The day Hurst's Mini was admired by a monarch

| 12 Jun 2012

It’s a bit of a bonus having dual nationality (in my case native South African and naturalised British) because it’s all too easy to enjoy the best of both worlds.

I earned my maroon passport back in 2006 and have (proudly) lived here ever since, but a lot of my British mates (including team C&SC) rag me for being a bit of a chameleon, switching nationality when it suits and happy to criticise Blighty when something isn’t going my way (trains, weather, traffic, restaurant service [but mainly weather - Ed]).

But in truth I’m secretly quite upbeat about this country and being part of it, enjoying the likes of Goodwood, fish ‘n’ chips, good ale etc. 

A decade ago my partner and I legged it to the Continent during the two bank holidays earmarked for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and I rather regretted it after seeing pics of the pageantry and flypasts – particularly Concorde over The Mall.

It was clearly a momentous occasion, which is why I cut short a blast over the Alps in my Jaguar XK150 to get back for the last day of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

We had won a pair of tickets to camp outside HM’s little pied-à-terre in London, putting us in a prime spot to celebrate.

Like most state occasions, however, there was an awful lot of ‘hurry up and wait’  (we were seated by 9am and the event only ‘came on the cam’ after lunch), so I was glad to have the latest copy of C&SC stuffed in my bag to help pass the time.

The inspiring read was a good thing too because, when Her Majesty finally turned up in a state Landau I was a bit, well, underwhelmed (she didn't seem to see me at all!).

My spirits were lifted when I remembered that – despite being one of 250,000 in the Mall on Tuesday – I was once lucky enough to have an audience with HM (ok a few split seconds of undivided attention) and a proper wave after we passed each other in the traffic 17 years ago. Yes, really.

Back in 1995, Her Majesty The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Cape Town as the start of a Royal tour of South Africa (her first since 1947).  The schedule of the second (I think it was) day of her visit included tea with the High Commissioner for South Africa at his residence in posh Bishops Court.

Their route coincided with a celebratory outing from the Hurst garage: namely the inaugural run of a 1974 Mini that my brother Kevin had just finished rebuilding for his then-girlfriend.

One of thousands built from CKD kits at Leyland South Africa’s plant near Cape Town, the Mini (not the girlfriend) was an 1100 Clubman that had been on its last legs as student transport.

Offered for sale for 1500 Rand (around £200 then) my brother picked it up for a grand and quickly realised why its young lady owner was so keen to discount the price: the engine had a fish-like thirst for 20w50!

The brakes, drums all round, were hopeless, too, and the driver’s door hinges were shot thanks to the three kilos of filler a previous owner had applied to iron out a dent on the door. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, the engine was hanging on by a thread after the bulkhead stabiliser bar had disintegrated, allowing it to rock like a bronco on its mounts, which it had destroyed. Inside it was pretty shabby, too.

Much of that was easy for spanner-wielding Kevin (who was busy building the family Cobra replica at the same time) to rectify. A replacement door and bonnet were quickly sourced at a local scrapyard to restore the car’s looks (and weight) and the engine was rebuilt with a 1275 engine’s crank with a 40 thou overbore on the cylinders for a 1308cc capacity.

The interior was spruced up with new seat covers and a bespoke dash containing instruments from an Austin Apache (a South African-only, Triumph Mk2 saloon-like take on the Austin and Morris 1100.

Naturally all the work was finished off by giving the car a complete repaint but my brother’s girlfriend’s taste meant that, when finished, this was no ordinary District Nurse version of Issigonis’ little wonder in Hearing Aid Beige.

The lady in question had returned from a trip to Harrods in London clutching a Corgi model finished in a Union Jack and cajoled Kevin into creating a 1:1 scale replica!

Fast forward a few weekends and – after copious amounts of masking tape and some dextrous measuring to create the patriotic livery – the Mini was ready for its first proper outing with a picnic to Silvermine nature reserve.

That first blast was great fun, with the little front-drive icon’s legendary handling both thrilling and impressive on the twisty bits over Cape Town’s Ou Kaapse Weg pass.

Turned out we weren’t the only ones to be impressed that day either.  On the return journey, we encountered a traffic jam on Edinburgh Drive that, unbeknown to us, was about to get some Royal patronage.

Just as we got held up by the lights at an intersection halfway down, the Royal cavalcade glided past on the opposite side of the carriageway, with Her Majesty safely ensconced in the back of the High Commissioner’s Range Rover.

With just one lane and a narrow traffic island separating us, I was almost close enough to count the pearls on her necklace.

Certainly I think I was able to lip-read: ‘Oh look Philip!’ as Her Majesty appeared to say as the gloved, screwing in a lightbulb hand movement (aka the royal wave) was momentarily interrupted to point us out before the Rangie accelerated up the hill for the Queen to enjoy a cuppa at the High Commissioner’s comfy abode.

For a few moments, my brother, his girlfriend and I were bewildered because we had completely forgotten about the Mini’s Union Flag livery. Honest Ma’am!