Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Italian-style Mini quick off the mark

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If you have a taste for unusual cars, you can be pretty sure you're on to a good thing when you tell a hardcore car guy about your automobile and they say, "A what?"

Just ask Regan Orsulak. It happens to him all the time, but it isn't his selection of tasty American Motors cars that creates the most confusion -- it's his 1984 Innocenti Mini.

His what?

Innocenti was an Italian company that, in the 1950s, produced Lambretta motor scooters. In 1959, Innocenti began to license-build cars from British Motor Corp.

That relationship continued for many years as the British company absorbed virtually the entire British automobile industry. In the early 1970s, they bought Innocenti, too.

One of the cars built by Innocenti for the British company was a version of the famous Mini. Although the engines for the cars came from the U.K., the rest of the car was made in Italy.

In 1974, the well-known Italian design house Bertone was asked to restyle the Innocenti Minis. The resulting design was so handsome that consideration was given to having the new look become the standard styling for all Minis.

In 1976, however, British Leyland -- the successor to BMC -- went bankrupt and was nationalized. Innocenti was acquired by the De Tomaso company.

Production of the Innocenti Mini, still using BL engines, continued until 1982. When the contract with BL was up, Innocenti had to go looking for another powertrain supplier. Eventually, it was decided to use two- and three-cylinder engines from Daihatsu, the oldest automobile manufacturer in Japan.

Although the Japanese engines were more expensive than the British ones they replaced, Innocenti found that the new powerplants paid for themselves with far fewer warranty and service claims.

In 1984, Innocenti Minis were imported into Canada. Both normally aspirated and turbo-charged versions were sold until 1986.

"I was in high school when they came out," Orsulak recalls. "We used to laugh at these cars and say, 'what a hunk of crap!' -- until one left us at a light with our jaws hanging open."

It wasn't horsepower that made the cars so fast: "The non-turbo Innocenti has 51 horsepower. The turbos have 72." The secret is the cars' light weight, somewhere in the area of 1,600 pounds or 725 kg.

A fellow member of the Studebaker club showed him his original '85 turbo car with only 19,000 kilometres on the odometer, Orsulak says. "I looked at this car, and it was a time capsule," There was only one problem -- the car wasn't for sale. A much rougher '84 needing quite a few parts and a fair bit of work was for sale, though, and that was the car Orsulak bought.

The car had been in a wrecking yard, and quite a few bits were missing. Although there were some parts that came with the car, Orsulak had to go looking.

"Parts-hunting is a big part of the fun," he insists. "Parts are hard to find, but they're there. You just have to keep digging until you find them."

Fortunately for Orsulak, he managed to connect with a source of parts in Winnipeg. Then the work began.

"I try to do 90 to 100 per cent of the work myself," Orsulak says. "It wasn't running. All I did was change the carb on it, put three new plugs in it, play with the points a bit and it fired right up. I almost had a heart attack. I couldn't believe it. I always get a kick out of getting a car running."

"These are pocket rockets," he says. "The non-turbo hauls. I can't believe it. It's just a very basic car for fuel economy-minded people. It has a little five-speed in it and it's downright scary! It handles like it's on rails."

The non-turbo Innocenti was so much fun that Orsulak decided to go one step further. "I went to Edmonton and I bought a turbo car. That worked great until I had a fuel fire."

Orsulak rolled the burning car out of his garage by hand, but the fire department was too late.

"It burned down to the ground. Unfortunately, that was the car I wanted to keep. I was going to sell the non-turbo."

Orsulak says that, although his car is an '84, it wasn't sold until 1986. "They certainly didn't sell a pile of them," he says. "You can imagine how many are left. That's why I like it. It's different -- not mainstream.

"My attitude is, I can't save them all. But most of the cars that I've ever had were pieces of crap. I've taken them from that to being a nice driver. I'm having a lot of fun with my cars."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2012 F2

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