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It might be a cult hero today, but if you want to be completely honest, the Mini Moke was an utter flop when it was first unveiled. Not that it lacked any of the charm or character that has helped it become such an icon, rather that it was immediately deemed unsuitable for the very thing it had been designed to do. Designed by the Alec Issigonis - the same genius mind that sketched up the Mini – the original brief for the Moke was in a military capacity where it could be parachuted in (quite literally) to forces in the field.
Unfortunately for BMC (the parent company which also owned Austin, Morris, MG, Austin-Healey, Riley, and Wolseley) the British Army took one look at the Moke in the late 1950s and determined that its relative lack of power was one thing, but also that it’s lack of ground clearance was the real deal-breaker. Not that BMC hadn’t already considered the ground-clearance issue; early promotional material showed a group of burly soldiers lifting the Moke out of rough terrain.
So what do you do when the military turns its back on you? You go after the civilian market, although this must have seemed like a huge job at the time given the Moke’s crude design and Spartan equipment. Nevertheless, BMC persisted and by 1964 the Moke was available, although the price had crept up from what had been projected as the British government decided it was a passenger car and not a commercial vehicle, and taxed it accordingly.
British production of the Moke continued until 1968 and, to be fair, the thing never really hit its straps at home in a sales sense, despite being referenced in the pop culture of the day. Don’t forget that it was selling against the Mini, the must-have car of the day that had the added bonus of keeping the rain off. Most records suggest that about 14,500 Mokes were built in Britain, the vast majority of them being exported around the world.
One of the markets for the Moke was Australia. In fact, by 1966, demand was so strong, that BMC set up a manufacturing plant to build the Moke in the Sydney, NSW suburb of Zetland.
Although Australian Mokes look pretty much identical to a British-built example from the same period, the Aussie cars were beefed up a little in terms of extra bracing and gusseting of the bodyshell (what there is of it). Crucially, the Moke retained the same tiny, 998cc engine as the Brit original as well as the tiny, 10-inch wheels and tyres. The Mini-style seats of the Brit version were replaced by canvas hammock-style chairs.
The elephant in the room was addressed in 1968 when the Moke got bigger wheels and tyres and much better ground clearance. The Mark 2 Moke came along in 1969, bringing a bigger, 1098cc engine, better engine cooling, synchromesh on all gears and better brakes. In 1971, BMC Australia came up with what was officially called the Export Model and was a stab at the lucrative USA market. Unfortunately, the US safety experts didn’t like the idea one bit, so the deal fell through, but not before the upgraded Moke, with its luxuries including a 1275cc engine, two-speed wipers and even a reversing light (although it still had four-wheel drum brakes) had become known – somewhat ironically - as the Californian. That car sold until 1973, but the Californian tag was revived officially in 1977.
By now, the company had changed name to Leyland Australia and the Moke had reverted to a 998cc engine (which was the only one that would meet current emissions standards). The latter Californian also got white-spoked steel wheels, a mini roo-bar at the front and was available in funky colours. This is the Moke many people first think of when the name is mentioned. The 1275cc engine was reinstated in 1979 after Leyland had added emission control devices to it, but by then, Leyland Australia was in serious trouble and would eventually disappear completely, taking the Moke with it. However, that’s not the end of the Moke story.
As the company was dying a long, slow death in Australia, Moke production was moved to British Leyland’s Portugal plant. As many as 8500 examples of the Aussie-spec Californian Moke were built there between 1980 and 1984, adding to the just-over 26,000 Mokes built here between 1968 and 1981.
A Mini Moke is the amoeba of the car world; it’s about as simple as you can get and still call it a motor vehicle. The body (what there is of it) is a collection of welded steel panels that form a shallow tub. At each corner is the crude suspension lifted from an early Mini and at the front, under that stumpy bonnet is the gearbox and engine of the Mini driving the front wheels. There are no doors, no roof (beyond a primitive cloth roof) no side windows (fussy, plastic blinds could be clipped into place if you could be bothered) and pretty much nothing else. Seating is limited to thin, hammock-style chairs and beyond a speedometer and fuel gauge, the interior is bare metal and lots of it.
So, the Moke looks like a pallet with headlights, but if you thought that was minimal, wait till you drive one. Oh, sure, they’re fun with flat, zappy cornering and the feeling of great speed thanks to the raucous engine and your backside being just inches off the tarmac, but the early ones feel underbraked, the non-assisted steering can load up, performance is actually quite leisurely and the Moke defines torque-steer.
Many have been modified later in life to improve straight-line performance (which only makes the torque-steer worse) and the bigger-wheeled versions had disc brakes which are lightyears ahead of the old drum-brake models. Even so, when it’s hot, you will be hot. When it’s raining, you will be wet. And should you ever crash one at any velocity whatsoever, a will is going to be more use than an insurance policy.
Given the above, that’s a very good question. But mainly, it’s because the Moke is good old fashioned fun. They can be flung around corners, they look cool and they tell everybody that you’re having a better day than they are. Think British/Australian beach buggy and you’re getting close.
That’s these days, of course, and back when the Moke was a relatively new idea, they were popular with a lot of newsagents who loved the no doors, no windows thing for driving slowly down suburban streets, hurling a rolled-up newspaper into every front yard. Beyond that, the Moke didn’t find much success as a commercial vehicle beyond as a fun hire car for holiday-makers. Even today, places like Magnetic Island in Queensland are dotted with rental Mokes, carrying tourists who are having their first crack at a manual gearbox for the first time in decades. The Moke’s quasi military background also makes it popular on ANZAC Day for ferrying diggers around as part of memorial marches and services.
If you’re looking for a Mini Moke for sale, Australia is a pretty good place to look. It’s fair to say there are more here than anywhere else in the world, but even then, they are getting pretty rare and of the 26,000 or so built here, no more than a fraction of those would survive today. The capital cities including Perth and Adelaide are more likely to throw up a Moke for sale than regional areas, and even Victoria with its own, less-than-Moke-friendly climate is home to a reasonable percentage of the survivors. Brisbane and Queensland generally are good places to find surviving Mokes but be aware that ex-rental cars might be pretty tired.
Unless you’re buying a fully restored, mint condition Moke, pretty much any car you buy will require some restoration. And just because they’re such simple things doesn’t mean they’re cheap to repair.
Rust is, of course, the biggest problem, because the lack of weather protection means they simply fill up with water if left in the open. Rust in the basic bodyshell is bad news but is very common, particularly in the side pod where the battery mounts, leaking acid on to the metal where rust sets in early. A batch of cars in 1977 also had a new, experimental rust-protection process which was a failure. So check any Moke with a 1977 build-date extra carefully. For 1978, the process was changed, but even these later, galvanised bodies rust.
Mechanically, there’s more simplicity, but as with any older car, some bits and pieces can be getting hard to find. The Moke is also like the Mini in that most of the mechanical stuff is crammed into the front, so working on them is not as easy as it is on some cars.
Prices vary enormously these days, but even a project Moke that is little more than a box of bits and pieces and which will need extensive rust work is likely to cost around $10,000. For something that run and drives (but will still need lots of work) The price is going to be closer to $15,000 and decent running cars start at about $20,000 and run all the way to $30,000. A nice Californian in good condition and needing only minor repairs (if any) is going to be closer to $40,000 than $30,000, taking the Moke a long way from its original premise of cheap and cheerful.
The good news is that the Moke (and Mini) is such a popular collector car, that a whole industry exists to keep them on the road. Reproduction parts are available brand-new and there’s plenty of second-hand bits and pieces available from specialist suppliers.
Meantime, a UK company called Moke International surfaced a couple of years ago with a redesigned, re-engineered Moke that was being manufactured brand-new in very small numbers. While the reported price of about $36,000 would have priced it keenly, unfortunately, the new Mini Moke didn’t comply with current Australian Design Rules, ruling it out for a Down Under launch.