In the 1950s the British Ministry for Defence was looking for a small, light, air-transportable, general purpose scouting vehicle. By 1958, possibly spurred on by the Suez Crisis of 1956, they had formulated the brief for what was required and called for prototypes for testing.
The Mini was in its last stages of development for its August 1959 release and the all-inclusive package of the Mini’s engine, transmission and suspension made it ideal for the sort of modular construction that would be needed.
In his book, Mini – The Definitive History, Jon Pressnell quotes Issigonis’ right-hand man, Jack Daniels: “…the Moke came about as a means of being able to transport about 16 people with four vehicles for the price of being able to transport four people in a normal vehicle. The argument was that providing we could manufacture it on a mass-production line the cost would be so low that we could supply around ten of them for the cost of a Land Rover…”
Simplicity was therefore the key and the first prototypes were the embodiment of spartan car design. These were essentially buckboards – flatbed bodies of minimalist construction, with bench seats, no windscreen or weather proofing and the bare minimum of electrical equipment. Where the Mini had a Design Office code of ADO15, this military version was coded ADO15-B: where the B stood for Buckboard.
John Sheppard was given the task of drawing up the first concept, which was done in a matter of weeks over Christmas 1958-9.
At this early stage it was officially known as “The BMC Light Inter-Communication Car”. Not surprising, then, that a shorter name was coined for it. Moke simply means donkey or mule and, while it is not exactly clear who decided on the name or when, it was in use from the earliest days of the project.
Seven prototypes had been built by mid-1959 and were supplied to the Army’s Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (FVRDE) at Chertsey in Surrey. At least three were tested by the British Army, one by the Royal Marines for helicopter lifts and one went to the RAF.
Built on the Mini’s 80” wheelbase, for ease of development and cost, they also utilized the Mini’s rear subframe and suspension package. Engines in the prototypes were 948cc, just as the pre-production Mini’s had been. This provided ample power for such a light vehicle.
The fuel tank, spare wheel and battery were all mounted in the back, behind the rear seat, but concerns over the fuel tank and battery being beside each other soon saw the fuel tank moved to the left-hand side.
Removable windscreens were also an early addition, as were handles on the sides, which provided the double benefit of giving the occupants something to hang onto and something with which to man-handle the car if it got stuck in rough terrain.
In fact, it was claimed that if the Moke got stuck it could be carried for short distances by four people. Anyone who has tried carrying a Mini engine and subframe, even without the weight of a body, however light, might think this was a bit far-fetched. But in an article in Classic and Sports Car magazine in July 1994 (by none other than Jon Pressnell) four burley soldiers demonstrated that it was quite feasible – with one of the original prototype Mokes.
Although it seems many soldiers enjoyed driving the prototype Mokes, provided the weather was fine, serious military testing revealed a number of critical flaws with the design – most notably the lack of ground clearance, lack of traction over rough country, and a certain fragility of the body.
To stiffen up the body the sides were boxed in, which provided handy storage areas, a better location for the battery, and protection for the side-mounted fuel tank.
To try to overcome the problem of bottoming out in rough country, a shorter wheelbase of 72 ½” was tried, but these were found to pitch wildly on rough ground and were twitchy to drive on the road. A handful of the short wheelbase versions did find their way to some unusual places for testing, including the South African Air Force.
A Moke made a brief appearance in the Pathe newsreel film on a British Army Corps of Engineers display day, in June 1963. Strangely, the rear passenger appears to be holding an umbrella – indicating that at least the army chaps saw the comical side of driving a Moke.
BMC’s Chief Engineer, Alec Issigonis, could see that two-wheel-drive was a disadvantage in the conditions that would be encountered by the Army and there were some early experiments with 4WD.
The most famous of these was the Twini-Moke, shown to an incredulous press during the fierce winter of early 1963, with Issigonis at the wheel of a twin-engined Moke fitted with a snow-plough. While I’m sure there was a serious intent to the twini-Moke, you can’t help but notice Issi is obviously having fun playing in the snow.
Although twini-Mokes were tested by various armies, including that of the US, it was clear that with carrying capacity being severely restricted, and the complexity and cost of running two engines, the project would be still-born.
However, as early as 22 September 1959, only a month after the public launch of the Mini, Issigonis had applied for a patent on a four-wheel-drive system for the Mini.
This was granted on 24 January 1962 and spawned the 4WD Moke project. Apparently, three 4WD Mokes were built, but the project eventually evolved into the Austin Ant by the late 1960s. That’s a story we will investigate in full in a later issue.
Meanwhile, military interest in the Moke had waned and it looked like the whole project had been a dead end.
Being so far down the track, the decision was taken to develop a version suitable for civilian use, in an attempt to recoup the cost of the project.
Reverting to the original 80” wheelbase and using the boxed-in side panniers first seen on the short-wheelbase version, the Moke was given a make-over to “soften” it up a bit.
Not wanting to upstage the Mini, or more likely purely on the basis of cost, the Moke received the by then standard 848cc engine.
The seats were revised and made a bit more comfortable; a key-start replaced the push-button mounted under the seat; and better lighting was included.
As Pressnell reports, though, the move from failed military career to civi street was not without it hiccoughs. He quotes James Percival from Fisher and Ludlow, in an archived memo to colleague B. E. Cook, to: “stop all work on production tooling and prototypes, pending further instructions”. Pressnell continues; “Although this could refer to the boxing in of the side panels, it is more likely, judging by subsequent correspondence, that it relates to a decision to abandon a planned use of 12in or 13in wheels on the Moke.”
An initial batch of seven Mokes was built at Longbridge in December 1963 (although some sources suggest the number was ten) with all but two going to Singapore or Papua New Guinea. This may have been for a bit of further field evaluation, as the next batch of around the same number was not built until June 1964 – the first UK-delivered car going to Barton Motor Company in Plymouth. Full production only got under way in September after the Moke’s official announcement in August.
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The BMC Experience Issue 8. Jan-Mar 2014 Magazine
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