The First Electric Minis You Saw But Probably Didn’t Know Were Electric

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A recent article over at The Drive tells of a cleantech effort that many of us saw the results of: the 2003 remake of The Italian Job. Almost as famous as the star-studded cast were the show’s automotive stars: a trio of Mini Coopers. After reading the piece at The Drive, I decided to dig a little deeper and figure out how they built these cars, and found out a whole lot more than I expected.

Here’s a behind the scenes clip showing off some of the action scenes and explaining how they pulled it off:

32 Mini Cooper vehicles were used to film different aspects of the film. So many got in little wrecks during filming that they operated a 24-hour dedicated body shop to repair the cars and put them out for more abuse and filming. Different things were done to the cars to make them the best fit for each part of the film they’d be starring in.

The directors explain that they didn’t use any CGI go make automotive shots in the film. Everything was done with practical effects, and every shot used a real car. But, by “real car,” I don’t mean that it was a factory Mini. Things had to be changed to make the crazier shots work.

It turns out that they had to go far beyond just doing things like building custom suspensions, lighter cars, and even portions of cars for the filming effort. For some of the shots, they had to eliminate the combustion engines entirely to keep local governments happy when filming in tunnels beneath Los Angeles.

Here’s a direct link to the relevant clip where they discuss the custom electric minis that were built just for the film (embedded with the right start time below):

Director F. Gary Gray said:

“I think one of the best moments in the movie with the minis was when they drive down the Walk of Fame, and they avoid a lot of people. It was a crowded sidewalk and they make a left turn, and jump down these stairs. The actors did this stunt, actually. They drove down the set of stairs and they make a quick right turn and avoid a bunch of pedestrians.”

“They wouldn’t allow us to shoot in the tunnels with cars that had combustion engines. So, I said ‘OK, great, we’ll just get electric Minis and that’ll be fine.’ I called BMW and they said, ‘there aren’t any electric Minis, they don’t exist.”

“John Carpenter, my transportation coordinator did a great job at figuring out engineering and building a trio of electric Minis. The only electric minis that existed on the planet Earth, and it’s one of  my favorite moments with the Minis because of the size. I mean, you can’t imagine any other car doing this stunt except for the Minis.”

It appears in the video that these Minis were very short range, and could probably only complete a few minutes of filming at a time. They were powered by what appears to be sealed lead acid batteries, not unlike what you’d find powering a golf cart or a cheaper electric scooter.

Screenshot from the video embedded above, showing the Minis’ battery packs.

The battery packs weren’t even permanently mounted. Ratcheting straps and other temporary measures were used to make these cars work when filming certain scenes.

Here’s the final product as it appears in the film:

As you can probably see and hear, they didn’t let us movie fans know what was going on here behind the scenes. In the final edit, the sounds of combustion, gears, clutches, and superchargers were added to the shots in post-production. From my experience thrashing some of these cars over the years, these are authentic Mini Cooper sounds, including that really fun supercharger whine you’d hear passing somebody on the highway.

They did a very good job of making it look, sound, and feel like these were the same minis that the characters in the film built for the job, and not electric minis powered by golf cart batteries. Even going over the scenes carefully doesn’t reveal any clue that this was happening behind the scenes, with the possible exception of one shot showing warning lights on the Mini’s dash as it went down the stairs.

More Behind The Scenes Information From Mini

As you can probably imagine, the movie helped sell a lot of Mini Coopers. So, they’re quite proud of it, and even have a webpage dedicated to showing these cars off. The text of the website doesn’t tell us much about how they built these EV conversions, but the pictures gave me enough information to fill in some of the blanks.

Screenshot from Mini’s website showing the complete battery pack for the Italian Job minis.

The battery packs consisted of ten Enersys Genesis 12v sealed lead acid batteries, similar to this model. To handle the jumps, they used sealed lead-acid absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries. To keep them from banging each other up, they simply put strips of plywood between the batteries. These were then bolted and strapped down in place of the Minis’ back seats. These were wired in series, resulting in a pack voltage of 12o DC volts.

An image from the Mini website showing the parts under the hood.

The rest of what you see under the hood was pretty standard EV conversion stuff from the time the movie was made. Some custom mounts, adapter plates, and struts hold what appears to be a D&D electric motor in place, passing its power directly into the Mini’s manual transmission. This is all fed by a simple motor controller, which didn’t need an inverter because everything was DC.

Those of us with experience with low voltage wiring can probably see that the job was done neatly enough to repair, but there’s no shortage of crimp connectors, zip ties, and other things that indicate this was meant to be a temporary job. Personally, I would have added electrical tape to the crimp connectors, but this is good enough to film for a few days and not see any moisture.

If they had waterproofed this a bit more, this actually would have been a very usable electric vehicle. Range would have only been a few dozen miles at best, and the 120-volt DC drive system wouldn’t have been a very high performance driver, but someone could have commuted in such a car with no problems.

But, for most people, it would be a lot easier to just go to a Mini dealer and buy a Mini Cooper SE today. You’d definitely end up with a lot more power and range than you would if you got your hands on one of these conversions.

Featured image: a screenshot of one of the electric Minis jumping into a train tunnel in front of a subway train. (Fair Use)

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1983 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba