Thoroughly Modern Mini

Electric conversions for classic cars are becoming big business, but do they actually make sense? Chris Pickering drives the Swind E Classic to find out.

Penned in the mid-fifties and produced right up until October 2000, the original Mini is a truly iconic design. A triumph of automotive packaging that mixed flair and pragmatism, millions fondly remember it as their first car – in addition to it being a rally winner across the globe and a genuine style icon.

You’d have to be pretty brave to tinker with that recipe but that’s exactly what Swind has done with the E Classic; under the bonnet there’s now an 80 kW (110 bhp) electric motor, which drives the front wheels via a single-speed transmission. It’s powered by a 24 kWh lithium ion battery, which gives a real-world range of 125 miles, which is, neatly, about the same as the fuel tank on the original Mini.

Is that automotive sacrilege? There’s only one way to find out.

You’d have to be a pretty avid Mini fan to spot the visual changes. Swind begins with an original Mini bodyshell and then treats it to a full restoration. The Candy Apple Red demonstrator looks particularly smart – and a good deal more authentic than some of the tuned Minis that have been produced over the years. It rides fractionally lower than a standard car but it still uses the same 12-inch wheel size and even the charging socket is hidden underneath a replica fuel filler cap.

There’s a similar attention to detail inside. The leather bucket seats aren’t strictly original but they could easily have come from the Demon Tweeks catalogue circa 1965 – with the notable exception that these ones are heated, bringing a little bit of modern luxury to the cabin.

An underfloor heat pad also helps to supplement the original Mini’s notoriously inadequate heater, while heated front and rear screens and two USB charging points also come as standard. Options include a DAB radio with satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus air conditioning, power steering, and an electrically operated sunroof.

So far so good – and there’s a lot to like about the driving experience too. Swind pitches the E Classic as a quirky urban runaround – destined for the streets of Knightsbridge rather than the twists and turns of the Col de Turini – but it still handles very much like the original Mini. The conversion might add around 70 kg, but at 720 kg it’s still a real lightweight at half the mass of a modern MINI Clubman.

What’s more, the weight distribution has actually improved from 68:32 to 57:43 and the centre of gravity is now some 44 mm lower than the donor vehicle. This means you can chuck the E Classic around with real vigour should you, for instance, end up dashing around the streets of Turin with a pile of gold bullion in the back. Even in the somewhat less glamorous surroundings of the Swindon ring road it proves fun, with minimal body roll and bags of steering feel.

The thrust available from the electric motor would easily outgun an original Cooper S. Admittedly, it does taper off fairly rapidly after the initial slug of torque but the E Classic still feels quicker than its 9.2-second 0-to-60 mph time implies. Get on the throttle early out of tighter corners and you can feel the front wheels scrabbling for grip and the steering beginning to twitch, just like the original.

It even sounds quite interesting; the electric motor is far from silent and there’s a little bit of chatter from the transmission on this prototype that Swind says it’s working to iron out. Personally, I’d rather they left things as they stand because it sounds like a classic rally car on a straight cut gearbox – the perfect antidote to overly sterilised modern cars (electric or otherwise).

And therein lies the beauty of the E Classic: it takes the weakest point of the original Mini – the wheezy old BMC A-Series engine – and replaces it with something more modern. Had the donor vehicle been a V12 Ferrari or a snorting V8 muscle car then the conversion would have robbed a lot of its character, but here you almost forget that it’s electric.

There is one major thing that you have to bear in mind, however, and that’s the price. At £79,000 (before options) it’s not exactly cheap, although it is comparable to the high-end Mini conversions offered by the likes of David Brown. The price also reflects the depth of engineering that has gone into this car. Swind’s parent company, Swindon Powertrain, works with a number of major car manufacturers behind the scenes and its racing engines currently power more than half the British Touring Car Championship grid. The company has followed a similarly bespoke approach to developing the E Classic; virtually all of the components are new and many of them are manufactured specifically for this car. The battery pack, for instance, is assembled in-house to fit the precise space offered by the modified shell.

Despite its historic roots, each of the 100 or so E Classics that Swind plans to build will be registered as a zero-emissions vehicle, which means they will be, for the time being at least, exempt from the London Congestion Charge. They will also escape the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone payments that are coming into force. And, while the same could currently be said of any historic vehicle that’s more than 40 years old, in the longer term this may be the only way to keep a classic car on the road.

And far from being sacrilege it seems very much in-keeping with the practical and forward-thinking approach of the original design.

 

Chris Pickering @chris_pickering