From the outside, these cars really do look different from a standard Mini, and are also comparatively rare: only 28,455 Hornets and 30,912 Elfs were produced over nine years. In effect, they are only up-market versions of Sir Alec Issigonis’s immortal small car, but most people pinpoint them as Minis with a boot or with a wooden dashboard. But Riley and Wolseley purists, who despised BMC’s badge engineering of their beloved makes, really wished they had been called something else.
Quite what prompted BMC’s management to introduce a badged and booted Mini isn’t fully explained, but it has to be remembered that the rambling BMC dealer network sold by marque and not model – the only way that the Riley or Wolseley dealer could sell a Mini was in rebadged form. Moreover, it seemed sensible that if you were going to give the customer a Riley or Wolseley Mini derivative, it should be an upmarket version of the Austin and Morris products.
The Elf/Hornet first appeared in 1961, sharing the Mini’s mechanical virtues, but using some new body panels and having better trim than the standard offering. A la Mini, the heart of the car was the 848cc four-cylinder A-series motor, with pushrod operated overhead valves and very near square cylinder dimensions (63mm bore x 68.26mm stroke). It gave 34bhp at 5500rpm in single SU aspirated guise, and was mounted transversely in unit with the four-speed gearbox. Contrary to popular practice, the drive was taken by the front wheels. Suspension, like the Mini’s, was independent all round, by wishbone and Moulton rubber springs at the front, and by trailing links and Moulton rubber springs at the rear. The suspension units were mounted on steel sub-frames, themselves attached to an all-steel monocoque. Braking was by drums all round, with Lockheed hydraulic actuation.
External differences from the Mini basically amounted to the addition of an external boot and a different bonnet and front panel, which incorporated two chromium plated auxiliary grilles with sidelights and indicator units fitted integrally. The bonnet had a Wolseley or Riley dummy radiator grille fitted. To some the boot spoiled the Mini’s chic lines, but it does give useful extra luggage capacity. A duo-tone paint finish was standard and there was far more external brightwork, as well as full wrap-around bumpers and chrome wheel embellishers.
Trim-wise, there were leather backed seats, heater and windscreen washers as standard, a wood fascia with 90mph speedo, oil pressure and water temperature gauges, hidden glove boxes, door handles and more carpeting. All of this cost an extra £127 on the price of the basic Mini.The Mark 1 was quite well received.
All the old Mini grumbles were aired in The Motor’s road test in 1962 – cramped driving position, pitching ride, uncomfortable seats and stray reflections from the instrument panel – but overall they felt that the Wolseley Hornet tested was ‘ideal as a rather special second car yet ‘it would still fill a useful role as quiet and economical transport for a small family’.
The Mark I lasted until Motor Show time in ’62, replaced by the Mark II, still with the 848cc engine but now with the more efficient baulk ring synchromesh. By March ’63 the engine had been uprated to 998cc, giving an extra 4bhp, and a useful increase in torque. The Mark II had 75.7mph speed compared to the 71.7mph maximum of the Mark I, and was faster from 0-50mph (15.2sec compared to 16.9secs) and from 20-40mph (9.3″compared to 14secs). At the same time the brakes were improved with wider shoes and an uprated master cylinder. With the new engine, The Motor felt that the Elf had the ‘zest in performance so often associated with Rileys in the past’ and this allied to the superb “handling meant that it was a real driver’s car. A marked understeerer, the car can be flung into corners at seemingly excessive speeds. . .’ they said. And it’s true- you can be a real ‘rock ape’ behind the wheel of an Elf/Hornet, and have immense fun in safety. As with all Minis, with that rather long, poorly placed and willowy gear lever, though, the change is not very sporting or precise
When it comes to buying one of these cheeky little cars, it’s as well to remember that the majority of parts are interchangeable with Minis of the same vintage. All the mechanical parts are identical, and many of the body panels, such as the front wings, doors and roof, are the same. However if you need a bonnet, a front panel, rear wings or a boot, trim or light clusters you’ll probably have to raid scrapyards.
When checking over an Elf or Hornet prior to purchase, the most important consideration is the strength of the chassis – the sills are load bearing, and so their state is crucial to getting an MoT. The front and rear subframes and their mounting points also affect a car’s road-worthiness. The front subframe is less prone to corrosion than the rear, but bad rusting on either will cause MoT failure – you can detect a worn rear subframe by bump oversteer when cornering. If the subframes are really badly rotted, you can poke a blunt object through them. Remember that replacing one of these items is time consuming and relatively tricky, and if they are badly gone replacement is the only possible solution.
Brake pipes rust, but unlike the hydrolastic pipes in post ’64 cars, are relatively easy to replace. With regard to the body, look at the footwells as well as the sills. Condition is easily ascertained by lifting the carpets and looking underneath. The boot floor, spare wheel carrier and battery box also suffer from tin-worm – the battery box will worry MOT testers, and is easy to repair if you can weld.
Externally rust tends to appear around the body seams (and under that chrome brightwork …), the A-panel in front of the doors and on the wings under the headlights. Unless you come across a very well preserved Elf or Hornet, this type of rot is almost inevitable, but is relatively easy to rectify given a little time and patience. It is surprising just how many of the cars are in excellent original condition; however, it is possible to buy a car that only requires a little attention to eliminate rust. Beware of a car with a dented rear wing – these panels are virtually unobtainable, and good welding/cutting skills would be needed to replace them.
Looking after your Elf
If maintained well, with quality new oil and filter every 5000km, a Mini of any sort can be a faithful servant. Mechanical and service parts are still easy to get, and are easily modified if you want to go that way. For an Elf or Hornet I would recommend they be kept as original as possible.
They don’t like unleaded petrol. To cope with the problem some people have had Fuelstar systems installed; others have fitted hardened valve seats, and it is possible with careful tuning to get them to run just about ok on 96 or even 91 plus additive. Most Mini and elf owners would prefer to see leaded back on the petrol station forecourts. It is always sensible to keep all grease points well serviced – though with modern greases you can probably get away with less frequent attention than the handbook specifies.
It is true that many mechanics do not like working on Minis – but in most parts of New Zealand there are garages prepared to do the difficult jobs, otherwise much day-to-day maintenance as at a do-it-yourself level. A trap for the unwary is the radiator grille, which rises with the bonnet and lies in wait for your head as you come back up from checking the oil or whatever. I’ve found that for any serious time spent on the engine it is easier to remove the bonnet altogether, there’s just 4 bolts attaching it and it is small enough to be lifted off easily by one person.
Values The MkI is the rarest (extremely so in New Zealand) but also the least desirable in some ways with its 850cc engine – the bigger 998cc version really is the making of these cars.
There are more of the MkII models around, and plenty of MkIIIs. I believe the survival rate of these cars is quite high in New Zealand, much higher than in the UK where there are now few left.
Values have not taken off in a big way, but appear to be on the way up. Top quality cars can be found around the NZ$3-4000 mark, and cheaper ones can be found as parts or rebuild cars. In pure financial terms they are not really worth a major restoration job and better suited to a running rebuild. Hard to find trim can be a problem, especially bonnets, boots, bumpers and over-riders, windows, badges and much of the chrome-work.
I think these little cars are one of the better buys in classic small cars – many have been garaged and have been well-maintained, perhaps because they were originally bought as second cars in well-off families. There are still a number of ‘one owner, older person’ cars around. Often they have had a round town travelling life, and may need a clutch job, plus several good open road trips to get the engine freed up a bit, but once that’s out of the way you’ve got a nice car.