At the wheel: Damien Cross
Owned since: Oct 2021
Current condition: Not on life support just yet
Hands-on or hands-off? Hands-on wherever possible, preferably under adult supervision
Damien Cross is Social Media Manager at Hagerty. He has an aversion to buying cars you see every day, but is open to any kind of car that kids point at and combines fun with frugality (especially if it was built in Hethel).
December 2021: The story so far
I bought a Hillman Minx. A 1959, 1494cc, column gear change, two-tone Minx with a small spot of rust on its(/her) face. But by golly she is pretty. I might call her Norma Jeane.
Norma is a ‘Series III’ example of the Raymond Loewy-designed Audax series of Minx, Series III being introduced in 1958 as an annual facelift to the Series II. My example was registered in June ‘59, before they tweaked the design once again for series IIIA later that year. That’s Series IIIA of course, not IV – that didn’t exist, after IIIB and IIIC they skipped straight to V and… and…
…and oh my word. What am I on about?
Am I a car bore now? I think I might be. Maybe I’ve always been a car bore but just managed to hide it. There’s no chance of me keeping it swept under the floor mats now I’ve got a Hillman, a car that people will ask me about while I’m trying to fill up with whatever petrol I can find without ethanol in it.
The Minx and its similarly-styled but saucier Singer and Sunbeam sisters (Gazelle and Rapier) are cars from the now-defunct Rootes Group. It’s fair to say that buying a Rootes Group car was an unpredictable choice for those who know me – a bloke knocking on the door of 40, whose last toy was a Lotus Exige S – but meant it was easy to keep my Hagerty colleagues’ guesses at bay, dropping clues like ‘it seats six’ which, while true, threw them off the scent.
But why is it so unpredictable? I’m a car person, working with classic car lovers, and this is an amazing car which cost me relatively little. It should make perfect sense, even if it is twice the age of the oldest car I’d owned up to now – a 1988 Peugeot 205 XS.
Maybe it’s unpredictable because I’m what marketing departments would call a Millennial, and so I’m supposed to want things like Bluetooth, infotainment sub-menus, cupholders big enough for a bucket of fried chicken while wirelessly charging your phone, and in-car distractions with gag-inducing names like IntelliLink Audio System, ProAct Emoticon Sensitivity or Smarteq Auto Reassure 2.1 (one of those is a real thing, by the way…) but that’s simply not the case. I’m a driver, not a car operator. And I’m not alone, more and more petrolheads in their thirties are enjoying the tech-less motoring of our youth and the grayscale decades that went before, and they are sharing it across social media every day.
Maybe it’s unpredictable because I like quick cars. I’m a motorsport fan and in the past I’ve owned a fair few trackdayable daily drivers, including a disappointing stint with a turn-of-the-millennium E46 BMW 330Ci. That car showed me it takes more than a bit of grunt, rear wheel drive, and a badge which promises ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ to make driving fun (sorry ed… but I can assure you your much more sporty M3 is actually LOVELY). The Beemer’s hesitant fly-by-wire throttle and sheer bulk resting on passenger-appeasing suspension meant I felt far more remote from the driving experience than I’d felt in the MX-5 I’d traded in.
That switch from taut MX-5 to flabby BMW helped confirm that the feeling of connectivity between driver and the four contact patches is what I really enjoyed about driving. The feedback, the directness, and the hustle of getting the thing up to speed makes things fun. Cars built over these last few decades don’t really give you that. Unless, of course, you buy something built in a shed by a greasy moron you’d barely trust to wire a plug, let alone assemble a car. That’s not the route I want to go right now, but I’m open to the idea. I just need a shed.
So, I wanted a starter classic. Or perhaps I should say ’gateway’ classic, as I can see this stuff getting addictive. I considered old sports cars, but I couldn’t justify the price for a fairly good one. I looked at ‘Dad had one’ cars, harking back to my childhood when Dad had a red BMW E34, but I was scared it might not be the car I remembered while I’d been wearing rosy specs. I didn’t want to ruin that nostalgia, especially if it also turned out not to be an Ultimate Driving Machine after all.
After pondering a while, three things came together to provide clarity.
I realised I was yearning for a car that’s fun to drive every trip and was fairly cheap to run (no tax/MOT etc for a proper classic helps, as does classic car insurance), and I’d accepted that newer cars are phenomenally good, but it’s not really ‘driving’ if you’re doing so alongside all the modern systems needed to make one work.
I’d attended my first Festival of the Unexceptional in 2021, which showed that everyday cars have all the charm of the sportier options in their contemporary lineups. People may look at old cars and wonder why you’d look after a base-speccer compared to the ‘sport’ version, but in reality both the normal and the sporty versions of older cars are a bit short of puff nowadays. After a lap of a race circuit, a Fiesta XR2 would be just as small a dot in my modern car’s rear view mirrors as a 1.1 Popular.
And then the straw that finally broke a debit card out of my wallet – driving Hagerty’s 1903 Knox on a test track, a treat that reaffirmed ‘fun’ is not about power and grip, it’s about having a giggle and being at one with the mechanical bits.
The Minx, let’s be honest, was never intended to be an enthusiastic driver’s plaything. It was for middle class families and sales reps. It wasn’t built for apex-hunting, slipstreaming, or lurid slides around the Crystal Palace circuit. It may only offer half the giggles of a Lotus Elite of the same age but when an Elite would now cost £52k-£103k (according to the Hagerty Price Guide) and the Minx cost me under £4000 including delivery it was hard to see it as anything other than great value. And, I hasten to add, it’ll offer far more than just half the giggles of an Elite.
Sure, the Elite will probably increase in value a whole lot more over the next decade or three, but I’m not in this for an investment – so I hear and acknowledge your argument, but I shall put it out of my mind.
One further thing to acknowledge, and the potential source of much swearing and furious typing during my updates for you all, is the fact I bought the car without seeing it in the metal. A 62-year old car. The sale was almost agreed based on just some ropey images on Car & Classic which looked like they’d been taken on a phone made by the Rootes Group itself. Add the reputation of Sussex Classics, testimonials from previous customers, and chats over the phone (plus a trio of walkaround videos) and it was enough to get my fuel pumping.
A few chats with Si Browse of Arrow Vintage Cars also helped me feel reassured, especially as Si was so excited about my purchase he decided he would voyage up to King’s Lynn to prod and poke it when it was delivered, and bring a couple of items too – a mint owner’s handbook and a workshop manual. How kind.
A recent article by Nik Berg about buying unseen also reassured me I’m not alone in buying cars like this, and with online auctions setting a precedent for online car sales to be largely as straight as a die I felt very little apprehension.
That ‘very little’ apprehension dropped even lower when I spotted a YouTube video from Furious Driving featuring the actual car. I’d neglected to save any of those ropey pictures, so when the ad disappeared I Googled the registration number hoping someone had previously papped it at a car show, but the video – uploaded that very day – popped up. Watching Matt from Furious Driving take the car for a (not very furious) drive was much like going for a test drive myself. He was too polite to mention the rusty patch on the front, but it was nice to see that on film, and showed it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.
I arranged to have the car delivered to a local college where I’m friends with one of the lecturers teaching the next generation of mechanics, and we inspected the Minx on a ramp. For a 62 year old she was quite sound. No rusty bits or stuff falling when tapping away at her underside with a hammer. A couple of holes in the exhaust to fix, some missing bushes, but nothing really more than ‘advisory’ to an MOT inspector. Dampers and tyres will come one day, but no rush. Cosmetically I’ll need to spend a bit of money, too. Carpets, tail light lenses and something to shine her up real good, and I’m set.
Will the experience of ownership be as smooth as Matt’s test drive? Or Si’s carb massage? Only time will tell, but rest assured you’ll find out in future updates here at Hagerty. Winter’s coming, so trips on salt-laden roads in chilly rain are unlikely but as soon as the sun shines I’ll be out. After all, Some Like It Hot, and Norma Jeane’s no exception.
January 2022: Winter tweaks
Winter slumber doesn’t mean the Minx has gone without attention. Before spending a few months hiding beneath covers there was a chance to eke out the small amount of daylight and dry weather to get a few bits ‘just-so’, increasing the chance of a decent Spring wake up.
Firstly, an issue with actually getting her started. After a few weeks of ownership it was clear the alternator wasn’t doing… anything. Originally the car would have had a dynamo; this was swapped out for an alternator at some point but that had also now failed. A simple off-the-shelf alternator was a very cost-effective solution, meaning less nervousness when we were out and about, and less reliance on the push-starts and crank handle which had sadly become quite normal.
Fitting the new alternator, however, required more than a simple copy and paste solution. Being slightly different in size and shape from the previous item, we needed to create a new bracket. I say ‘we’ because I leaned very heavily on a mate who has become ever more indispensable. Luckily Alex Meads, a lecturer in motor vehicle engineering at the local college, was keen to work his educator magic on an eager student in his late-30s rather than the usual 16-20 year old. I was certainly eager, but very much reliant on Alex pointing at the thing that needed doing and then me doing it. In this case, rather than build a new bracket we decided (or he told me) to use the existing one and adjust the holes.
Cue a vice, file, and sweaty armpits as the bracket was sculpted into a bespoke piece.
With the new alternator now doing its thing starting the Minx has become a non-event, typically starting with a second twist of the ignition key, one of many quirks from this fine little motor car.
One more ‘quick’ job before the slumber was to replace the rear lens. It wore a US-spec all orange affair you’ll see in images above, and this needed to be swapped for a UK-friendly genuine Lucas part.
What should have also been a simple copy and paste once again turned into slightly more, as during the process the wires popped out from the light unit. A chance to flex some soldering skills (no simple clipping-in the wires for this old girl) and the rear lights now worked as they should.
That’ll do for now – let’s just hope winter no.63 for the Minx doesn’t hit too hard…
April 2022: Showing off
It works! After a Winter of hibernation the Minx woke with a smile on its face. Simply reconnecting the battery and a twist (or two) of the key was all that was needed, rendering the can of E-Z Start redundant.
With the feeling of impending doom gone it has been a great chance to get out and about at will, taking trips to the beach and just cruising through towns and villages to pop a smile on everyone’s face.
With the unreliability tempered for now, thoughts turn to making things just a bit better. A slightly tatty interior and flat paintwork will be sorted in time, but it’s clear the headlights wouldn’t survive an MOT (one only works on high beam) and the exhaust blowing meaning I’m sacrificing efficiency and speed for an unpleasant noise. Not a very pleasant deal. I’d also discovered a slight fuel leak from the carb, which was temporarily stemmed by some plumbing tape and a new carb to be added to the shopping list.
Being able to show the car to friends and family has brought even more joy, and conversations have already turned to the future of my ownership of this old motor. Will I keep it original, restore it, or bring it up to date? Make a hot rod? Could I even go electric?
That last one has cropped up a lot. Although the benefits of electric power are very real, the cost is currently too high for a car that has cost me so little. The potential of the technology is definitely intriguing though, and with an eye on responsible motoring I need to think about what I use to power a car I don’t need. The loss of an exhaust note is no big deal either – the sound is more Briggs & Stratton than Pagani Zonda. With more electric cars finding their way to the scrap heap, however, an electric conversion looks like it could become financially viable in the coming decades…
Will I be tempted? Probably not. Despite all the pros of electric power, I’m fairly sure I’ll be keeping the Minx’s Jurassic bark.
July 2022: Over the hills and far away
The Minx has survived its greatest test to date: The inaugural Hagerty Hillclimb. A 4-hour drive from Norfolk to Shelsley Walsh plus some runs up the famous hill (it’s steep, trust me) and the drive home put a lot of miles on the odo, and a lot of reassurance in the Minx’s abilities.
Abilities including motorway cruising, hillclimbing, and putting smiles on the faces of other road users. Settling into a nice lorry-esque speed on the motorway meant the distance was hardly any effort, it just took a while. A small fuel tank meant it was necessary to stop along the way and swallow the £2 per-litre cost of E5 fuel, but the Minx made every mile worth it.
Being one of (if not THE) slowest up the hill was no surprise, but the car’s enthusiasm was undimmed. The epic journey that day also ticked the odometer past 100k miles (back to showing 00000) as we passed Kettering on the way home. I had attempted to catch the moment on video, but I failed by inadvertently stopping the recording one second after I started it…
The car is doing remarkably well considering the mileage and age, but there are still plenty of jobs to tick off the list. That meant heading back to Alex at the college to sort headlights, the fuel leak, and that blowing exhaust.
Removing the manifold (an ordeal of stuck/sheared bolts) to gain access to the offending exhaust leak also gave us a chance to redo the alternator bracket, as it wasn’t quite as aligned as we’d intended, resulting in a wobbly alternator and chatty fan belt.
One unexpected consequence of removing the manifold was a gush of coolant. It seems that someone had previously overdone the drilling into the engine block, meaning a bolt holding the manifold on was also the only thing stopping coolant leaking. You begin to expect the unexpected with a car of this age.
Nonetheless, with some bespoke parts supplied by the adjacent engineering block the car left with lots of jobs ticked off. The alternator is now sorted, the exhaust is no longer blowing (and also had its rubber mounts replaced), and there’s a new set of bulbs – having stripped the local specialist motor parts store of its entire stock of two.
Next things to sort? New tyres, new carpets, and trying to get the single stage paint to sing a bit more. A trip to a local car show (Parson Drove Car, Bike and Trike show on 17th July) gave me a chance to quiz a detailing pro about that very problem, and a new polish and wax were purchased but haven’t been used just yet.
I had chosen not to show the Minx that day because it’s in far from concours-winning condition, but on reflection the car would have fit right in. I just need to worry less about what people might think.
For that reason it’s going to be on display at the Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional, parked in the unexceptional section and gawked at by thousands. Meanwhile the to-do list still has 34 items left on it… but at least that list isn’t growing.
December 2022: Spontaneous joys
So I said the Minx was going to be on display at the Hagerty Festival of the Unexceptional. It wasn’t. If you were one of the many hundreds to have made the trip to Lincolnshire then I’m sure you still had a very good time – but why no Minx?
Unfortunately I had a tyre blow just days before, which you can read about here, and it turns out that seeking a new tyre was not the work of a moment.
Nonetheless, Norma was going to go to the ball, just not the one at Grimsthorpe Castle. Instead, her first public appearance was an outing to the Old Buckenham Classic and Supercar show. This fairly small show was a great excuse to show off the Minx. She may not have drawn the crowds as well as other cars at the show, but for me it was good to have a car there, on display, of my very own. And for some visitors seeing her was one of their highlights. I know, because they were kind enough to tell me.
One thing that’s happened in the second half of 2022 is I’ve grown a huge amount of confidence in Norma. Now that the exhaust niggles are sorted, alternator, tyres etc done it’s very easy to spontaneously decide to take a trip out. This is precisely what I’d hoped would happen, and now trips to the coast, or even the supermarket, are to be enjoyed.
And not just enjoyed by me. By passers-by too. One joyful thing about using a car like this for everyday chores is that more people get to see it out and about, just being a car. Thumbs-up, smiles, waves etc become commonplace. When was the last time your trip to B&Q resulted in an old man getting teary-eyed as he reminisced about the good old days? Even at shows, people aren’t as excited to see a classic car as they are when they come across one unexpectedly in a retail park.
Bringing joy to people I don’t know, simply through choosing to drive an old car, is absolutely the best part of owning a car like this, so maintaining the car and being able to depend on it for these spontaneous trips is now my priority.
I won’t be pushing my luck on gritted roads though, so she’s now under a cover until it’s safe to come out. I’d put her in the garage, but that space is now taken up by a new addition to the Cross fleet, a 1986 Volkswagen Scirocco GT… I’ll tell you more about that car in the new year.