Mini-Moke – the Little Car That Refuses to Die
By Andy Bannister
It’s nothing to do with BMW, however, which has gone in a very different direction with the revived Mini brand. The latest version of the classic Moke is the product of Chongqing Big Science & Technology Development Ltd.
The Chinese firm, which already has motorcycles in its product portfolio, makes a surprisingly wide range of Moke models with modern fuel injected engines, featuring 800cc, 1100cc and 1300cc versions, as well as an electric derivative (the Chinese Moke lineup is pictured here).
The original Moke, a car with almost no body panels to speak of, was a spin-off of the wildly successful British Motor Corporation Mini, and was actually conceived as an ultra-light military vehicle.
Poor ground clearance from its tiny wheels meant it proved unsuitable for the army’s needs, particularly after a weird experimental version with an engine at each end to create four-wheel-drive failed to make it beyond prototype stage.
BMC at that time was on top of the world, however, and Austin and Morris versions of the Mini were selling in hundreds of thousands. The company decided to press on regardless and put a civilian version of the Mini-Moke into production (pictured at right). It quickly became a must-have prop for London’s chic fashion scene.
This was despite the open-sided body, protected by a rudimentary canvas roof, which meant it was incredibly unsuited to driving in its British homeland. It got plenty of publicity for BMC, though, even landing a starring role in the cult 1960s TV series, The Prisoner.
Whilst people instantly loved the Moke (the name, incidentally, is derived from a dialect term for donkey), few Brits actually bought one. Some 14,500 were made in English factories between 1964 and 1968.
The Moke was, however, far more suited to warmer climates, which explains why 90% of the original cars were exported. In hot countries, the frill-free interior and open-sided body was a positive advantage and it soon became popular in Mediterranean resorts and on Caribbean islands.
Australia, which had its own well-established BMC factory building the Mini, seemed the obvious place to transplant the Moke design to. Production kicked off in 1966, and it carried on through until 1981, although still on a small scale – a modest 26,000 were made.
The Australians considerably beefed up the design and overall appeal of the Moke, and a larger 1275cc engine was used on a sporty model known as the Californian with a much better interior. This was widely exported by Leyland Australia, a few even appearing in the US.
Just as the Aussies were losing interest, along came another chapter in the Moke’s life, with production getting underway at a small British Leyland factory in Portugal. This allowed the Moke to be reintroduced in Europe, and in the 1980s it was sold in left-hand-drive form through Austin-Rover dealers in countries like France, sharing showroom space with much newer models like the Austin Metro and Montego.
In 1990 the Moke design passed out of British hands when Rover Group – the successor of the original BMC company, sold the rights to motorcycle maker Cagiva of Italy.
Cagiva carried on making Mokes in Portugal for a while, but plans to transfer the tooling to Italy and restart production there never materialised, and it appeared the little car was finally finished. A Portugese-built Moke is pictured to the left, in red.
Never say never seems to be the Moke’s motto, however. The design is back once more and the car’s ageless looks are still just as appealing today, although how many will be sold in China itself is debatable – like Britain, that country’s climate and traffic conditions seems decidedly unsuitable for an open-air vehicle of this nature.
Exports are likely to be they key to whether this latest version thrives or not. A Moke BTV (Basic Transport Vehicle) is available for developing nations, and kits of the more elaborate Mokes can now be supplied to range of countries including the UK, US and Australia.
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