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It was in December 1961 that Autocar magazine published an article entitled “Mini-Ton-Bomb” which was a rave review of a Downton converted Mini Cooper that could not only do a genuine 100mph but was easier to drive, quieter and even more frugal on fuel than the standard model. This was closely followed, in 1962, by a Downton-modified Mini Cooper competing in the Targa Florio road race in Sicily. The little Cooper, not only did remarkably well in its class but outperformed many of the larger cars on the event. It was not long before news of the work being done in the sleepy Wiltshire village of Downton made it back to the people who ran the British Motor Industry at the time and Daniel Richmond was invited to demonstrate his wares to the men at BMC. This initial meeting was a great success and shortly after, Downton Engineering began supplying BMC with modified engine components for the race and rally cars being prepared by their Competitions Department. The Richmonds, Daniel and his, commercially astute, wife Bunty even fitted a Downton tuning kit to the Mini driven by its designer Alec Issigonis. BMC was so impressed with the quality of his work and the insight into the workings of the internal combustion engine that Daniel Richmond possessed, that he was offered work as a Design Consultant, with particular emphasis on the cylinder head, the heart of any internal combustion engine.
By 1968, both Downton and BMC were at the top of their game. BMC was by far the largest and most profitable car manufacturer in the UK and had topped the results sheets at the Monte Carlo Rally four years in succession using the Mini Cooper 1275S fitted with engines built by the BMC Competitions Department at Abingdon in Oxfordshire using components supplied by Downton. With, what turned out to be a stroke of genius, BMC announced with a fanfare, the introduction of a range of “Stage 1” tuning equipment that could be fitted to the BMC range of cars without violating the new car warranty, Downton, of course, being the company who supplied these kits.
When 539 KYI was two years old in 1966, its then-owner, John Hughes of Ambleside, instructed local BMC Agents, R.Smith of Bowness, to modify the car using components that he had purchased from Downton Engineering. Magazines like ‘Car and Car Conversions’ at the time were full of adverts for Mini tuning products and the road tests of Minis fitted with off the shelf parts from Downton Engineering were particularly favourable. Using the Internet of the period, the telephone, John ordered ‘Stage 1’ parts for the Cooper including a gas-flowed cylinder head with larger valves, a Downton manifold, Downton-modified twin SU H.4 carburettors, a Kenlowe cast aluminium radiator bracket, Dunlop D1 alloy wheels and Knighton sports seats. These were duly fitted by his local garage and presumably, Mr Hughes enjoyed his quick little Cooper for many years.
The story of 539 KYI gets lost for a few years until it was discovered in a lock-up in Ireland where it had been standing since the late 1990s. This is where Ant Anstead of Evanta Motors, known from the popular TV-programme ‘For the Love of Cars’ comes in. Having been made aware of the car he travelled to Ireland, was shocked to find such a fabulous original Cooper, and managed to persuade (eventually) the current owner to part with it.
The car was subsequently restored by Ant and Mini expert, Keith Calver, with the emphasis on authenticity and the whole process is best explored on YouTube (For the Love of Cars, Series 1-Episode 4). The original bodyshell needed a small number of replacement panels but was in fundamentally sound condition. It has been restored to perfect as-new condition at Evanta and totally re-sprayed, inside and out, in its original Almond Green and Old English White. The engine and running gear have been rebuilt by Keith Calver, the ‘dry’ suspension features AVO shock absorbers and SuperPro bushes as well as Goodridge brake lines and many new components from Mini Spares.
The alloy wheels are the original Dunlop D1s (now with new Dunlop tyres) and the wonderful Knighton seats have been given the minor repairs they needed but still wear their original covers. The interior also features the later addition of a period Les Leston wood-rim wheel and matching gear knob. All have been preserved during a restoration which has encompassed every single area of the car. If there is one indication of the authenticity of this restoration it’s the chrome Mini Cooper badge on the boot, half of which can be seen at a funny angle in the original TV-footage and remains at that angle today.
This little Cooper is not just a well-restored classic car, although it is certainly that. Scratch the surface, analyse the DNA and within there you will find clear evidence of the automotive genius of three men, Sir Alec Issigonis CBE, John Cooper CBE and Daniel Richmond. If the three engineers had met for a hypothetical pint in the early sixties, I suspect that they would have felt it a little unlikely that six decades on, we would still be admiring their collective creation. Add to this the talents and standards of Ant Anstead and Keith Calver who returned the car to life, then we have something truly special.