I’ve collected vintage American cars of every make, Jeeps and more old Volkswagens than any sane man should ever own. Loved them all. But Minis….classic Minis that is…transcend any other car culture I have ever been involved with. Even within the British car crowd, there’s something about a classic Mini. It’s hard to describe yet I know that those of you that have or had one will understand. I’d heard it before but never really put much stock in it until Humphrey came into our life.
I spent almost 20 years looking for “Humphrey”, our 1967 Austin Mini Countryman. Well, that’s not entirely true. Truth be told I had pretty much given up. But one night as I was killing some time before heading to bed, I surfed around the web a bit and….there he was. Oh sure it wasn’t the exact Mini I had been looking for but he was awfully dang close. I just sat there and stared at the screen, wondering if I dare pursue it. My wife, Glenny, stepped into the room and said, “What are you looking at? You’re just sitting there staring at the monitor?” as she came around behind me. “Ohhhh….wow. So, are you going to call on it tomorrow?” I slowly turned my head towards her; “Seriously? You think I should?” She stood up straight, hands on hips and replied “Ben, I’ve been hearing about that car for 20 years! Get it! Buy it, be happy and I won’t have to hear about ‘that car’ anymore!” Then she smiled at me for a second, turned and walked out of the room leaving me. Well. There you have it. I guess I’m going to call on this car tomorrow.
“That car”, as she had labeled it, was a red Countryman I had owned years ago. And THAT Mini was the fulfillment of a dream I’d held since I was a young child. Saw my first Mini sitting in a Pizza Hut parking lot in Tacoma, Washington and was instantly smitten. So when I finally had the chance to buy one…the afore-mentioned red Countryman…I was overjoyed. At the time I was a starving young man in his early 20s and barely able to afford it (I had to sell my beloved Jeep Scrambler to come up with some of the cash) but…I finally had my Mini. Life was good…for a while. It was only a couple years later I drove it to the All British Field Meet in Portland, Oregon and sold it. My wife at the time didn’t care for the car and to keep the peace I had agree to let it go. To add to my frustration, the marriage didn’t last much longer after that and I immediately began kicking myself for selling it. I researched every way I possibly could to try and locate the car in the hopes that perhaps he was willing to sell it back but….no luck. To this day I have no idea where that car went. And so it became “that car”; the car that would come up every time I got into the conversation we’ve all had about “that one car I wish I had never sold.” But today I’m extremely fortunate to be married to a woman that adores cars as much as I do and now she was telling me to buy this gorgeous green Countryman that just popped up on my screen. Aint that sweet?
We were living in Palmer, Alaska and the car was located in Tennessee. The man who owned it was very polite, patient and willing to bombard my email with 3 photo-albums worth of pictures taken from every possible angle. He allowed that his daughter, who was about the same age as my daughter, had named the car “Humphrey”. Something having to do with a hamster as I recall. I realize the smart thing to do would have been to fly down and look at the car but life wasn’t working in that direction so after several emails, the countless pictures and back-and-forth discussions with Glenny I finally decided to pull the trigger. I now owned an Austin Mini Countryman that I had yet to lay eyes on. To say I was nervous would be a severe understatement. And having problems getting right at the beginning didn’t help. The first transport company I contracted was happy to take my money but fell short on actually picking the car up. A different company and over a month later Humphrey finally found his way from Tennessee to a loading dock in Seattle and finally…Anchorage, Alaska. Quite a change in climate for the little car but luckily he arrived on a semi-sunny June day as I zoomed the 40 miles from Palmer to Anchorage and finally laid eyes on him. There he was…the smallest car in the transport-company lot. The people in the transport office were all smiles as I tried to just hurry through the paperwork so I could drive him home. I also got re-introduced to the questions that Mini drivers inevitably get: “Is that electric? How many miles to the gallon does it get? It’s front wheel drive? How do you get in and out of that? Is it Japanese?” Sighhhhh. So, paperwork signed and inquiring minds now left behind I finally got go. First stop was the new Mini dealer where I took a quick picture of it parked next to the modern so-called “Mini” just for perspective. (My opinion; the new ones should be called “Maxis” but I’m guessing that wouldn’t test well in marketing).
That summer in Alaska was interesting. I’m pretty sure I owned the only classic Mini in the whole state and rarely came across anybody who knew what the car was. Again, a trip anywhere had to be padded with extra time to allow for all the questions. Or people wanting to take pictures posing next to it. I think the most awkward part of driving a Mini are the people that just stand there, wanting to watch you get in it. Super creepy. And I would hesitate to guess how many strangers out there have pictures of my car either in a parking lot or driving down the highway. (Note: driving a Mini means always being on display. Never pick your nose, use a hand-held device or otherwise do anything untoward while driving. In fact, just plaster a smile on your face like some toothpaste commercial and be prepared to have your picture taken at any moment.) I was extremely happy to come across the British Sports Car Alaska group. They happily took us in and I at least had a small group of people who knew and understood the car…even if it wasn’t really a “sports car”. Driving a classic Mini in Alaska also meant driving…I mean really driving…anytime we went anywhere. Dodge this pothole, swerve around that frost heave, watch out for the gravel, oops another pothole, MOOSE!, pothole pothole pothole….you get the picture. Alaska roads, even the paved ones, look like A-10 Warthog practice ranges. But I took Humphrey out whenever we had a sunny day because I knew that in a few months I’d have to button him up for winter that would last 8 or 9 months. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Our folks in Washington were in need of some help and when we found ourselves flying back and forth between Alaska and Washington more frequently. So we made the decision to move back down. While we would miss some things about Alaska, there was no denying that I was excited to be back in an area where I could order car parts without paying more for shipping than I had paid for the part. Car shows, smooth pavement, better driving weather…it all meant more fun with Humphrey. But first I had to get him down there. After getting the job offer in September, I pulled out of Alaska in early October with the snow literally chasing me out of town. My two youngest children and I in a big Ford truck pulling the Mini on a double-axle trailer. We had cocooned him under padding, car cover, tarps and repeat until it was a big, grey blob sitting on a trailer. But for the 2,300 mile drive through snow, mud, slush and gravel I was taking no chances. Before I had even made our 1st day’s goal of Whitehorse, Yukon I had already replaced half the straps holding the Mini to the trailer. It’s amazing how many sharp edges are underneath a Mini and they were like saws on those straps as the little car bounced up and down on the trailer. I think running over something in a Mini would be akin to running it over in a giant cheese-grater. Re-strapping a car to a trailer in the dark and 14-degree weather…what a hoot. But 4 days of paranoid driving, a ridiculous amount of money spent on straps and several degrees warmer weather found us at the US border in Sumas, Washington. As I approached the man at the crossing I prepared for the “What’s under the cover?” question. The Mini was so swaddled in layers that it didn’t even look like a car. I was sure I would have to spend a half-hour unstrapping Humphrey just to prove it. But when I told the guy “It’s a ’67 Austin Mini Countryman” I was rewarded with “Really? SWEET! I used to have a classic Mini! Loved that car!” I’ve crossed borders between the US and Canada countless times over the years. That remains the one and only time my entire conversation has been about a cool car without any of the typical “Are you a deranged criminal trying to enter my country?” questions. Nice. I was beginning to think that Minis are something truly special.
Since we arrived in Washington just in time for the cold, damp winter I planned on buttoning Humphrey up for a few months. I never bought him to use as a driver after all. But there’s some famous cliché out there about “the best laid plans”? Not too long after arriving it seemed my cars all developed some “Washington allergy”. First the wife’s Jeep died with some bizarre problem that had me stumped for a few weeks. Then the clutch blew up in the truck. And so, in the middle of the horrible, dark, cold, wet Washington winter…I reluctantly pulled Humphrey out of the garage for the commute to work. I uttered an apology as I flipped on the windshield wipers, turned on the headlights and entered morning rush-hour traffic for the short highway-trip to work. The agony of hearing rain slopping under the car. The frustration of seeing it seep through the windscreen rubber. Shaking my head at the end of the day when I pulled the Mini back into the garage and saw the filth running down the sides. I endured it all for a few weeks until we finally had the other vehicles operational again but….it was the Mini that carried us through when the newer, supposedly “reliable” cars had let me down. Afterwards, of course, I devoted time to completely pull it apart and clean it up. I was a nervous wreck worrying about rust. I think applied more wax than a southern California beauty parlor.
The Washington winter passed and I was excited when we had a sunny, albeit cold, early Spring day and was able to pull Humphrey out of the garage. He bucked and snorted a bit more than usual and I was surprised I had to apply choke for a few miles instead of the customary 2 or 3 minutes after start-up. Hmm. Well, it was pretty cold out so I just dismissed it as sitting in the garage too long combined with the cool air. But when I pulled him out again a couple weeks later on a warmer day, this time it was obvious I had a problem. He sputtered and popped all the way to my destination and again all the way home. Great. It felt like a carburetor problem. Not one of my strong suits. I’m going to admit it; growing up with predominantly air-cooled VWs had spoiled me. Carburetor not working right? No problem! Two easily-accessible nuts, throttle cable, gas line, maybe a wire or two and voila! Off comes the carb! Walk over to the bench, grab the new/used carb, replace and off I went happily down life’s highways. Out of curiosity I had started to pull a carburetor apart once (I don’t remember what kind) and after watching teeny, tiny little springs and bits bounce around the workbench I had deduced that they were constructed using witchcraft. Never looked inside one again. So, with Humphrey I did the simple stuff first; made sure the fuel pump was working alright, replaced the fuel filter and…no dice. I had to face the reality of a carburetor problem. I wasn’t happy. But really, ‘how bad could it be?’ I told myself. Carburetors aren’t really all that expensive, right? So I jumped onto the Moss Motors website and after searching, searching and searching some more I; a) didn’t see a carburetor exactly like mine and b) the carburetors that were similar were….wow…a lot more than the carburetors I used on my old American stuff.
For the first time my Mini wasn’t fun. It was late as I shut the garage doors and tromped into the house like a pouty Kindergarten child who was being told to go to bed. I told myself I would call Moss on Monday but, as I sat there staring at the computer and being a big baby about it, I figured “What the heck” and shot them a message via their Facebook page. I figured they’d read it come Monday morning and let me know if they carry my carburetor and if so, how much etc. etc.
Imagine my surprise when I got a reply a few moments later. At 7:30pm on a Friday night. Well….that was unexpected. I guarantee you NAPA has never done that. I actually felt bad. Replied that I didn’t expect to hear back until the following Monday but the mysterious person on the other end – it only came up as “Moss Motors” on my Facebook page – reassured me it was OK, yes they can get the part, but what is the problem and….wow….I was having a conversation with some nice person from Moss about my car. I don’t know what to call that but “great customer service” doesn’t even come close. Throughout that Easter weekend I was having multiple text conversations, sending pictures back and forth, getting technical advice and eventually I was outside working on the car with a phone to my ear talking to my new friend at Moss Motors (who now had a name) walk me through the diagnostic process.
I’ve been playing with cars for 40 years and I can honestly say….that’s a first. This guy wasn’t simply going to sell me a part that may or may not be needed; he was genuinely curious what the problem was and was trying to talk me through it from 1200 miles away. I began by facing my fears and pulling the carburetor apart. He had sent me some great diagrams and between them and my Mini service books I soon had it in pieces, cleaned up and put it back together. Found some sludge and rust in the carb so I was pretty sure I’d found the issue. Feeling pretty pleased with myself I slapped it back on and….no change. Dang it! Yet my new friend at Moss STILL wasn’t trying to just sell me a carburetor! He really wanted to make sure I was fixing the right piece before he sold me something. I got calls and texts throughout the week checking up on my progress, my next plan of action etc. OK…this was pretty cool, even if I was still upset that Humphrey had me stumped. But then it got even better.
I got the call “Hey, do you know who Tony Garmey is?” Well…yeah…kind of. I recall seeing the name here and there in various British car articles. He was pretty well-known as an amazing vintage car restoration/racer if I recall. Turns out he is actually even more well-known than I thought and…whattya know?…he’s located right here in Washington about an hour from where I live! Networking at its finest was now allowing me the opportunity to load Humphrey up on the trailer and take him over to Tony’s shop on a Saturday morning where Mr. Garmey himself would give me a few hours of his time to tinker on my car. Holy moly. Wow. It was like being told “Hey, if you have some time next weekend, my good buddy Bill Gates will take a look at your laptop.” Suddenly I was overjoyed that my car was broken! I went to bed the night before fighting sleep like a little kid on Christmas Eve. Up and early Saturday morning, slugged down some coffee and Glenny and I were on our way to Auburn, Washington to meet Tony Garmey. Oh yeah…and hopefully fix the Mini.
It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was in heaven watching him pull the carburetor off and fix some issues he saw with it that I had missed. Looking at the various vintage racecars in his shop wasn’t too shabby either. Tony is an extremely nice, smiling, approachable guy who definitely knows his Minis and it was fun listening to his stories as he tinkered with my car. I don’t know how many times I just watched like some dumb teen-ager meeting his favorite rock star thinking “Wow! That’s Tony Garmey working on MY car!” I had to laugh at myself for wondering if I should have him sign the fender or something. After a few hours he had it running better but not 100% yet. He was definitely on the right track, though…we figured it was probably in the carburetor. But Tony had already been super generous with his time and we could tell he was very busy so we thanked him, loaded Humphrey back on the trailer and headed home. Time to try something else.
I planned on sending the distributor in to get checked. Maybe break down and just buy that carburetor after all even though I’ve never been a fan of just throwing parts at something until it’s fixed. But I knew it would bug me to no end if I didn’t get some positive answer as to what was going on. This is where Moss on Facebook jumped in again. Now I’ve never been a huge fan of Facebook but love it or hate it, I’ve finally had to break down and face the fact that social media is the big ticket these days. I had already made a great contact (friend?) at Moss Motors who had in turn introduced me to Tony Garmey. I remembered that I had seen a shop down in Oregon that specialized in classic Minis, Jet Motors. So I did some surfing on Facebook, which took me to their website and….wow….this wasn’t some little shop! This looked like quite an operation. So on Monday I reached out, had a great conversation with Jeremy Thorpe, the owner. I described what was going on and he almost-instantly said, “Yeah, based on what you’re saying I think I know what’s going on. We’re pretty full here…got a lot of cars lined up but if you can get it down here we’ll get it in line and take a look at it!” I told Jeremy that I was working at a brand-new job and was still banking up my leave, would it be OK if I brought it down and dropped it off on a Saturday? I could push the keys through a slot or what not. “The shop is on my property so just let me know when you’re coming and I’ll meet you” was his reply. Sweet! So on another beautiful Saturday morning, Glenny and I loaded Humphrey up on a trailer and made the 2 ½ hour drive to Happy Valley, Oregon.
When we arrived, there was Jeremy Thorpe and we again met an extremely happy, friendly, genuine man. I had planned to just drop it off real quick and leave so as to not disrupt his weekend day but as we talked and he showed me around his shop I felt like a kid on his first trip to Disneyland. Beautiful shop, gorgeous Minis everywhere and he was happy to talk about all of it. Then, as we were talking, he began to pull my carburetor apart. I have to say it was humbling to see him pull apart in minutes what had taken me an hour or more. “Oh, there’s the problem right there!” he said. Wow. Just like that. “Jeremy, I wasn’t counting on you actually WORKING on it while we’re here” I replied. “No, I’m curious anyway and I can just fiddle with it while we talk” Well, OK then. And while we were there he was taking phone calls from executives from major corporations about Minis. He gets cars delivered from all over the country, calls from all over the world. A nice man from India popped in just to meet him while we were there. And through it all, on a beautiful Saturday, he was always smiling, polite and willing to talk. I gotta say, if somebody had told me “I think I’ll try to make a living just working on classic Minis” I would have replied “I hope you like ramen noodles”. And here is Jeremy Thorpe proving that if you do something you love and you’re good at it, you can be very successful. In fact, I asked him about that and he replied, “Oh I don’t work. I get to do this all day!” Great guy. As he poked around on our Mini he began to find other things that I would have never known. “You’ve got the wrong coil, these aren’t the best sparkplugs, this bar that prevents the engine from rocking has worn out bushings but we make a better replacement and….” And he was being very sincere. This wasn’t like your shop down the road that looks to make a buck. He has no problems there. This was a man that knows Minis better than anybody I have ever met and can just spot this stuff at a glance. I told him to give me an idea on the price for these things and we’ll go from there. We then bid him adieu and headed back to Port Orchard, Washington extremely happy we had the privilege of meeting him.
A few days later he called to say the car was done. “Wait, what? It’s done? I thought it would be a while before you would have the chance to even get to it” I said. Turns out he had a bunch of cars coming and wanted to clear the shop out so he and his mechanics had banged out Humphrey “since it was all easy work anyway”. And all those things he had mentioned? He had fixed them all. Oh man. “Um, how much did all that come to, Jeremy?” I asked. He replied, “Probably more than you had wanted but I really didn’t want you having to bring the car back and forth all the way down here. So here’s what I did for you…” and he explained. The guy really took care of us. I can’t recall the last time I was so humbled and grateful for something somebody did for us but, yeah, simply saying “Thank you” just didn’t come close to how we felt but he got it several times none-the-less. No wonder this guy gets so much business. It’s not just because he’s an amazing Mini mechanic. “I promise you this car has more power and runs better than it ever has since you bought it” was his closing line on the phone.
So one week after we’d dropped it off, Glenny and I drove back down to Happy Valley to pick up Humphrey. Again, Jeremy was gracious enough to meet us on a weekend day and just like before it was great talking to him. I’ve only met the man in person twice and he just has that personality where you feel like you’ve known him for years. Anyway, sitting there ready to go was Humphrey. “Watch this” Jeremy said as he climbed in, no choke, twisted the key and…..this wasn’t my car. Couldn’t be. I mean, it LOOKED like my Humphrey inside and out but….the sound? No. Couldn’t be my car. Humphrey had never sounded this smooth. And when he blipped the throttle the response was instant. He then opened the hood, showed us everything they’d done while Glenny and I just stood there with an ear-to-ear grin. One thing Jeremy said to me as we wrapped it up that struck me was “Minis are different. Not just from other cars but even among British cars, Minis have their own idiosyncrasies that are very unique.” We finished talking a little quicker this time so he could get back to his weekend and when I hopped in the Mini to drive it onto the trailer I quickly realized I was going to have to relearn how to drive my car. I cannot emphasize enough how different it is. Powerful, responsive and almost snappy (it is, after all, still only an 850).
And so Humphrey is back at home now and better than ever. I’m extremely happy that he’s repaired and we can again enjoy driving him. But I look back at pulling a Mini down a freezing-cold, muddy Al-Can Highway as it relentlessly saws through the straps holding it onto the trailer, only to have that same Mini whisk me through the border inspection thanks to the classic Mini lover working the gate. The call out for parts that turned into meeting a great guy at Moss Motors. That, in turn, introduced me to Tony Garmey. And finally getting the opportunity to meet the extraordinary Jeremy Thorpe and visit his Jet Motors.
I’ve owned several cars in my life, several of which would be the envy of collectors. But I can honestly say I’ve never had an experience like owning a classic Mini. I almost look forward to the next time it needs a repair. Almost.
Words and Pictures by Ben Compton
Editor’s Note – While we don’t actively try to dissuade customers from buying new car parts we do try to make sure that the parts our customers purchase are the right ones for the job. After talking to Ben multiple times it wasn’t clear that a brand new carburetor was necessary. Sure enough, after some diagnosis, some great wrenches and some wonderful time talking over the phone “Humphrey” is doing better than ever and so is Ben.