Mobile Service Training Units

BMC once had a fleet of mobile training units - two of them had motorsport connections with the Mini.

Training mechanics and service personnel, and keeping them up to date with all the latest advances, is a problem faced by any car maker.

BMC set up service training schools at most of its factories and some distribution centres, and successfully trained thousands of people each year on short and medium courses. However, it wasn’t always practical for dealerships to give their mechanics a week or more to attend a course, particularly for smaller dealerships in outer-lying areas.

In 1958 the service manager at Nuffield Exports Ltd, George King, commissioned Marshall Motor Bodies Ltd in Cambridge to build six Mobile Service Training Units. Referred to as MTUs by most of the people associated with them.

Former manager at Leyland Special Tuning and Competitions Manager for Leyland, Bill Price, believes the design for the MTU was by Ron Donovan of Marshall’s. However, reports on the vehicles in BMC Rosette in 1965 credit the design to Pininfarina. 

The first six MTUs were built on modified Nuffield five-ton FF-K100 chassis, with a 25” (63.5cm) wheelbase extension. The engine used was the 105bhp BMC 5.1lt six-cylinder diesel, with a 13” clutch, direct-drive five-speed gearbox and an Eaton type-16802 two-speed axle, giving ten forward gears.

Top speed was listed as 70mph (113km/h), but 60mph (97km/h) was apparently a comfortable cruising speed. While 20mpg was listed, a test in the UK revealed 16mpg was more realistic in normal use.

The braking system used 5-ton Lockheed front brakes and 7-ton Girling rear brakes, assisted by an Air Pak vacuum booster. Steering was light and direct, with power assistance.
The body was 30’ (9.14m) long, 8’ (2.44m) wide and 9’9” (2.97m) high. Alloy and fibreglass panels fitted over a framework mostly of aluminium, with steel sections at front and rear where increased strength was needed. The exterior panels were of 18-gauge alloy sheet, while interior panels were timber, except for the ceiling, which was also 18-gauge alloy.

The driving cabin could accommodate five, with three passengers on a bench seat behind the driver. Access to the rear classroom area was through a sliding door in the double-skinned bulkhead.
The classroom was 17’ 6” (5.3m) long, by 7’ 2” (2.2m) wide, and could accommodate up to nine students plus instructors.

These first MTUs were delivered late in 1959 and began to provide on-site training for dealerships across the UK and parts of Europe. They were given UK registrations BMC24, BMC25, BMC27, BMC29, BMC34 and BMC40, although they were a mixture of right-hand-drive and left-hand-drive.
With the first batch proving successful, a larger order was placed with Marshall’s, for early 1963 delivery. These Series 2 units, based on the 7-ton FF-K140 chassis, differed slightly from the early vehicles. In particular, they had a 5.7lt 120hp diesel engine.

The bodies were also slightly modified, with small tail fins, reminiscent of the Austin/ Morris 1100 series – and it may be here that the Pininfarina influence originated. Other subtle changes included the headlights, some of the window frames, the grille and sharper lines to the front panels. 
By 1964, 27 MTUs were being operated out of BMC Service Ltd, at Oxford, and had visited most of Europe, as well East Africa, Malaya, New Zealand, South Africa, Turkey and the West Indies.
Additionally, two units were based in Canada, four in the USA, one in Sweden and two more in Australia – giving a total of 36.

Interestingly, one of the US units recently sold, and a video of it has appeared on YouTube, driving on a freeway with a gaggle of Minis – just search “MOALA & BMC bus”. Although this unit looks great in its red, white and blue livery, all the MTUs were originally painted royal blue with white sign-writing, while the Series 2 also had a white roof.

BMC25 was based at the BMC Advanced Driving School at Abingdon, run by Harry Shillabeer. The school’s main purpose was to train BMC employees who were not professional drivers, but who drove faster cars in the course of their work – engineers, salesmen and service technicians – to do so safely. There was also a section for training people to drive heavy transport.

Bill Price remembers a more unorthodox use the Abingdon MTU was put to. “During the bad winter of 1962-63, we were looking for somewhere to test two MGBs for the Sebring 12-hour race. The Advanced Driving School used an old World War II airfield at Finmere and one of their instructors did a number of laps of the circuit to break up the worst of the snow so we could run the MGBs.”
In 1966 the BMC Competitions Department, under Stuart Turner, purchased BMC34 for a nominal fee of £1. 

Bill Price explains the changes that were carried out for the team. “We decided it was possible to accommodate two Minis if the body was extended. So we sent it to a coachbuilder up North in Burnley named Oswald Tillotson who extended the body by two feet and fitted a rear door which acted as a ramp – two Minis would just fit in without the spotlamps! The colour was changed to red with white roof and sign-written with BMC Competitions Department, etc.”

One of the first events for the vehicle was the 1967 Marathon de la Route and it became a regular team fixture at rallies and races. 

“In 1969 when we suddenly found ourselves taking over the Cooper Car Co Mini race programme, it was used to transport two Minis to British Saloon Car Championship races plus some races on the continent”, Bill continues. “I was supervising the race programme that year and sometimes helped drive the MTU to meetings, as I loved to drive large vehicles.”

At some point another MTU was bought by BL Special Tuning as a rally support vehicle, carrying spares and tools, etc for private entrants. A third MTU appears to have been used in the late 1970s, when the Leyland team was sponsored by Unipart, but Bill says that unit was not based at Abingdon.
“With the closure of Comps in 1970, the Special Tuning Department retained BMC34 and repainted it in ST colours”, Bill explains.

Meanwhile, even before Abingdon had got hold of BMC34, two MTUs had arrived in Australia.
It is not clear exactly when the first unit, chassis number 3, arrived, but the second unit, chassis number 29, arrived in Fremantle, WA, aboard the S.S. Cretic in June 1963. 

These were referred to throughout their time at BMC as MTU1 and MTU2 respectively. While MTU1 had been bought as a used vehicle, MTU2 was brand new – at a cost of £10,000 landed in Australia.
After a two-month instructional tour of WA, MTU2 was driven to Adelaide for another tour, before heading to Sydney where it was then based, registered FWH037, to service all of NSW and Queensland.

MTU1 was transferred to Melbourne, with unknown Vic registration replacing NSW rego FZJ125, to service Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. It was also used as support vehicle for the 1964 Sandown 6-hour International race.

BMC Rosette, in April-May 1967, detailed a 2,000 mile journey by MTU1, which took in Warrnambool, Portland, Hamilton, Horsham, Warracknabeal, Birchip, Mildura, Swan Hill, Shepparton, Cobram, Tocumwal, Albury, Benalla, Seymour, Leongatha and Morwell.

MTU2 made even longer journey’s, through outback NSW and Queensland. Ted Walter, former owner of Walters Motors in Hay, NSW, remembers the MTU well. “Hay is 735km SW of Sydney. I actually had a drive of the bus when it visited us. 

If you would like to read the rest of this story, order your copy of Issue 29 of The Mini Experience. 

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