The damned classifieds:
Rare cars have always fascinated me, from sought after supercars with astonishing price tags right down to the everyday cars that rusted out before anybody noticed they had become endangered. If a car is rare, it’s always going to hold my interest. This is perhaps why, at car shows, I will always make a beeline for the early chod before the 911’s.
It may sound silly but I have always dreamt of keeping something on the road that not many people get to see, let alone drive, but unfortunately with rarity comes some pretty prohibitive hurdles.
Firstly, there’s the buying price, which is usually very difficult to calculate due to the fact that rare cars by nature do not come up for sale very often. So it’s easy to pay above the odds.
The second, and usually the most prohibitive hurdle, is the lack of any parts suppliers. This means, when driving around in a Da Vinci painting, any noises can cause some serious anxiety to a motorist on a budget. Perhaps this why so many collectors keep their cars hidden from the world in hermetically sealed vaults, only to be seen when it’s time to make a profit at auction.
I am of the opinion that classic cars are designed to be driven: they are sculptures that make noise, smells and offer so much more joy than being simply an art installation to keep to yourself.
Sadly, no car I have ever owned before could be classified as a rarity. In fact, I have fallen into some of the largest automotive subcultures imaginable. My first car was a Mini which is something I share with a large proportion of the British motoring population. Once I could no longer afford the steel cancer treatment of that car, I moved onto a Fiesta, which is a motor usually seen topping the list of the most popular cars in Britain.
I had the default Corsa too before I could afford my next bonafied classic, a wonderfully ratty but usable NA Mazda Mx5 (Miata) which as we know is famous worldwide as being the best selling Sportscar of all time (and by some margin too)!
Even my lovely W124 is a car I seem to see everywhere I go, but I guess there is safety in numbers and it would be foolish and potential financial ruination to chase after something just because it’s rare and relatively unproven. Still one can dream.
One of my real addictions in life is scouring AutoTrader, Ebay and the rest of the classifieds ‘window shopping’ with a made up budget, and being a Yorkshireman I like to find value for money. Sometimes, a good car will come up and I’ll think “wow that is a lot of car for the money”, but more often than not i’m flabbergasted at how a seller can think a late R11 based Renault 5 is worth 5 grand.
After a bit I go snow blind with the thousands upon thousands of greedy dealers trying to convince me that their ‘interesting but not necessarily sought after’ motor is a “guaranteed future classic” and I try to do something more productive.
Two weeks ago, however, something finally came up that I simply could not ignore. A Mini Midas in my perfect spec, a beautiful mk2 with the all important Gordon ‘he engineered the Mclaren F1 don’t ya know’ Murray aero work in a suitably lairy kit car colour. The engine was the stronger A+ in Mg metro spec too, an engine which I think sounds so much more beautiful than its humble origins deserves. This car was perfect for me.
The Midas is a car I have lusted after greatly since 2009 when I saw a Dutch registered Mk3 (Gold) drive past me in the queue for the International Mini Meet at Longbridge. Here was a sleek GT car that stood out so much in a sea of classic Minis, a beautiful lighter/stiffer/coil sprung car that still had all the good bits from the Issigonis original but none of the propensity to rot away. The Midas stuck with me throughout my Mini ownership years and every time it went back for new sills or any other bodywork touch ups, I couldn’t help but wish I’d never have to deal with crummy late Rover steel again.
I loved almost everything about my Mini, the way it drove, the way it looked and the way the A-series went on and on and on without any fuss. But the way it rusted was ultimately a deal breaker. For years and years I searched for my own Midas, Marcos or Jem but after years of trawling through the forums and chasing leads at shows I just decided to give up. It was clearly a pipe dream but thankfully, when you’re not paying attention, fate can be a funny thing.
The Hot Hatch Hunter
The Midas was not just interesting to me as an easier way into Mini ownership or due to the rarity but also because of its real underdog story and an interesting story is another surefire way to grab my attention.
The Midas tale began with the brilliant but ‘ugly’ Mini Marcos, a brilliant BL engineer who wanted a new challenge and a misplaced ad in the housing section for the former by its creator Jem Marsh.
Harold Dermott could not resist going solo after doing his time at Jaguars R+D department, so he swiftly bought the Mini Marcos rights and set to work building them in a converted mill in Oldham, Greater Manchester.
D + H fiberglass techniques were formed in 1975 and the company really hit the ground running. Firstly the new operation upgraded the Mini Marcos by reinforcing the monocoque with a fiberglass roll cage but this did little to change the fact that it was still a ten year old design. If this new company was to make a splash in the Automotive world, they would need a new car.
In came Kit Car design extraordinaire Richard Oakes, designer of the brilliantly wacky beetle based Nova kit car.
Thankfully, the new car was to be a bit more mass market than the very sci-fi Nova and still very much based on what made the Marcos such a great car to chuck about on the right road. The finished car had a much more resolved look in my opinion while still being different to the norm and still very small!
Despite being an original design, the car thankfully utilized much of BL, Fiat, Renault and even Reliant’s parts bins so getting anything then (and thankfully now) was no real issue (apart from the Renault 14 mirrors my car desperately needs).
I think the car in the flesh is far more beautiful than in the pictures, especially from the back where to me it looks like a 70’s supercar that shrunk in the wash. It also manages to my eyes anyway to fill what little footprint it takes up rather well,the Mk2 is very very small but whats left is all muscle and no fat!
The Midas definitely looks nothing like anything on the road today and is the perfect antithesis to the modern obsession with crossover SUV’s.
The looks, though, are only a small part of the Midas story. Dermott did not want his new baby to be hit with the low quality stigma that some kit cars of the era were unfortunately hit with, the Midas wanted to be a main or at least a strong and capable second car with small family lugging pretentions. The Midas was to be a thoroughly developed product and so the car went through rigorous testing over some of the worst roads in Europe, with his wife and kid in tow!
This included 2 weeks of continuous Belgian Pavé abuse which led to the shock absorbers boiling over! But crucially with no damage to the brilliant new fiberglass monocoque.
The Midas became an instant hit with the public and motoring press when it launched, thanks to its giant killing ability on the right road. Motorsport magazine were particularly impressed with their review of the Mg Metro powered mk2 (same spec as mine) in their September ’84 review “Here is a car which sticks to the road like gravy to a shirt front. Driving hard at Darlington, I ran out of courage before the car ran out of grip from its 13 in Goodyear NCT tyres. The steering is remarkably precise, you point the car, squirt the power, and it goes exactly where you intend it to. With its compact size and lively acceleration, I cannot think of a car in which I’d rather tackle heavy city traffic.”
The later Mk3 was even compared favorably against the advanced Honda Crx in the handling stakes, this new car was well and truly after the big dogs.
Back to my car
I struggled to hide my excitement from the seller, who ticked all the enthusiast boxes for me as a suitable person to maintain a car properly. He was obviously in no rush to sell the car but just wanted to move his Ginetta G15 back into his garage alongside his interesting and also very rare Subaru Domingo surf van.
As soon as I helmed the car on the quiet Cheshire back roads all nostalgia from my old Mini came flooding in like a waterfall, I was intoxicated. But even after the 7 years since I last drove it, I could still tell this car was set up much better than mine ever was.
I was in love and shook hands at three and a half grand, (which is about the starting price for a usable classic Mini) so I felt like I had driven away with the sale of the century. Except I hadn’t. Unfortunately the speedo cable snapped and the owner offered to replace it before delivering the car when he found time to fix the fault. An agonizing 24 hours passed before I picked the car up from his mate’s house in Altrincham. Much to my surprise, the previous owner cycled the 40 miles home after fitting his bicycle (without wheels) in the boot of my new Micro Machine, the Midas is surprisingly practical.
Before driving home to Sheffield, I decided to enjoy the car around my old uni haunts of Manchester and enjoy it I did.
Instantly I could see why the motoring press raved about the handling of this thing, the Midas has magnified the classic Mini point and squirt handling. I found myself relishing in 3 or 4 laps at every roundabout I hit, it’s terrific fun on the sort of roads that usually bore me into turning on radio 4.
Manchester was transformed by the Midas into 60’s Turin from the last 30 mins of the Italian Job, I took advantage of every gap I could and made it around the city in record time with my left leg aching after 7 months of Mercedes automatic conditioning.
The First downside to the car became apparent in the uncharacteristically warm early British summer, the ventilation or lack of it was a definite hand me down from the Mini and the sunroof did absolutely nothing but make an already noisy car even noisier.
The ride is also terrifically harsh by modern standards. My arse felt like it was personally kissing every pothole the city of Manchester kindly provided me at 30 mph, and my only distraction in the queues was the impressively poor attempt at a faux leather dash provided either by Midas themselves or by one of my cars many previous owners and something I intend to remedy soon.
The noise, heat and ride on anything but custard smooth tarmac mean the Midas is only enjoyable as it is up to about 80mph, anything above that is almost agony. But the pain at least makes you feel you have accomplished something, this is a proper full contact sportscar. It makes me feel that modern sportscars are too accomplished to be any real fun at road legal speeds, sport after all is for fun and not for lap times.
My only real genuine quibble with the car was the fact it decided to cut out completely on a hill on the very busy rush hour traffic filled A54. I could see by the various gestures the passing traffic gave me and my silly car, that I was not anyone’s favorite person. But atleast I matched with the very nice RAC van!
The problem seems to be related to my poorly fitted but terrifically good ministry of sound stereo (the downside to plastic cars) which is now banned from use and has meant the car has been much happier in my company. Further improvements to usage were provided by my girlfriend’s choice of Star Wars pillows that transformed the comfort of the car to the point where I no longer fear early onset osteoporosis.
Before I return home
There was another reason I wanted to give the car a run around Manchester before returning to Sheffield, Automotive archaeology, the start of Midas and also my Midas’ story belongs to the once industrious town of Oldham.
I could not resist the temptation to visit where my car was born over 36 years ago, and I’d like to think the Midas years were some of the most exciting times for Heybottom Mill which now has the honour of distributing cleaning supplies (its a similar story for the Reliant Shenstone factory that once built Ford’s group B killer, the Rs200).
Once Midas outgrew this mill they moved to Corby, near Rockingham race circuit, where they carried on giving it to the big boys before sadly the Factory burnt down in 1989 and the company kept swapping owners until its more stable current home of Alternative cars. I wouldn’t feel too sorry for Genius creator Harold Dermott however, as he went on to the team that brought you the Incredible Mclaren F1 and became head of customer care at Mclaren before his retirement.
I left the factory thinking about the fleeting nature of car companies but also to the successes of recent years, companies like Ariel really do prove our cottage motor industry has never been better or more exciting.
I had one last trip through Manchester for the cinema where I got to park by another plastic fantastic classic. I could barely pay attention to the film, as, when it ended at 9pm, I knew I had one of the best driving roads in the world waiting for me, almost deserted.
The drive of my life
By far the best feeling in the car was the run back to Sheffield via the Snake Pass, which is a road many claim to be ruined by its Derbyshire 50mph speed limit.
The Midas, however, was in the zone and I was giggling the whole way running through some of the greatest scenery in the world all lit up by the fading dusk sun.
The suspension may batter you and the Mg Metro A-series may scream and make a terrific amount of heat soak, but I would not change anything about the car, and in particular that gearbox, for anything in the world.
I savor every perfect gear change with the rally gears screaming at me as I handle the quickshift, the power train is so delightfully grumpy it feels like the gear linkage is poking a not very well restrained grizzly bear. The car is very addictive on most roads.
The ability to hit every apex perfectly meant I did not scrub any of my 50 mph limit off in any of the tight sweeping bends, every hairpin was taken at full tilt and the car never even broke a sweat. If I was capable of hitting highly illegal speeds without consequence, I have no doubt the car would have had lots left to give.
This road in the 300ce is nothing special as all of the fun in that car is in the faster bends that just cannot be enjoyed on the Snake anymore.
Some of the fun was magnified by how low to the ground the Midas makes you sit (the car fits under some barriers) , the perception of speed is much greater than in any other car I have driven which should mean a nice clean license.
When I ran out of country road I arrived into the posher end of my home city of Sheffield, it felt like I had just completed the Monte Carlo rally, people cheered on my silly little car.
The reaction on and off social media has been incredible, people point at it and I get so many responses on the road from “that things crazy, did you build it?” to “what the F*&^ is that?”. The RAC guy had heard of it, but never in his life had he seen one in the flesh. Kids in particular seem to be drawn to the car, possibly due to its size, as even compared to a modern smart car it looks more related to a Little Tykes car.
I slotted through Sheffield in anxious anticipation of the dreaded hard shoulderless stretch of M1 between the city and the turn off for Worksop.
Hoping the car would give me no more trouble at the noisy and very bouncy 70mph, I could just see the matrix signs dragging the speedlimit down and the traffic to a halt and ruining every late night lorry driver in South Yorkshire’s day.
Thankfully the 7 mile stretch was taken in the car’s stride and I made it home safe and sound. I could almost kiss the car, but I banged my head on the way out and I no longer felt like it after the 4 attempts at closing the driver’s door in the very precise and very loud way the car requires.
All in all despite the teething issues, I glance back as I walk down my drive very pleased with my purchase. I managed a bit of a hat-trick, getting something that I have always dreamed of, which is also incredibly rare but heavily based on a car with perhaps the best parts supply of them all.
Plus, if it all goes tits up, I have a manual that tells me exactly how it was built!
I go upstairs to my room, and for the first time ever I don’t feel the need to check Auto Trader or eBay before bed.
So, I guess this car is a keeper.