The Geneva Motor Show is known as a supercar haven. Taking place in Switzerland, a neutral territory with no domestic auto industry, the show attracts the latest and greatest from Italian, German and British makers of high-performance automobiles.
But while perusing the new and futuristic wares of the world’s automakers, it was a familiar classic that caught my eye. One that, from a distance, seems the same as it’s always been, but reveals plenty of tricky new details up close. This is the Mini Remastered by David Brown Automotive.
David Brown founded his car company in 2013 to build the Speedback GT, a two-door coupe built on a modern Jaguar XK-R chassis with styling heavily reminiscent of an Aston Martin DB5. (The “DB” in Aston Martin’s model names commemorates David Brown, who owned the automaker from 1947 to 1972; Mr. Brown of David Brown Automotive is no relation.)
“With the Speedback, that was always going to be a lower volume, very specialty market car,” Brown told me at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show. “We’ve got the facilities, skills, and passion to do something in higher numbers.”
The tiny company—just 30 people in the whole outfit, including design, engineering, and production—had a simple brief: Iconic British cars. “There’s the E-Type, the Land Rover and the Mini,” Brown told me. “I thought, no one’s ever done anything really, really nice with the Mini. So we decided to go that route.”
It’s almost surprising that nobody’s done this by now. There are Mini restorers and Mini hot-rodders, but so far nobody has made a business out of restomodding vintage Minis with a mix of classic styling and updated equipment.
Starting with an original Mini, David Brown Automotive replaces nearly everything. Reproduction body panels from British Motor Heritage get extensively reworked, with the A- and C-pillar weld seams filled and smoothed, cross-car reinforcement beams added, and all panel gaps made straight and uniform. The original engine and gearbox are rebuilt; the interior is completely redone with up to four hides’ worth of leather.
The interior is really where the David Brown “remastering” shows through. The body-color dashboard holds a driver’s instrument panel with classic style but modern functionality. Every knob in the driver’s reach is beautiful knurled aluminum, weighty and cool to the touch.
And yes: That’s a modern touchscreen in the center of the dashboard, offering Bluetooth phone and music connectivity and GPS navigation. Every Mini Remastered will feature Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and USB ports to charge a smartphone; behind the dash, electric power steering and modern air conditioning are standard.
“We’re trying to not only restore the car,” said Phil Dymoke-Grainger, head of marketing and communications at David Brown Automotive. “We’re bringing the car into the 21st century.”
The 63-year-old Brown didn’t get into the automotive business until retirement. He’d grown up in the family business founded by his father, manufacturing heavy-duty earthmoving equipment and agricultural machinery. Despite having no formal training, Brown is a natural engineer and designer. “I’m lucky—I can look at a drawing and visualize it as it would be when it’s finished,” he told me. “That comes from years of looking at drawings of articulated center pivots and inter-axle differentials and working out how the hell they work.”
Brown sold the earthmover company, retired for a few weeks, then got antsy. He started a few new companies, sold those too. “I don’t know what it is,” he told me, “I’ve got this, almost like a crack cocaine addiction toward starting businesses. It comes from me seeing something and thinking, ‘I could do it much better than that.'”
There was another moment, one that set Brown down the path of vintage-style, modernized cars. “I was invited on a classic car rally,” he told me. “Somebody loaned me a Ferrari Daytona. And I thought, brilliant. Until I drove it—and it was awful. We forget how bad those cars were. No power steering, no air conditioning. This was in the south of France, so it was about 100 degrees inside the car.
“Mercifully, it broke down,” he continued. “I hired a little Peugeot 104, the cheapest car you can get from the airport. I got into it, it had air conditioning, radio, good brakes, power steering, the whole works. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to mix those styles with today’s contemporary features and standards, the things you take for granted.”
With his years in engineering and manufacturing, Brown knew it was possible. “I could make low-volume things in a way you couldn’t do before,” he told me. “So it all seemed to have fit together quite nicely.”
The Speedback GT shows the full integration of Brown’s idea: Modern OEM technology and engineering draped in a classic shape. With the Mini Remastered, Brown is taking a more conventional route. “What we do is restore the car,” he said. “We’re not building a new one, we’re restoring an old one. But we do it to a very, very high level of beauty.
“I wanted to remain true to what the Mini was,” he continued. “I could use a modern drivetrain, but at the moment, I don’t think that’s what it wants. The drivetrain that was in them was brilliant, from an engineering point of view. The way the whole thing was packaged is superb. If somebody said, ‘I’d like a new 3-cylinder BMW engine,’ I could do that for them. But I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do as a restorer.”
That same respect for the original Mini goes into the chassis. Brown and his team tested dozens of aftermarket changes purported to improve the ride and handling of the classic British microcar. In the end, they judged the original-equipment spec to be better than anything else.
“The word ‘nippy,’ I think, was invented for the Mini. You don’t want to lose any of that,” Brown told me.
David Brown Automotive can build around 40 remastered Minis a year. The founder estimates that the first year’s production run is already sold out. A standard Mini Remastered costs £75,000, around $105,000 at today’s exchange rates; the Inspired by Monte Carlo limited edition, in classic red with white number panels, adds $10,000 to the price tag. Since the cars retain certain major original components, including the engine and transmission, they maintain their factory-established VIN and are easily registered in England; sales to North American customers should be easy so long as the vehicle in question is more than 25 years old.
I ask what’s next for David Brown. “We’re a company of 30 that in effect produce two new cars,” he says. “Now we need to make sure that we start to be cost-efficient, time-efficient, the boring bit of the business. All the things that nobody wants to think about, we have to think about right now.”
It’s not just a retirement gig for Brown, who gets his hands dirty in the workshop just as often as he makes top-level decisions on how to run the company. “This has got to be a business,” he says.
I make the comparison to what Singer does, modifying air-cooled Porsches to a vintage-yet-timeless aesthetic. Or Icon, which tucks modern technology into iconic old 4x4s. “We’ve heard that comparison before, and I’m touched by it,” Brown says. “Genuinely.”