Spartan and economical
A vehicle that is small, versatile and cheap to run while retaining a measure of flair and excitement.
As fuel costs rise and roads become more crowded, many of us may have to revise the way we think about cars. That’s likely to mean minimal excess, less luxury and less performance. No one can legitimately complain about a lifestyle or SUV vehicle if it’s compact and in unison with the environment. But there isn’t much choice of smaller multi-purpose models on the New Zealand market.
Hark back to the 1970s and 1980s when thrifty open mini-jeep-like Suzuki SJ and Daihatsu four-wheel drives were on offer. Today you can still buy a new Suzuki Jimny hardtop or Daihatsu Terios, each with 1.3-litre engines. However, the Jimny softtop that’s sold in several markets, including Australia and Europe, isn’t available here.
When Sir Alec Issigonis penned the original BMC Mini in the 1950s he also drew the ubiquitous door-less open Moke which was described as a “buckboard”. Of course there were many other Mini derivatives like the van and ute, but the Moke was the one that screamed the most fun. Even though the Moke was built in Sydney, few were ever sold in New Zealand, and a recent search to find a used example proved fruitless.
The cute-looking, albeit utilitarian, Moke was launched in Britain in 1964 after being developed with an eye on military applications.
Here was a light, air transportable vehicle, and though the British and American armies extensively evaluated the Moke, the forces rejected the machine because the wheels were too small, the ground clearance too low and off-road traction wasn’t good enough.
The makers tested a four-wheel drive version with a rear-mounted engine, demonstrating the prototype in early 1963 over English fields blanketed in snow.
While the attending journalists watched in amazement at the agility of the twin-engined Moke, demand for existing production Minis was outstripping supply so the 4WD Moke was shelved. Just under 15,000 front-drive Mokes were built in Britain until 1968, but the model was assembled in Australia between 1966 and 1981 and in Portugal from 1983 until 1989. Despite the limitations of the design, the Moke certainly had staying power with a total production run of 27 years. Finally, an Italian company called Cagiva took over in 1990 and built the vehicle in Portugal between 1991 and 1993.
A total of 26,142 Mokes were made in Australia, and with the volume from Britain and Portugal, the grand total was 49,937. In the 1960s I enjoyed two episodes with Mokes, both of which left lasting impressions of a real fun machine. British Leyland lent me a Moke during a week-long stay in Surfers Paradise where it was absolutely perfect transport to the beach, the shops and the motor racing. It didn’t seem to matter too much that there seemed no place to lock valuables. In fact, the car has four side pockets but a screwdriver is needed to gain access – and this means anyone else can help themselves to the contents if they, too, have a screwdriver.
Parking was great, the visibility brilliant and the ventilation amazing. Then in 1968 the New Zealand distributor offered me a Moke for a memorable day on the beach at Whatipu. At that time a new English-built Moke cost $1539 new, and the Aussie version was $1875 – about the same price as the Skoda-based Trekka that was developed in Auckland. You could only have the vehicle in green, and on the British a heater and even a softtop hood were extras.
OSH and the PC brigade would surely object to the Moke these days. There are no doors, so you simply climb aboard and strap yourself in. Even so, there’s a real feeling of vulnerability when driving in traffic since almost everything else is bigger and taller, and the front seat positioning is high. Creature comforts are thin on the ground. Though there might be reasonable space in the back, the rear seat is bare metal.
Original Mokes came with the familiar 848cc A-series four-cylinder engine producing a tame 34 horsepower (25kW). But low-down performance is brisk enough because of the vehicle’s modest unladen weight of 534kg – about 85kg less than a standard Mini 850.
Later, the Australians fitted 998cc and 1098cc motors, and towards the end of the model life, the 1275cc engine was also offered.
Flat-out in the smallest engined model is a trifling 105km/h – although your perception of the speed is a good deal faster than this – and the zero to 100km/h run requires a sandglass-like 21.8 seconds. It feels as lively as a regular Mini down low but the revised gearing affects performance at higher speeds. Still, this three-metre long car takes up minimal space and doesn’t use a lot
In the heavy West Coast sand, the Moke had some difficulty making progress, especially running on the Dunlop Weathermaster C44 tyres on skinny 3.5 inch wide, 10-inch diameter steel wheels. Later in life, the Moke came with 12-inch and 13-inch wheels. At least the vehicle is usually easy to extract from any difficulty because of its light weight. Wheelbase and overall length are the same as a Mini, but the body is a touch narrower and slightly lower with the hood down. The steel monocoque body uses Mini subframes front and rear, and the same mechanical running gear.
Like the Mini, the vehicle is highly manoeuvrable, reacts quickly to steering inputs and is superbly agile. In 1969 the Australians introduced a Mark 2 version with the 1.1-litre engine, a wider track, larger mudguards and larger brake cylinders. It also had Cooper S inboard universal joints which were stronger for more rugged use. Then the Portuguese offered front disc brakes and larger wheels with their 998cc version that was exported to many markets but missed out on our part of the world.
In the days before heavy safety legislation, the Mini Moke was a legal laugh. American and West Indian resorts loved them, and in 1973 a limited production Californian model with a floral top couldn’t help but succeed. The Moke was envisaged as a machine for light deliveries, surveying, plant or factory transport, civil engineering work, powerline maintenance and construction, public utility services or as a small ambulance.
All this was in addition to being simply fun transport. But in markets like Britain it was deemed to be a car rather than a commercial vehicle and this lack of direction put paid to significant sales. More’s the pity, for inexpensive fun cars may be a recipe for success in the difficult motoring times ahead.