Modified 1981 Mini Saloon - Brilliant rally-inspired revamp living in Malta

Modified 1981 Mini Saloon - Brilliant rally-inspired revamp living in Malta

Ramon Montebello, from Malta, literally has ‘Monte’ in his name so a long-term obsession with the 1997 Monte Carlo rally Mini is no great surprise. It spurred him on to modify his Mini many years later.

Words: Ramon Montebello

Photos: DLP Automotive


I grew up in a `Mini culture` which led me to love and live with these pocket rocket jewels. Many people say that I am too tall to drive a Mini but I always say that sitting in a Mini feels like sitting in a big sofa to me. How did I get into Minis? My father, Emmanuel, owns a Mk3 which he bought New from a dealer in 1976. It is in Alfa Romeo green and was built in Malta with parts sent over from England (a system known as Complete Knock Down) as well as having some local parts. It even had a Maltese Cross badge on the A-panels.

Modified 1981 Mini Saloon - Brilliant rally-inspired revamp living in Malta

In our garage there were always nuts, bolts, gearboxes, engine blocks and many other parts related to Minis. I grew up helping my father and asking many questions until I also knew about Minis. My dad’s two brothers were also into Minis. They were involved in a type of street and drag racing with which we Maltese were obsessed at the time. We also enjoyed challenging English enthusiasts living here. The Mini was one of the most common cars in Malta and it was virtually impossible to never own one.

«I grew up in a 'Mini culture' which led me to love and Live with these pocket rocket jewels.»

Modified 1981 Mini Saloon - Brilliant rally-inspired revamp living in Malta

When I was 18, passing my driving test and getting my driving licence was a very exciting time. Obviously we started looking for a Mini from the classifieds pages in the newspaper and found a white one. Me and my father started looking around it and checking floor panels, gutters, rust points, the engine and other things you need to check on a Mini. He noticed something strange that we couldn’t explain. He told me to stand aside and say nothing while he talked to the seller. It seemed to be a Mk2 made to look like a Mk4 as it had reverse light lenses and had its external door hinges removed. The seller said that he bought it like that.

Modified 1981 Mini Saloon - Brilliant rally-inspired revamp living in Malta

After they agreed a price (480 Maltese Lira, at that time around $1,000) my father seemed happy and took the car to his garage. He noticed that the rear windows were smaller with the larger gap under the roof gutter. This Mini had disc brakes at the front, twin SU carburettors, 3-in-1 S exhaust and many other bits that a twin-tanked Cooper S had but the second filler hole had been welded up. My father, with a big smile in his face, told me: “Congratulations… you own what was once a Cooper S.” My Mini was deseamed, including the gutters, and had wind-up windows from a Mk4.

Modified 1981 Mini Saloon - Brilliant rally-inspired revamp living in Malta

Soon after, I started reading MiniWorld Magazine and it was published for a reason: to keep the love of the Mini alive. A 1997 MiniWorld magazine came out with a Special Tuning catalogue. This was when the Mini again competed in the Monte Carlo Rally. It was love at first sight when I saw the rally Mini, posing with those four fog lights on the bonnet.

I then upgraded my Mini to a Mk5 example. After three years in the garage it was finally ready for the light pods on the bonnet but it was hard to import them at that time as there was no internet to search for and buy them, so I decided not to do it. I was literally obsessed with this Monte-Carlo Mini.

Modified 1981 Mini Saloon - Brilliant rally-inspired revamp living in Malta

After some static shows, Mini club meet ups and club sprints, my Mini was complete. We usually took it on a trailer to events. After six more months working on the Mini I was driving back home from an event and my father was towing my Mini with a small van. He called me on the cell phone half way home, telling me that the trailer had broken free from the van and accidentally went into a lamp post. Believe me, my heart stopped when I saw it and, even though the Mini was well fastened to the trailer, it too hit the post. The damage was so extensive that I couldn’t repair it so l had to make do with going out in my father`s Mini.

I then got married, became a homeowner and my 15-year-old daughter fell in love with VW Beetles. It made me notice every cool Mini I saw passing by. It was frustrating to love Minis and be unable to afford to build another one. Last year, I was looking online to buy some stuff for my new garage and up popped a for sale advert for a 1981 Austin Rover Mk4 Mini in UK specification.

It was black with a white roof, 10” Starmags, a 1275 engine and classic plates. The price was decent and I called by to see if there was any chance I could do a deal and trade in my damaged Mini's bodyshell. The seller agreed and the paperwork was completed. Finally I had a Mini again. I phoned my father with the news and we went to drive it home. Of course, I had the Monte-Carlo Mini in my mind and yes it's styling was inspired by my dream Mini without changing the colour.

One year passed and here it is in all its glory! It’s just as I always wanted it to be, although in black. My friends and relatives had many suggestions but I wanted to make it unique. It has 13” DTM wheels, which were a gift from my father. They were a game-changer and everyone loved it after the changes were carried out. I replaced the disc brakes and fitted a fog lamp which is recessed into the boot lid, there’s a sump guard, Mini fins at the rear, a rear screen louvre and, of course, the four-light pod on the bonnet.

As for the engine, my father suggested many modifications to upgrade the 1275cc 1300GT engine. From our early days we had accumulated parts and engines, including an MG Metro Turbo engine which I may fit in the future. For the moment I want it to start without any problems with a half an inch of choke and take it for a Sunday ride with other Mini owners. Sadly, my father recently passed away. I am so grateful to him for passing on his passion for the Mini tome.

Ramon Montebello would like to thank: “My family for tolerating my absence while working on my Mini; DLP Automotive for the photos; Malta Freeport for the photo location; Jake Bartolo for carefully detailing my Mini.”

Ramon likes the reliable 1275 engine but is tempted to fit an MG Metro Turbo unit.

Extra gauges and Atactile MOMO Steering wheel.

Montebello Minis. Left to right: Charles’ Cooper S, Ramon’s Mini, Tony`s turbo’d Mk4 and Emmanuel’s modified Mk3. How Ramon's current Mini looked on the day he bought it. Ramon's second Mini was inspired by the 1997 Monte Mini on the ST brochure (right).

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