The interior of the car was in very good condition, with a couple of exceptions. The passenger airbag deployed at some point in the past and the stop-gap fix incorporated by the previous owner, while ingenious, would prevent the Mini from passing a state inspection. A new airbag and new airbag cover were installed, along with an updated 3 spoke steering wheel. Most of the dash had to be disassembled at the same time, to remove some homespun wiring modifications. Ultimately, with the help of a SRS reset tool from China (ebay $40 shipped!), the airbag light was extinguished.
With a new battery, fluids and a final check, the time had come to start the car. But it wouldn’t start. It turned over fine, coughed and popped but the gas smelled like 5 year old gas, which was exactly the case. So, the gas tank had to be drained while the injectors were sent off to be cleaned. Once back together, FrankenMini still refused to start. We tried hard, so hard in fact, we burned up the starter. With parts robbed from the Cooper starter, the Cooper S starter was rebuilt and put back in place.
The expert guys’ response to the car not starting, after listening to the symptoms, was basically “It’s probably timing – or a bad crank sensor”. Your author, confident in his ability to correctly assemble an engine, ignored the first suggestion and went with the “bad sensor” theory. This proved false, of course. Two weeks were wasted before a minor disassembly was performed to accurately assess the timing, which was off by 4 sprocket teeth. 4 teeth are usually enough to bend valves - but luck prevailed. Once back together the engine fired up immediately.
It sounded pretty good too. It was a bit too loud, had a leaky fuel line (right next to the header, for added excitement), a rattle from the header touching a heat shield, and assorted other issues. But it was good enough for a test run around the block. After a warm-up, we blasted off but were soon consumed by a foggy cockpit, smelling of coolant. The test was aborted to find the leak in the heater core. A trip to the salvage yard the next day uncovered another heater core, plus the two aluminum service lines. This repair is not pleasant, BTW.
Once back together, the next order of business was to pass the state safety and emission test and register the car. The problem was, the computer needed about 100 miles of driving to re-map. With no tags or stickers, how is one supposed to drive around legally? One suggestion, from the nice lady at the DMV, was to log the mileage at night.
The morning drive, while muted by paranoia, was loud - but pleasant. The on board fire extinguisher and cell phone weren’t necessary. The engine lacked bottom end but once past 3,000rpm started to pull. The transmission shifted normally. It had a good clutch feel, good brakes, tight suspension, firm steering and no rattles. Just a pesky ABS light and wheel speed sensor light to troubleshoot. After the drive, the car passed the inspection and DMV registered FrankenMini to legally navigate Texas. Lord help us all.
It’s now two years later and the MINI is still my daily transportation. If the MINI dealer wasn’t so far away, I would buy a new one. I like them. But if I had it to do over, I would hunt down a 2005/2006 Getrag 6-speed. Mine is earlier and first gear is too tall. Coupled with the aluminum flywheel (another bad choice for in-town driving), it’s a pain sometimes. The stock R-50 “Holies” weigh about half of what my S-Lite wheels weigh. Now I know why. Now that I’m past 50, ‘stock’ is not a bad set-up. Don’t get me wrong, I love hot rod stuff – but as in life, it’s a trad-off. In case you’re wondering, my total outlay of cash was less than $4,000 after the spare parts were sold off! It sure was fun.