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Calgary Herald, El Tiki one wild ride, by Greg Williams

ElTikiQuarterPhotos courtesy John Cooper.

Story first published in the Calgary Herald’s Driving section 19 Feb. 2010.

Crazy custom cars ruled the day back in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Builders such as Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, George Barris and the Alexander Brothers shared their unique vehicles with crowds around the North American auto shows.

It was vehicles such as the blue deuce coupe built by the Alexander Brothers – which later became known as the Beach Boys Little Deuce Coupe – and the Emperor by Barris that influenced Tom Culbertson when he built El Tiki.

Culbertson, of Indianapolis, Indiana, originally built El Tiki in a short 127 days. Currently owned by John Cooper, El Tiki was further modified to the point it’s at now – and the car is on show this weekend at Calgary’s 44 th Annual Auto Value Parts World of Wheels.

Culbertson’s been building cars since 1964. After he left the Marine Corps he came home to work with his father at the family service station. In the garage Culbertson went to work with torch, grinder and wrenches building his own hotrods. That line of work soon had him building rods and racecars for other customers.

For Culbertson, automobiles simply never progressed beyond the early 1960s. His daily driver is a chopped 1956 Lincoln two door, and his second car is a 1930 Ford Model A coupe with a flathead V-8. Both cars have been driven numerous times to New York, Florida and Las Vegas.

According to Cooper, who has been friends with Culbertson since high school, he looks the part, too.

“He has always had slicked back hair, cuffed jeans, engineer boots and tattoos,” Cooper says. “He doesn’t own a cell phone and still has rotary dial phones in the shop and house.”

El Tiki started off as a simple build. Out behind Culbertson’s shop was a rusty 1929 Ford Sport Coupe body shell that had been rescued from a farmer’s field. At one point in its life the coupe body had been modified – badly – and Culbertson says it was a good candidate for a roadster-style conversion.

“Every car I do I pretty much just sit back and look at it, and visualize in my head what I’m going to do. The inside, the dash and the doors – I visualized it all before I started the build.

Build of El Tiki 027

“If I was a better artist I could probably draw it – but I’m not,” Culbertson says from his shop in Indianapolis. He’s worked in the same 85’ long by 30’ wide building since 1976. He’s got everything he needs in the shop, including an attic full of cool old parts, and El Tiki never left the building during its construction and ultimate completion.

Culbertson started by building a double-tube chassis, complete with a 1947 Lincoln front axle and a 1957 Ford 9” rear end.

Then, he fit the body, channeling it 4” over the frame and removing the metal top to make it a roadster. Of course, there was far more involved than that. The doors were sculpted, the windshield and frame fabricated, the interior ‘waterfall’ console hand constructed and the dash from a 1956 Oldsmobile narrowed and welded in place.

“There’s no carbon fibre or fibre glass in this car, it’s all metal,” Culbertson says. “You start with a 20-gauge sheet of steel, cut it, roll it, stretch it and shrink it until it fits the way you want it.”

To give the car some power Culbertson opted to use a 1956 Oldsmobile 324 cubic inch engine mated to a 1947 Ford truck three-speed transmission. An adaptor was used to marry the Olds engine to the Ford gearbox.


“Everything on the car is older than 1961,” Culbertson says. “I had in my mind that if a guy was building it in 1961 that’s the newest a part could be.”

When the car was done Cooper decided he wanted to buy it. Cooper had been around during the entire build process and after he sold his 1960 Cadillac he had some funds to buy El Tiki from Culbertson.

“When I bought the car it was finished, but just not the way it looks now,” Cooper says. “I wanted to take it to another level.”

Together, Cooper and Culbertson rebuilt the front grille and added the quad headlights – from a 1960 Buick – built the headrests and added the fins to the decklid.

“El Tiki has been a bit of a test bed for my son, Dustin,” Cooper says. “He did all of the original body work and paint in 2005 when he was 17, and he did it again when he was 19.”

Cooper does drive the car, and he’s put several thousand miles on El Tiki since its completion.


At the World of Wheels El Tiki is just one of many custom, restoration and original vehicles on display at the BMO Centre at Stampede Park. The kids will enjoy seeing Doc Hudson, the Hudson Hornet from the hit movie Cars. And Kane’s Harley-Davidson hosts Motorcycle 2010 with a display of new, custom and vintage machines.

The show runs today from 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. General admission is $14, children six to 12 are $5 and children five and under are free. Discount tickets are available at Auto Value Parts stores.

Calgary Herald, The Mighty Mini Turns 50, by Greg Williams

Photo courtesy BMW: John Cooper Works MINI with a traditional Cooper S.

This story first published in the Calgary Herald section Oct. 31, 2008.

The mighty Mini turns 50 in 2009.
And with the car marking a special anniversary next year we thought we’d celebrate the Mini/MINI that has become a cultural icon. As a note, Mini refers to the original or classic car, while MINI denotes the BMW version.
Calgarian and Scottish ex-pat Malcolm Mann can attest to the allure of the Mini. He’s had a passion for the diminutive autos since he was 18 years old — and bought his first in 1967. Mann has raced them, tuned them, fixed them, and even built new ones.
Working from his Calgary repair shop — Auto Mann — he has imported new body shells from the UK and installed a mix of completely rebuilt parts from a donor car and new components to create the closest thing to a brand new traditional Mini he could get.
Now, he’s planning on building a Mini equipped with a modern Honda V-Tec engine.
“As a traditionalist, I appreciate the style of the classic Mini package,” Mann says. “But I also like to modify that a bit with 13″ wheels and fender flares.”
Sir Alec Issigonis designed the classic Mini in response to a British fuel crisis in the mid-1950s, and the car was meant to be as bare bones as possible.
Produced by the British Motor Corporation (BMC), under its Austin and Morris brands the Mini set a new standard in front wheel drive technology. Engine capacity started at 848cc, and grew as large as 1,275cc in some later cars.
The first Minis had external door hinges, sliding windows, a rubber suspension system and 10″ wheels. That minimalism was all part of the Mini’s less is more equation, and some would say a big part of the car’s charm.
Minis were popular with rally racing drivers, and the car won several prestigious events. It didn’t hurt to have someone like John Cooper, an enthusiastic racer and tuner, add some of his magic to the tiny Mini. He increased the engine’s power, and added disc brakes at the front. The Mini Cooper and Cooper S models proved very popular for both racers and the general public alike.
Mini built the car in a number of different models, and that included an extended wagon, van and even a truck. Over the years — the Mini was built from 1959 until 2000 — the car did evolve, and lost some of those original design cues such as the exposed hinges and sliding windows. But even at the very end of its production run the car would not have been considered a luxury automobile.

BMW’s MINI, however, was designed to be small yet refined. Unveiled in 2001 the MINI brought something different to the marketplace.

“The focus of BMW as a brand will always be to produce a premium product,” says Rob Dexter, product and technology specialist at BMW Canada. “And when BMW turned their attention to the MINI brand, there wasn’t really a compact car that could be called ‘premium’.

“There were a lot of premium cars, and there were a lot of compact cars, but there wasn’t a premium compact car.”
MINI was officially introduced to Canada in the spring of 2002. The MkI MINI was sold in two variants, the Cooper and the Cooper S. An inline four-cylinder 1.6-litre engine powered both cars, but the Cooper S featured a supercharger, and that extra boost raised the available horsepower from 115 to 163. A convertible MINI was added to the lineup in 2005.
MINI MkII cars came on the scene in 2007. These MINIs are fitted with a new 1.6-litre, DOHC four-cylinder engine; in the case of the Cooper and Cooper Classic a normally aspirated version while the Cooper S gets a twin scroll turbocharger.
In the spring of 2008 BMW introduced the MINI Clubman — an extended version of its three-door hatchback — also available in Cooper S trim.
Even more performance is packed into the Mini John Cooper Works versions of the new cars, and a tuned and turbocharged 1.6-L engine in the JCW car makes 208 h.p., compared to the 118 h.p. of the Mini Cooper and Cooper Classic.
BMW ended production of the convertible MINI in late June 2008, and according to, a MINI-fan website, there is a new soft top MINI on the way based on the updated MKII platform.
Even more recently MINI unveiled a Crossover Concept, a vehicle that, if it enters production, would see MINI design cues on a four-wheel drive, four-door semi-utility vehicle.
And, not content to stop there, MINI is going to produce 500 all-electric, rechargeable lithium-ion battery equipped cars. With a range of 240 kilometres and powered by a 150 kW (204 h.p.) electric motor, these MINIs are part of a pilot project and will be put to the test in three states: California, New York and New Jersey. The MINI E will debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show on November 19.
BMW’s Dexter is a big fan of the traditional Mini. He’s owned three of them, and refers to them — especially the Cooper and Cooper S models — as: “Cool little cars that go like stink.”
Calgary teacher Linda Soby has always driven a British car, from a Jaguar XK120 to an Austin Healy 3000, and MGAs and MGBs — one of which she still owns. But her fondest memories are of a pair of Minis — ‘Rose’ and ‘Tang’ — that she owned in the mid-1970s.
Her students at a certain Calgary school were apt to get up to mischief with her car, and she tells this story.
“I’d pack up my bags, and head toward the back parking lot, and would discover the car wasn’t where I’d left it,” Soby says. “The group of students who had picked it and up and carried it to a different location were always there to help me find it. They took great delight in my hysteria. Just part of the joys of driving a Mini.”
They couldn’t do that today with a BMW MINI. While a classic Mini weighs in the region of 668 kg, the new car tips the scales at 1155 kg, almost double the original weight.

Photo courtesy BMW: 1968 Morris Mini Cooper S in London

Dexter thinks BMWs MINI is a great car, and says: “There is the heritage of the Mini shape — the new car is still recognizable as a Mini — but just a bit bigger and better. The design cues are there with the speedo in the middle of the dash and the bucket seats up front and the bench rear seat.
“My first impression (of the new car) was ‘Wow’, I felt like I was sitting in a (classic) Mini, but the new MINI was improved in all the ways it needed to be.”
But BMW didn’t play up the original Mini when it began marketing their car. The company wanted to introduce the MINI as a whole new concept, and expected a young buyer with no recent memory of the classic Mini. As it turns out, the MINI’s buying demographic is all over the map. According to Dexter the gender bias is split 50/50, and the median buying age is mid-40s.
“I don’t think that’s what we originally planned for,” he says. “We initially targeted a younger group, and developed a cheeky and irreverent type of marketing approach.”
While Mann has driven a new MINI and enjoyed the experience, he doesn’t believe the new car hit the mark. So he’s planning on dropping a modern Honda V-tec engine into a 1968 Mini van he owns, and will use a Mini Tec mounting kit from MiniMania in California. He says one simply unbolts the front sub frame, installs the Mini Tec package, and bolts in a Honda engine from a donor car. It might be a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the rough idea.
“You’ve the got the cuteness or beauty, if you will, and the handling of the original Mini with a great reliable motor, the power of which will just blow you away. I’ve driven one, and it felt like motorcycle-like acceleration; it’s fast,” he says.
Whether you knew the car in its earliest days as the Austin Mini, he Morris Mini-Minor, or later the Mini, or MINI; over the years the little car has and continues to endear itself to millions.

Photo courtesy BMW: John Cooper and son Michael.

John Cooper’s Influence on the Little Car
Would the Mini have become so popular without the help of racecar builder John Cooper?
After all, it was Cooper who helped the tiny Mini gain worldwide recognition when the car won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.
Ironically, Sir Alec Issigonis — the Mini’s designer –was initially cool to the idea of Cooper tuning the car and entering races. Cooper had long been involved with Formula Junior racing cars, and used modified Morris engines to power his creations. His opinion on power and how to make it was respected, so when Issigonis first started sketching the Mini he involved Cooper, and the two men talked engines.
As the Mini became a reality, Cooper got his hands on one and entered it in the 1959 Grand Prix in Monza. He wanted a car to beat the Lotus Elite, and had already tried with a Renault Daphine. The entire 1959 race turned into a battle with Reg Parnell and his Aston Martin DB4 — and Cooper’s Mini turned out to be an hour faster than Parnell’s DB4.
Convinced he was on to something, he talked to Issigonis about developing a GT car with the Mini. Issigonis balked, and according to one source it was because he saw the car as a ‘people’s car for everybody.’ So Cooper went straight to the British Motor Corporation where his idea was warranted to have merit, and the company built 1.000 Mini Coopers to his specifications, which included a stroked and de-bored 997cc engine fitted with double carburetors, modified gear ratios, and a pair of 7″ Lockheed disc brakes up front to help stop the car.
Enthusiasts snapped up the hot cars and a string of motorsport wins ensured BMC remained interested in Cooper’s work, and Issigonis also changed his mind and got involved. Together, the two men created the Cooper S, with an even more powerful 1,071cc engine and bigger brakes.
The Mini Cooper and Cooper S cars were built from 1961 to 1971, and then again from 1990 to 2000 when the Rover Group owned the Mini brand.
When the BMW MINI became a reality in 2001 there couldn’t be any doubt that there would be Cooper and Cooper S badges on the car.
In 2000 John Cooper created the John Cooper Works company to produce parts and pieces for the new MINI. Cooper died shortly after setting up JCW, and the reins were handed to his son Michael. In 2007 BMW bought the JCW brand.

Photo courtesy BMW: Mini Cooper S at work in the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally.