October 09 2012
Simon de Burton
Not fit for purpose. That was the conclusion of the British Army’s procurement officers following evaluation of codename “Buckboard”, a bare-bones basic utility vehicle conceived in 1959 by Mini inventor Alec Issigonis.
The Buckboard was designed to be robust enough to withstand a parachute drop, spacious enough to carry four burly soldiers and light enough to be picked up by them when the going got tough. With fold-flat windscreens and angular wheel arches, they could even be stacked on one another. But from a military point of view, the Mini-based vehicle was next to useless due to its low power, low ground clearance and lack of four-wheel-drive.
Its maker, BMC (the British Motor Corporation), decided to market the no-frills project for civilian use. Renamed the Mini “Moke”, after a colloquial word for donkey, it went on sale in 1964, ostensibly as a lightweight farm vehicle that didn’t attract purchase tax. Initially priced at £405, it had only one solid metal seat, one windscreen wiper and one paint option: spruce green. Luxuries such as passenger seats and windscreen washers were optional extras.
Between 1964 and 1968, BMC’s Longbridge plant churned out 14,518 Mokes, around 90 per cent of which were shipped to warmer climes, where the doorless, roofless cars became popular as island runabouts, beach buggies, taxis, low-cost rentals and, in Macau, police transport. Mokes were subsequently made in Australia until 1981 and Portugal from 1980 to 1993, finally ending after around 50,000 had been built and sold.
By then, the Moke had achieved cult status. Quickly adopted as a groovy vehicle in which to make the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s, it had also appeared in the TV series The Prisoner and several Bond movies, and demonstrated its ability to transcend social barriers by appealing to everyone from sheep farmers to Aristotle Onassis and the Aga Khan.
Many variations on the theme had also been created, with an array of colours, 998cc, 1,098cc and 1,275cc engines, and jaunty trim options that included roofs and seats made from multi-coloured vinyls with names such as “Orange Bali” and “Op-Pop Verve”. Perhaps the oddest Mokes were the handful converted for use as inspection vehicles on the tracks of the Tasmanian and Australian railways.
Until relatively recently, a decent Moke could be picked up for as little as £1,500 – but during the past five years, soaring demand from buyers enamoured of their retro-chic simplicity has seen prices for the best examples exceed £20,000, with many being bought as holiday-home runabouts for cruising with the top down.
One particularly enthusiastic former owner is Gloucestershire writer and illustrator Angel Bacon, whose 1966 Moke was from the Morris Cowley plant. “I regard it as the ultimate mood enhancer for driver, adoring crowds and intrepid passengers – mine had a 1,098cc engine and went like stink,” says Bacon. “Not only is a Moke perfect for picnics on land or sand, but you can use them for everything else, too, from following the hounds cross-country to tackling the worst of winter snow. The key to their brilliance probably lies in their absolute simplicity.”
Another fan is How To Spend It’s own Nick Foulkes, who retains an immaculate Portuguese-built Moke to use on holiday in Spain. “I had long hankered after a Moke, since seeing them in cameo roles in the villain’s lair in Bond films. And there is a whole ‘King’s Road in the 1960s’ feel I like. Shortly before he died, I went to spend a weekend with Gino Macaluso in Tuscany, where he took us for a spin in his Moke. You could see why he had been a European Rally champ in the 1970s.
“There is something invigorating about driving a Moke, something borderline silly that makes it hard not to smile. It is a casual, rudimentary car into which you can pile all sorts of junk, and the only car that is perfect for taking the family to the beach and then going to the Marbella Club in the evening, where it stacks up well among the Rolls-Royces and Ferraris.”
Few people are more knowledgeable about Mokes, however, than Ron Smith, who established Essex-based business Runamoke in 1965. “I bought a second-hand Moke shortly after my son’s birth,” he recalls. “We put him in a cardboard box in the back seat and drove down to Calabria in Italy. It was the perfect car for the journey, and I became smitten.”
Runamoke was originally established as a hire company renting Mokes to BBC camera crews filming golf tournaments. Smith then began importing the cars from Australia, before setting up the repair, maintenance, parts and sales service he offers today.
“The Moke has undergone a real renaissance during the past few years, and it has become quite difficult to find cars for sale, meaning values of the best ones are appreciating rapidly,” says Smith. Prices start at around £5,000 for something roadworthy. The UK cars tend to have greater cachet among collectors, while the Australian ones are, perhaps, a little better for general use, adds Smith. These were fitted with larger engines, disc brakes, 13-inch wheels instead of the original 10-inch and they had properly upholstered seats. The Portuguese ones even had full-length roll cages and modern, inertia-reel seat belts.
“But regardless of where they were made, the electrics and mechanicals of a Moke are never too much of a problem,” says Smith, “as they are all standard Mini parts. The difficulties usually arise with corrosion in the bodywork and subframes [which carry the wheels, brakes and suspension]. Complete body shells are available, but they cost around £5,000.
“I suppose many of the people who buy Mokes today do so because they remember them from their youth. I’d recommend one to anybody who wants to enjoy a second childhood.”