones and Harry Ratcliffe had a front wheel fall off, so that the car skated along its suspension and damaged itself”. Skating wasn’t the preserve of the V8 Mini…

Photos from when it was for sale at JD Classics show a car in remarkably good condition. Goodliff says: “For reliability and other reasons, the car now features a 4.5-litre V8, but the rest is original. Very little of the sheet metal was rotten – the running gear and chassis components are all original.

“It’s got new front 13-inch front wheels because the original Minilites were missing. Right now, it’s producing 350bhp, but we won’t be using all of it!”

One thing it must do is go in a straight line, which could be easier said than done. “It has so much torque, not helped by the unequal length driveshafts. I reckon it needs a month of fettling before it’s ready for racing. The plan is to campaign it at Shelsley Walsh and Harewood, and I’d love to get it to next year’s Festival of Speed to celebrate the lives of Harry and Jeff. I’ll have a giggle with it.”

Cooper-Buick restored to former glory
Nutty and obnoxious

Goodliff collected the car from Somerset, before trailering it home via Oulton Park for some authentic photos. Of all the cars his father raced, he describes the Cooper-Buick as “the most nuts”, labelling the soundtrack as “obnoxious”. The plan is to register it for the road, although bus shelters will be given a wide berth.

“My utopia is to own PDK 495, the Buick and the British Vita Racing Minisprint,” he says. The Vita-Min is one of the most famous Minis of the era, boasting 180bhp at the flywheel and 120bhp at the wheels. It dominated the 1969 BARC Castrol Hillclimb Championship, with Jeff Goodliff winning every round. Goodliff was a three-time winner, having won in 1968 in a different Mini, and again in 1970, this time in a Lotus Elan.

The Vita-Min lives in France, but returned to the UK in 2013 for the Cooper S 50th anniversary celebrations at Shelsley Walsh. Convincing the French owner to part with the car might be difficult, but Simon Goodliff intends to create a copy of Rupert Jones’ Targa Florio car, but only after enjoying life with the V8 monster.

Cooper-Buick V8 engine
Does my engine look big in this?

One thing’s for sure, the car is in safe hands. We’re looking forward to seeing it at an event or two in 2023. Spectators should form an orderly queue, though perhaps not at a bus shelter…

Read more

These 8 car movies from 1971 brought hot rubber to the silver screen
Buying Guide: Mini Cooper (1961-1971)
The One That Got Away: Georgia Peck’s search for her grandfather’s cars

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Comments

  • Mike Francis says:

    Detroit iron? I thought the 3.5 litre Buick V8 was all aluminium.

  • Stephen Meadows FRICS says:

    You are right about the handling of the mini cooper with two passengers in the back – it was the BMC Mini widow maker!! but great fun for the driver but definitely not for the passengers.

  • Chris Holmes says:

    I think so too as its the engine Rover licensed

  • Mark Pitchford says:

    When you say Buick, I’m guessing you’re stretching the point that the RV8 owed its ancient history to that starting point…?

  • David Lowe says:

    I remember this car from a few years ago,it’s been to read this as people would not believe that a guy had done this,the front of the car was done in such away that guys looking in there rear view mirror would see a standard Mini,it wasn’t until they were overtaken that the power bulges and vent appear,there was a extensive write up in the old magazine Motor Sport,the guy writing said he would hate to be behind the wheel if the car ran into the back of anyone,as the engine would have to come past the driver

  • Eric Cole says:

    Gerry Marshall certainly owned the car at some point,I saw it up In Barnet when I was buying a trailer from the great man himself.

  • Paul (Monkey) Hateley says:

    What a fantastic piece of history.
    I was lucky enough to work at GRV for Jeff for a number of years. He has a true engineering genius. He was part of the reason I’ve had such a successful career myself.

  • Jackie says:

    This was my Dad’s car – a restoration project he never managed to even start. He owned the car for at least 30 years that I knew of.

  • Marc L says:

    This car holds a lot of memories for me and my family. The railway arch referenced in the article was my Great Uncle Ted’s arch and prior to that It was stored in his workshop buried under all sorts..as a young boy I haggled with Ted to have it handed down to me as a restoration project, I didn’t know how much work it would be as a 10 year old but that wasn’t going to stop me asking….unfortunately the car had to go when the arch was emptied. Sadly my Great uncle Ted passed away 2 days ago and from looking through photos a family member found old pictures of the car and came across the this article which has taken my breath away.

  • Martin says:

    I spent my childhood dreaming of restoring this car as she sat in my dad’s workshop for 30+ years.

    I’m so glad that her current guardian will give her the love, reverence and respect that she deserves.

    I could not have dreamt of a better home than where she is now.

    Despite his stubbornness and perfectionism, I’m sure my late dad will be looking down with an approving nod.

  • Pete Flanagan says:

    Interesting comments! If anyone has any old photos of the car or any information about its previous ownership please contact me via The Sporting Minis page on Facebook. Thank you! Pete

  • Ben Roden says:

    I drove the car on a number of occasions in the 60s. It was in the stock of a friend Sven Christensen at Cheshire Sports Cars on the Cheadle/Stockport border. The doors were welded up and without windows. Ear protectors vital! I kept to my TVRs : and to my sanity.

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