A Tale of Three Mini Immigrants

Taking a short break from the usual Motorcycle stuff, this is a car story, and it is an on-going adventure.

Setting:  Santiago, Chile.  Living in an apartment, and working stupid hours a day.  A lousy dollar to peso exchange rate and restrictive import laws mean that vintage cars, or vehicles of any sort are quite expensive.  They exist, but the prices are high, and where the heck would I work on a car anyway?  Not an ideal environment to fiddle with cars, yes?  A smart person would abandon any such thoughts.  Not likely…

More detail:  A while back, an old and deteriorating spine condition that had been unsuccessfully repaired a couple of times went acute, and the delay option melted away.  Fortunately, I found an excellent surgeon who, in two takes and with a fist-full of titanium hardware, put me back in shape.   Long story short, recovery included a period of convalescence during which the marvels of modern chemistry kept the pain at bay, and made an alternate frame of “judgement” and “good sense” seem perfectly appropriate.  Add in a pretty good internet connection, and an enabling co-conspirator (Heather, you aren’t escaping this story without proper credit!), and it was the perfect opportunity to kill some time roaming the internet looking for automobiles of interest, located in Chile. The task was to find one (repeating; one, uno, ein!) car of interest to purchase and fool with that wasn’t stupid expensive, and might be priced in a range that would make eventually exporting it back to the USA a realistic option.   Candidates were old Fiats, BMW Isseta’s, Austin Minis, and anything else that looked interesting and fun.

After chasing a lot of possibilities that turned to dust, we happened across a 1969 Austin Mini pickup (yes, a pickup) for sale.  I have always liked the whole idea of the Minis, the history, the fact that they were the very first front engine, front wheel drive vehicle produced.  And, because Austin brought a lot of Minis into Chile (they even had an assembly plant here for some years), there are quite a few of them in country, and they aren’t crazy expensive.  Not cheap either, but not out of the world of the possible.  And it was a baby pickup! So we made some phone calls, and went to see it.  As advertised, it is probably or mostly a ’69 (records are a little sketchy for old cars down here, and it has no VIN), but the surprise was it had been modified/hot rodded…a lot…to race.  Full roll cage, hot-rodded motor, limited slip differential.  It was even fitted with a tow bar to drag it to events.  Ragged out racing seats.  The previous owner was really proud of it, and had clearly had a lot of fun with this little guy.  But he was ready to move on, had purchased an older full sized pickup that was his new project, and it was time to deal.  It was a project car, but an interesting one.

Kicking the (little) tires...

Kicking the (little) tires…

I have since learned that in the Mini Pickup community, these baby trucks are commonly called “pups”, which seems completely appropriate.  The owner was REALLY proud of his rig, and it was good fun giving it the once-over.  I fired it up, drove it around his yard, and was smitten immediately.  It…was…LOUD!  And just imminently groovy.  Not perfect, a little rust here and there but none of it in structural locations, interior a bit worn.  But I think we were both hooked the moment we saw it. Removable hood, lowered to the deck, 13″ wheels in place of the original 10″, wheel barrow wheels.  Fun and funny all at the same time.  And it was a pickup!  They only made 58,000 of these little guys during a total of 21 years of production, and they are becoming increasingly rare, so how could we even think of passing on this opportunity.

Did I mention that it was dark?

Did I mention that it was dark?

So, with the sun now fully down and in the darkness, we made the deal.  All was good, all happy…and then we noticed that another car we had been looking at on the internet was parked just at the edge of the lights in the yard.  It was a 1980 sedan, green in color, and was actually the property of his son.  But his son was ready to update to the new Mini, and while he wasn’t too anxious to part with his classic Mini, he couldn’t manage both at the same time.  So we made the offer to buy the green car as well, if the son was agreeable, and headed home.  Now the problem…with a “regular” car and two motorcycles, our allotted parking spaces at the building where we live were full.  Dang.   Now what??  These are small cars, but…holy moly, we now have a problem!

In for a Penny, in for a Pound… Not long after we made the deal on these two little guys, a truly unexpected development occurred.  Did I mention these “pups” are rare?  Heather ran across a second pickup for sale, and it was here in Santiago.  The photos in the ad made it look just cute as hell — powder blue, very original, 10″ wheels, unmolested.  It had been “restored” by the owner some years back, but he was now divorced and into sailing, and such activities take a lot of attention and money, so the pup was sitting unused in his warehouse.  The responsible side of my brain knew we were headed well into outrageous behavior if we went to see this next rig, because I knew that if we did, it would come home with us.

Cute, Cute, Cute

Cute, Cute, Cute

But the other side of my brain, the side the that was enjoying the morphine patch, was certain that a little outrageous behavior was exactly what we needed.   And besides, the Fates must have sent this second car — since they are so rare!  Deep into downtown Santiago we went, and there she was.  Cuter than the ad.  With a battery jump and a “hi-ho silver!”, we launched out into Santiago traffic…and promptly ran out of gas.  In traffic.

But undaunted, we quickly fell for the little truck-cito, and made a deal with the owner.  We had gone from 0 to 3 Minis in record time, and now we had a REAL problem with parking.

Enter the Portero:  If you live in Latin America, in an apartment, there is someone who is very important to your well-being.  He is called the Portero, which translates to door man, but he is often much, much more.  He is the guy who knows how to find a plumber, the guy who washes your vehicles (for a fee), will wash your windows, fix your toaster.  He is the “can-do” guy.  And he also manages the parking.  He knows who has a car, who doesn’t and who might be interested in renting their parking space to you.  He, of course, probably takes a cut for making the deal.  You will never know.  But a workman should be paid for value-added, and I have never had a problem with this system.

Our Portero, Rolando, is terrific.  It took a month or three, but he came up with another two parking places, managed the monthly transfer of money (I never knew whose spaces I was renting), and the problem was solved. A quick aside — we live in a fairly small building.  Only a dozen apartments, and that means that no occupant is anonymous.  We were already known as the Americans with the motorcycles (pleasantly, I would add), so I think suddenly dominating the parking lot with an influx of vintage little cars was a small surprise, but a pleasant one for most.  Nobody grumbled.

After making the cars more or less legal, we started shoveling modest amounts of money to a local Mini specialist shop, and trying to keep the cars running and street worthy.  For the pale blue pup and green car, we had some success.  We also learned quickly that we would be required to pass periodic emissions and technical tests that were going to be a running problem, and the money was going to continue to go out on a regular basis.

Honestly, the only one that proved ready for the road was the pale blue pup, and I was quite a hit when I would show up at the local open-air vegetable market driving it.  It was great fun.  Everywhere I drove it, cell phone cameras were out in half the cars I passed, and lots of strangers, often older folk, wanted to talk about their past Minis. I was a genuine micro-celebrity in my micro-truck!  But…problems continued, and finally, the little blue pup developed an overheating problem that put me over the edge.  It was time to find a Macro solution to the whole Mini problem (when “Mini” is part of the conversation, every statement is a potential pun).

Enter “Mini Tec”, and a Hero, and a Heroine

Cruising the internet trying to learn about what the heck I had acquired, I found a company in Royston, Georgia , USA, called “Mini Tec”.  These guys, in typical ‘Merican fashion, have engineered a whole new level of speed and personality into these classic old British boxes.  What they do is remove the existing motor/transmission (originally about 40 horsepower) and substitute the motor/transmission from a VTEC Honda.  Sounds simple, but they put a lot of solid engineering into the subframe that mates the new drive train to the old Mini.  Dang.  Now THAT’S America!  If bigger is better, then too much is just right.  The minimum package they do is 140 horsepower, and some go up to amazingly high power levels.  And those are reliable, Honda horsepower.   DANG!

I contacted BJ Hudson at Mini Tec and started a conversation about the possibility of sending the green car and the dark blue pickup to Georgia to get the go-fast treatment from their mechanical wizards.  I think he must have thought, “yeah, yeah…this goofball in Chile will never actually go through with this…”, or some such.  But I had seized on an idea, and with a “plan” in hand, it was only a matter of figuring out what the barriers were and knocking them over, one at a time.

Hero Number 1:  I started contacting shipping companies.  After wasting too many weeks talking to shippers who really didn’t know what the heck to make of me, and who ALL eventually blew me off, Heather reminded me that we have a friend who regularly does this stuff.  His name is Edgardo Buk, he lives in Mendoza, Argentina, and we met him because he works with a group of friends in an Australian motorcycle touring company called Compass Expeditions.  These guys do tours in South America and Eurasia, and Edgardo is their do-everything guy, including shipping and customs.  I got in contact with Edgardo, we talked about the shipment, and his response was that “sure, he can do it”!  Barrier one down.  yay!

Hero(ine) Number 2:  I also started shopping for a freight forwarder on the US side.  To do something like this, you need somebody on each end.  The Fates smiled, and I made a connection with Claudia Moreno in Savannah, the closest port to Mini Tec, in Royston, Georgia.  Claudia responded that her parents are actually from Chile, though she has never visited herself.  Claudia responded that she would be very happy to help me with the shipment, and I have to say that she went WAY beyond mere requirements in making this deal a success.

About this time, due to the pale blue pup’s overheating problem, I made a decision.  All three were going north, where parts are available, mechanics are available, and everything SHOULD get easier.  I talked to BJ, and he said that sure, they could help with the mechanicals on the little pup, even though it would not be a hot rod, but would stay as stock (and slow, and original) as possible.  A quick calculation showed that ALL THREE would fit in one 40 foot container, so the decision was made.  EVERYBODY was going to America (except me).  Heather was already there, in Austin, toiling away learning to be a Capitalist (or at least masquerade as one).

My part was preparing all the documentation (and writing checks).  I spent one full weekend translating documents, filling out forms, scanning it all and sending it forward to Claudia in Savannah.  It felt a little like doing taxes, and getting it all done was every bit as satisfying as completing a year’s worth of IRS pain.

Edgardo came over and camped out in my apartment for a couple of weeks, bringing his daughter along for a little vacation time mixed with arranging my shipment.  Amazing.  What was impossible with the big freight companies all came together in less than a week of his magic, and the Minis were ON A BOAT, headed for the Panama Canal.   18 days later, the container was off-loaded in Savannah and we were so close to success…Claudia had arranged a truck to take the container directly to Mini Tec, and with luck the container would shoot through the port like…well, you fill in your own words here.  It could happen really quick!

Then, our luck ran out.  The Customs and Border Patrol picked my container for a full inspection.  I later learned that I was not being picked on, these guys are charged with keeping hazardous shipments (read “counterterrorism”) and large quantities of recreational chemicals out of the country.  If you are a first-time shipper, you look especially interesting, and chances are your shipment WILL get the full inspection.  Claudia did all she could to expedite things, and I have a notion she saved me a bundle in port charges, but the container HAD to go through the x-ray inspection, and then it HAD to be opened and the contents inspected.  Long story short, it made it through the full treatment and was released a little over a week ago, and on Tuesday of last week, it arrived at Mini Tec, where all three little Minis breathed the clean air of Royston, Georgia for the first time!

Off-Load at Mini Tec

Off-Load at Mini Tec

The green car (el Poroto Verde, which is Chilean Spanish for Green Bean) is first in the lineup.  The goal is the 140 hp treatment, all new guages, new brakes, new air conditioning, new…well, lots of new that can wait for another post.  Maybe the pale blue pup in parallel, since it is not a hot rod deal, but rather just mechanical work and maybe some body work.

The fun begins.  The Green Bean will eventually end up in Heather’s custody.  She was co-conspirator in this monkey-business, and to tell the whole story — without her assistance when I was laid up, I would have been in a hellova mess.  Besides…the Green Bean has been “hers” sorta kinda since we first saw it that night in the dark.  It will be one nifty little pocket rocket, and should be the perfect rig for cruising Austin…maybe with a little Willy Nelson blasting out the windows…

Next posts on this topic will be to chronicle the progress, BJ promises lots of photos.  Should be great fun! Vamos a ver….



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6 responses to “A Tale of Three Mini Immigrants

  1. Doris heim

    This is soooo you guys mike and heather! But I can’t help but think of the circus and a whole handful of clowns rolling out of that little blue one! Good luck with them all!

    • Laughing — that’s the perfect first impression…until you start it up, whereupon ALL the car alarms within about a hundred feet go off due to the enormous growl of this little mouse. The temptation I am fighting is to line the back with styrofoam and build the world’s fastest cooler! What a hoot that would be, filled with ice and beer at your annual 4th of July bash…

  2. Bill Walter

    Mike, I am always amazed at what you have done, are doing, and not telling what you will do. Those minis look great, and if I were a lot younger, say seven decades or so, I might want one of those guys. Wish I could see hem. Uncle Bill

    • Bill, I am pretty sure I inherited the affection for small automobiles, and it seems to have dribbled down onto Heather. You might remember a little Triumph Vitesse Dad had (in parts) in a shed there in North La Junta. He never got around to completing it. Sure wish I could find that car and finish it for him. Or maybe you even remember the funny little Hillman station wagon that he drove for a while and sold, that I bought back and drove for a few years. It was a terrible little British car with awful electric system, but I managed to keep it running. We would pile it full of high school kids and get into all sorts of trouble, and it was VERY well known to the authorities. I remember once beating a traffic ticket because the State Patrol officer put on the ticket that I saw who he was and “sped away”. The justice of the peace there in Buena Vista had ridden in the car. He laughed, said “that car is incapable of “speeding away””, and threw out the ticket. Maybe one of these days, I’ll pull up in front of your place and we’ll bust you out of there for a little joy ride…emphasis on the “little”.

      • Bill Walter

        You are right. As I was reading your post, I couldn’t help but think of your dad. And I kind of think, too, that while some might think what you have done and are doing is a bit (odd?), he is looking down with a smile and saying “Go for it!” I don’t remember the cars you mentioned since I was long gone then, but I do have in my computer file a copy of a picture and article that was in the LJ paper about 1963. Your folks had driven their 1926 Model T Ford “runabout” to the North LJ school yard for the kids to see. You are standing on the running board. It had a 20 hp engine, and could go 35-40 mph.

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