I love it when a gamble pays off. Buying a car off the internet and it turns out to be OK; cooking some questionable chicken from the back of the fridge and it doesn’t send you to the loo all night; meeting someone on Tinder and they do actually have all their teeth. It’s great when things just work out.
The most recent of my small victories has been Country Garage. I found this Mini-centric garage on Google Maps, and knowing I’d be in the area on another shoot, I wanted to take a punt and see if they would allow me to stop by for a visit.
Looking on Google Street View, I could see the place was jam-packed with Minis from the ’60s all the way up to current models. But what really got the tummy turbo spooling was a little red race car parked in the far corner. That’s the kind of thing that gets me excited. So, with a few hours to kill before my original appointment, I set off on a whim, with nothing but an address and a screenshot.
Getting to Country Garage was not easy. The business is located on Shikoku Island in a rural town with a population of just 800,000, which is small by Japanese standards. Unsurprisingly, the train system is a little different to the one I use in Kanagawa on a daily basis. Here, passengers still have to buy tickets and the trains are diesel powered. I got off at the local station and an inspector checked my ticket – very quaint.
Following Google Maps, I walked a few kilometres through farmland and little pockets of houses.
Arriving at Country Garage I went straight to the spot where I thought the little red racing Mini would be – but no dice. I guessed it had been sold, or maybe it was out racing. Regardless, given what was all around me, I knew this garage would still make for an interesting story.
I swept through the sea of classic Minis and quickly came across another old racer with Country Garage painted on the side and a homemade bonnet scoop – possibly for turbo or supercharger cooling, or perhaps to feed air straight into a KAD 16-valve head. Unfortunately, there was just a big hole up front so it remains a mystery.
My love of old clankers probably comes from my mum, who was an antique dealer when I was growing up. I was surrounded by weird retro collectibles in our Victorian terrace in Reading, Berkshire. Everything from old clocks, radios, shooting and riding paraphernalia, to old doctor’s dummies with hand-painted innards on display was endlessly fascinating for four-year-old me.
As I made my way towards the office, I spotted some staff outside and approached them to ask if I could take photos inside a few of the cars. And that’s when I saw it – the little red wide-body Mini I had travelled for – albeit sporting a different number on the doors, hinting that it gets good use on the track.
But before I could get a closer look, I was ushered inside by Country Garage’s owner Hideyoshi Nakayama to an Aladdin’s cave of Mini stuff.
Within this showroom, Mini memorabilia (and some motorcycle stuff) lines the walls, floor and ceiling. I’m told that 20 years ago, Nakayama-san travelled to the UK and went on a bit of a shopping spree, buying up a lot of this stuff to decorate his shop. I think he and my mum would get along famously.
There were two Minis in the back of the shop, one covered in teddy bears and the other covered in plaques. It turns out that the latter is rather special indeed.
This is chassis number 103, and Nakayama-san told me it’s one of the first three Minis to ever be built. The first one, chassis number 101, was used as a crash test mule and sadly no longer exists. The second one was converted into an experimental convertible and had its body panels remodelled. That leaves Nakayama’s little blue Mini – sitting in a small shop in rural Japan – as the oldest Mini in the world.
In the late ’70s, this Mini was bought for £95, having been sat in the rafters of someone’s barn, in pieces. It was lovingly restored to factory original condition, and it was during this process that eight bolts were found in the floor pan. These bolts were apparently left over from the jig that was used to build the first three Minis before production line tools were created. Fascinating stuff.
Nakayama-san was excited to show me all the book, newspaper and magazine features of this special little Mini, but all the time I just wanted to go back outside and look at the angry little red bruiser. Don’t get me wrong, I love a classic car as much as the next person, and this one really was delightful and obviously very special. But it’s a museum piece, and you can’t strap a museum piece around a race track.
I managed to steer our conversation outside, in the direction of the little racing Mini I had come so far to see. It was as cool as I’d hoped for and once Nakayama-san fired up the little devil, it made me want to take one of the Mini wrecks home and build my own pocket racer. Have a look at this little Instagram story video and tell me you don’t want to, too.
With time running short before my next shoot, I had to leave, but I was chuffed to have met two awesome little cars, each special in their own way.