Elf & Hornet

No version of the Mini seems to divide public opinion as much as the Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf – the “Minis with a boot”.

The Hornet and Elf twins were released to the public at the London Motor Show in October 1961, to a very mixed reception. Comments in magazines described the cars as ugly, controversial, uncomfortable, and undesirable on the one hand, and out-of-the-ordinary, well-finished, stylish, and “having an air of luxury”, on the other.

Even today, most enthusiasts and observers will tend to either loath or love them - it is purely subjective. I, for one, fall into the latter category. I love the styling, additional features and the extra comfort. Jon Pressnell, by contrast, is clearly in the opposite camp, describing them as “gussied-up mutants”.

Alec Issigonis is said to have disliked them, declaring them a styling gimmick, and many journalists of the day considered them an unnecessary extension to the Mini family.

Although mechanically unchanged from the original Mini, the changes in the body added around 10% to the weight.

Laurence Pomeroy wrote, in The Mini Story; “It would be putting it too high to say that Issigonis was lukewarm concerning these changes as, more than anyone else concerned, he saw that although the increases in weight seemed small they were likely seriously to lower performance.”

Issigonis is also said to have complained that although the boot space was indeed larger – by 2½ cubic feet – any advantage was cancelled out by the lift-up boot lid which replaced one of the original Mini’s iconic design features – the drop-down boot lid that could be used to carry over-sized luggage.

The Elf was always slightly more up-market than the Hornet, and priced around £20 dearer, but the differences were basically only in the dashboard layout and the badges. It would seem that BMC decided the Riley badge was always worth a little more than the Wolseley, even for cars of virtually identical specification.

At the Motor Show, the Riley had a square central instrument panel, covered in a burr walnut veneer, but this was augmented by a timber full-width dash with two glovebox compartments by the time of release. The hornet used the same oval three-gauge dash as the Super/Cooper, but with a timber veneer.

Seating was originally two-tone leather/cloth, but this was changed to full leather by the time the cars went on sale. Both cars were available in a wider range of colours than the Morris/Austin Minis, and standard with contrasting roof colours.

While many people scoff at the idea of BMC’s badge engineering, it was as a direct result of the company continuing to have so many brands, and allowing them to compete fiercely, with essentially the same cars. At the time, the only way a Wolseley dealership could have sold the Mini was if it had a Wolseley badge – similarly with the Riley marque.

Both Riley and Wolseley had traditionally been up-market brands from Morris and Austin, and in order to sell Minis under these brands, they needed to have a distinct appeal above the cheaper models.

The fact that the cars could be sold for a premium over and above the additional cost to build them, also made good sense at the time. When released, the Hornet sold for £672 1s 5d, while the Elf was £693 18s 11d – when the Cooper was £679 7s 0d.

By realising that some customers would like to have a more luxurious and up-market version of the Mini, BMC pre-empted the coach-building trend by nearly two years.

Unfortunately, the first Elf/Hornets were unchanged mechanically from the original Mini, and it was not until 1963, with the MkII, that the cars came with a de-tuned version of the Cooper’s 998cc engine, although still with the “magic wand” gearstick, and twin-leading-shoe brakes.

If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 25 of The Mini Experience. <plumshop>42</plumshop> <plumshop>43</plumshop>

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