Okay, so you go to motorsports events as a spectator. What, in your opinion, is the most watchable class in four-wheel racing?
No doubt there'll be a range of answers to that one, but as far as I'm concerned there's not much to beat the sight of an angry swarm of Minis buzzing around more glamorous tackle at places like Goodwood. The metal ballet of thirty-odd Mk 1s being chucked three-abreast sideways into Woodcote is one of motorsport's great spectacles.
Likely as not, one of the first three into just about any historic Mini race corner is going to be Nick Swift, boss of Swiftune, the Kent-based tuning shop responsible for a big percentage of the winning Coopers on today's big-ticket Mini grids. If there's a move to be made on the track, Nick Swift will make it. His Willow green multi-winning Cooper - reborn last year as 'Willow 2' - carries a nod-and-a-wink UP U 2 registration plate that harks back to a cheekier time when racing was serious but not at the expense of having a laugh.
52-year-old Nick has been a Mini man all his life. "My whole world is Mini-shaped," he says. "My mum was autocrossing Minis when she was pregnant with me." His late dad Glyn started Swiftune in 1965 after working as an engine builder in Ford's research department at Dunton. At the time, Glyn's elder brother Gordon (Nick's uncle) was running Swift Motorcycles from a tiny tin shed in a residential street just outside Basildon. That shed is still operating to this day, proving that you don't need flash premises to deliver a quality service.
Back in the Dunton era, Glyn was given a Mini engine by Gordon to fiddle about with. That turned his head. While other Ford employees were smuggling bits out of the factory, Glyn was smuggling Mini engines into it to use Ford's machining facilities. That didn't go down too well. He was politely asked to leave, and Swiftune was born.
Today, Swiftune occupies a little more real estate than Swift Motorcycles, but that same 'up and at 'em', David and Goliath, tin shed mentality still runs hard through the veins of the family-run business. Nick has been involved in it since his mid-20s, and now his own children Ben, Georgie and Hannah are following his lead.
Mini racing at Goodwood level is not for the faint-hearted, or the faint-pocketed. If you check out the Swiftune website you'll see a couple of used cars for sale. The cheapest one, in blue, was up for £49,995. That's just been sold, leaving just one car on the shelf, a left-hand drive 2014 works-speccer in Old English White. Raced just once by Rob Huff and Bradley Ellis, it's priced at £59,000.
How did racing Minis get so expensive? Well, converting any road car into a racer is going to cost you because you're doing something unnatural to it. You're building a car to a stiffness, power and spec that is many orders of magnitude above what was envisaged by BMC in 1959. FIA safety kit isn't cheap either.
Before you even get to the building up stage, though, you first need something to build on. And that's a bit of an issue for Mini specialists these days.
It's not just the shortage of affordable donor cars that's been relentlessly driving up Mini racer prices. The three-bearing A Series engine that still powers them - nearly 70 years on from its first appearance in the Austin A30 of 1951 - is also becoming a rare beast. Tragically, large numbers of A Series motors were melted down to make the Chinese Olympic Stadium, a cruel fate for a doughty performer that didn't officially die until the last old-style Mini came off the line in 2000.
Historic racing has given the A Series an ongoing stay of execution, not just in the Minis that compete in the Mini Miglia Championship and at the Revival and Members' Meetings, but in the ridiculously quick Austin A35s and Healey Sprites that you see at these venues as well. And in open-wheel Formula Junior cars. Swiftune supplies winning engines for them all.
I've owned more than my fair share of A Series-powered cars. When I was driving them, you never saw the words 'power' and 'A Series' in the same book, let alone the same sentence. A Swiftune A Series is different thanks to direct access to over half a century of experience and the huge range of Swiftune go-faster bits from replacement steel cranks to pistons, rods, flywheels, clutches, Quaife auto-torque-biasing diffs and in-house electronic distributors and condensers.
The 1293 head is a new FIA-approved casting. The rockers are remanufactured ARP items. The block is the only original bit of the engine. It's totally remanufactured, as is the flywheel; Swiftune will maximise the engine's potential using traditional machine shop skills. "Most of our development on the cylinder head side still comes from old school methods of hand-modifying, porting, flowing on the rig, going through everything just to see if there's anything to be gained'" says Swift. "We're seat of the pants engineers." Nick's not big on computers or digital stuff generally, but he's happy to acknowledge that dyno testing adds performance and reliability to this ancient but still willing engine.
The results are spectacular. Running on twin 1.5 SU carbs and restricted by the Mini design's less-than-efficient side radiator, a Swiftune 1293 engine will generate 130hp and rev to 8,500rpm - with serious power coming in from around 5,500rpm and 8,000rpm routinely used in the heat of battle. For comparison, a production Cooper S came out of the factory with about 60bhp and, as I found to my cost on more than one occasion, you could rev its standard A Series to 8,500rpm, but only once.
The A Series is an engineering miracle in many ways, although crankily it doesn't respond that well to fuel injection. Who cares about that though when, with split Weber carbs, a road-spec motor will churn out over 140hp? With a turbo and a single carb, the Computervision Metro Turbos from the Historic Touring Car Challenge produce 235hp, all with the same crank and rods.
That combination doesn't come cheap. A full-house Swiftune 1293 drivetrain will rush you the thick end of £20,000, but that is for a properly complete engine with a gearbox, carburettors, starter motor, alternator, radiator, fans, pulleys, belts, coils, the lot. If you decide to go racing with a Lotus Cortina instead, an engine for one of them will cost you about the same money, but that's minus just about everything. A Rocket gearbox alone is £1,500.
Incredibly, both Swiftune and the outside specialists they work with are still coming up with performance mods for the venerable A Series motor. "After working on the same engine for fifty years you'd think there wouldn't be anything new, but you never stop learning. Materials have improved a lot. Better grades of steel and aluminium all help on the durability side."
Considering the age of the design, the power they're producing and the revs they're going to, Swiftune As are incredibly reliable. Over half of the engines at this year's Goodwood Members meeting - 32 out of 60 - were Swiftune units. There were no engine blowups. One dropped out of the final when the fanbelt fell off, another dropped out of a heat when a distributor cap post turned, breaking the rotor arm.
"If you look after it and regularly service it, without overheating or abusing it, you can buy and use an engine and give it a rebuild every 10-12 hours, which is pretty much a season. Do that for two or three seasons, and then you'll maybe be looking at getting another one." Swiftune does its utmost to keep customers out on the track with competition engine rebuilds to fit in with racing schedules.
Today's Mini racing regs are designed to keep historic racing Minis close to factory Cooper S spec, within the bounds of common sense and parts availability. That chimes nicely with Nick's own idea of a racing Mini, which is one that is as clean and as standard looking as possible. Swiftune's FIA-spec race cars have road car-style door cards, dash parcel shelf trim and a centre console key ignition. Nick's Willow 2 race car, which was built on a 100-day schedule last year, features the brilliant period touch of stuck-on heated front screen elements. They're not actually functional but they look so right.
Willow 2 even has an Extendaswitch or two, fondly remembered from my own days of owning a light blue Mk 1 Mini with floor-mounted button starter, sliding windows and string-pull doorlatches. Fixed seat belts stopped me reaching the dash toggle switches, so if I wanted to operate the lights or wipers it was a case of buying slip-on Extendaswitches.
FIA regs outlaw swapping the Mini's original timing chain design for a belt-drive conversion. Same goes for the points and condenser ignition system, which must be retained in some form (Swiftune makes its own), but the rocking-horse-poo status of genuine Cooper S conrods means that replacement and available H-beam items are allowed. "The scrutineers sort of turn a blind eye to that because they know the score."
The only parts Swiftune brings in from outside the UK are the specialist Koni shocks and electronic distributors, which both come from Holland, and the valves, which are made in the States. They export loads of stuff to Japan, as you'd expect, and also to China and Taiwan, but their main sales are at home. "Everything we build engine-wise is 95 per cent race. That market at the moment is predominantly English."
Trying to save yourself some money by buying what looks like a cheap racing Mini can easily turn into a false economy. Cars at this level of tune need to be properly built. Nick tells a salutary tale about a well-heeled chap who was expressing an interest in one of Swiftune's cars, only to balk at the £50k price, which was about twice that of a Scandinavian car he'd seen elsewhere. Ignoring Swiftune's well-meant advice that a racing Mini would end up costing him £50k whatever happened, he bought the cheap Scandi car. On the first lap at Silverstone it dropped a valve and ended up in Swiftune's shop, where quite a few other shortcomings were noticed. Getting it to a decent start point cost yer man £60k. He eventually sold it for £50k having spent a total of £110,000 on it.
"It's the small bits that you think will be two a penny that cost the money," says Swift. "When they run out, there's nobody making them. A timing cover for example, you've got to get it all pressed out, you've got to make the tooling, it's going to end up being really expensive."
So Mini racing isn't cheap then? "No," laughs Nick. "Even if you're doing it on your own, you'll be spending two to two and a half grand per meeting. We use very little fuel - half a litre a minute, which is not a lot in racing car terms - but tyres are our nemesis. We'll get through a set of Dunlop CR65s per race. Including the VAT they're about £800 a set."
What about when money is no object? How much would it cost to sign up to a bespoke Swiftune Goodwood build? "If you said to me, build me a brand-new car, the cost would first of all depend on what you're starting with. You might buy a donor car for five grand, or it might be fifteen grand.
"That green car out there (pointing to the one with Chris Harris's name on the door), that one was commissioned by BMW in Munich. We supplied that as a whole car. Ready to go with its log book and all the papers, that's a £70-£80k car." Despite these numbers, there's a healthy market in existing Swiftune cars. "Racing Coopers were cheap in the 1960s. You could buy a race car for ten grand then, but they didn't hold any value."
There's a big difference in track times between then and now too. "In period, John Rhodes was going around Goodwood in 1min 40, maybe 1m 39. At the Members Meet this year we were doing 1m 32s." Where does that eight second difference come from? "Well, none of the old cars in period had roll cages. They were literally bog-standard cars with a Downton engine, maybe with slightly lowered suspension and modified tracking. The pics from the old days show massive body roll. Today the movement on the dampers is only about 8-10mm."
An original Mini weighed between 580kg and 680kg, depending on the model. A Swiftune car is homologated at 620kg, which includes the roll cage, foam filled 50-litre aluminium petrol tank, and all the rest of the safety equipment.
There are just four speeds in a Swiftune Mini's straight-cut gearbox, so your granny probably wouldn't appreciate a ride along the Lavant straight, given that the top speed is around 122mph - a lot on 10-inch wheels. Scarily, the average Mini lap speed at Goodwood begins with a nine, and that's with a second gear chicane at the beginning of the start straight. Predictably, the titchy 7.5-inch single caliper brakes don't get much use. Minis lose speed mainly through tyre scrub. They revel in fast corners. "Madgwick, the first corner at Goodwood, is absolutely ideally suited to a Mini," says Nick. "You can take that almost flat out. We're approaching that corner at about 110-112mph. Just take a lift to get the nose tucked in, still in top gear, and then floor it. You need that lift to transfer the weight. That lets you turn in without understeer.
"Driving a Mini is such a technique. Getting that last tiny bit out of it is hard. We've had top drivers joining us from other fields and they can't keep up with the best Mini lads. It's all about not losing your momentum. You've got to keep your speed up. Products like the ATB diff were developed with that in mind."
Today, 85 per cent of the stuff Swiftune makes is aimed at the racing market, but they've recently been dabbling in a road version of one of their hot Minis. The Mini Madgwick is a nod to what the company was doing at Goodwood, a restored and tweaked car with twin fuel tanks and a bigger engine with a milder cam for user-friendly driveability.
Unfortunately, the changing dynamics of Mini buying and restoration costs mean that the planned selling price of £35k for this exquisite little car has become unrealistic. "You used to be able to buy a bog-standard 850 in good nick for maybe five grand," says Nick. On that basis a £35k Madgwick could have been realistic. Not anymore. "Now, it would cost us around forty grand just to build one."
It's still a bit of a bargain when you consider that an original Cooper S in 'bucket o' rust' condition will cost you £20,000, though, while a decent one will be nearer to £50,000 - and if you want a David Brown Remastered Mini at £100k you'll have to join the waiting list.
I'd choose the purity of a Swiftune Mini every time, though, and might well be inclined to get my old Belstaff helmet out for a spot of doorhandle banging. "The best advertising for us is on the circuit," says Swift. "We're all trying to beat the other Minis. Racing against the Mustangs is just a bit of one-upmanship."
Nick Swift will be racing amongst nine Minis they're running at the Silverstone Classic, 26-28th July, as part of the event's 60th anniversary celebration of the original Mini. If you have an eligible car, you can join us in the PistonHeads club area herefrom just £52 for two tickets. For general tickets from £45, click here.