It’s like a holding area for Minis: there are three neat rows of 20, most looking ready for action. And had you not driven up the driveway of a private house to get to them, you would have assumed that they were gathered at the Mini factory in Oxford – in a dealer storage area or perhaps lined up for a press launch. Except that most are 20 years old, they indeed live on the premises of a house and they all belong to one man.
Tim Williams is a car enthusiast, and he explains that when he sold his storage business a few years back, he was looking for a strand of the old car hobby to get into. Then, about four years ago, he came across an embryonic enthusiasm for Y-reg Minis. Eh? The Mini Y-Register is possibly the only car club whose focus revolves around one character of the UK numberplate of a very specific model range.
We’re talking about the very first of the BMW-era Minis. By definition, these are relatively few, the club identifying these (for reasons that we will come to) as the first 700 or so made. By a quirk of timing, these cars will have a registration number beginning with the letter Y. But relatively few R50 Minis, as BMW codenamed them, were registered with such a plate. So, er, why?
Because when the new Mini went on sale on 7 July 2001, there were only 11 weeks to go before the next numberplate age identifier came into play. And it wasn’t Z but 51, as the UK switched to a twice-yearly identifier in an effort to deal with the absurd numbers of new cars being registered on 1 August.
Plenty of new Mini buyers thus delayed delivery of their cars until 1 September, enabling their shiny new Mini to have the shiniest new plate. It meant that many Y-reg Minis were registered by Mini itself, mainly as press cars, and many more were registered by the dealer network as demonstrators. As this was the kind of car bought by individuals rather than fleets, most excited customers were able to wait; businesses with a new product to launch couldn’t.
If you think this is arcane, well, there’s more. Just as the early 1959- 1960 BMC Minis had detail features that were swiftly redesigned, so do the earliest R50 Minis. It’s a rather pleasing symmetry for enthusiasts and collectors, although probably not something BMW was aiming for.
Among the rethinks on the BMC Mini were the addition of drainage holes to the roof gutters(!), oval rather than rectangular cut-outs in the hubcaps, an extra locating peg for the chrome sliding window latches and a reversal in the way the toeboard overlapped the floor, which finally staunched the initially baffling water leaks into the cabin. Perversely, these and more add to a 1959-1960 Mini’s market value.
Williams says that at one time, he would have recommended doing all the usual used car checks, “but you can’t be fussy now”. He does, however, recommend avoiding cars already owned by enthusiasts, who might have replaced lots of parts. “It’s better to buy an end-of-life car and retain as much of its originality as possible,” he says.
Don’t expect pristine examples, either. “You’ve got to be realistic,” he says. “These are 20-year-old cars, and their next trip is usually to the scrapyard.” Of those being sold as running cars, “it’s amazing what condition people will sell a car in”. He reckons that, unusually for their age, the cars are reliable if well maintained and that “BMW are very good for most parts”.
The Y-reg Minis most in demand are those with very low chassis numbers, either in the double digits or low one-hundreds; those with OBL plates; Coopers in red with a white roof; and sub-100,000- milers. These are the ones that people battle for, but if you simply want one of the 700-odd Minis with a Y-registration, they do crop up. Three are on sale as this is written.
Mini One: This base model, VIN TB00133, has done 103,000 miles, is in regular use and barely seems any slower than a Cooper, pulling with pleasing vigour. Its dampers feel tired but nothing else does.
Mini Cooper S: Not a Y-reg, but it’s one of the first Cooper S cars and remarkable for having covered only 32,000 miles. There’s a following for the earliest S and the Cabrio. This one drives very well, as you would expect.
Mini Cooper: Rescued from a scrapyard, this sorry-looking Cooper is set to be rehabilitated by Williams. Its chassis number is TC00094, making it the earliest Cooper that he owns, and features the super-rare grooved seats.
Mini Cooper: Bremner brought his own Y-reg Mini in case there weren’t enough for the shoot. It’s number 155, produced on 2 May 2001 – the seventh day of full production.