The lions that ate cars


I wrote many years ago about the Lions who ate Mini Moke Californians, but the yarn bears re-telling. For those who have never seen a Mini Californian, it began as your everyday Mini Moke, the flat Mini platform with a faintly raffish ‘jeep’ look to it. It had canvas seats across metal frames to add to the military look. A flat windscreen up front and a fairly useless vinyl top that could be erected. It was ineffective as a roof, and when it rained, it was even worse.

However, the Californian variant had little Perspex wind ‘wings’ either side of the windscreen, designed to stop buffeting of driver and passenger (which they didn’t), some stuffing in the seats, some new choices of bright colors for the platform and a bright floral patterned vinyl roof, which was still ineffective when it rained, and if you drove at any speeds over 80 kph, the side flaps went up and down like a spaniel dog’s ears at full canter. Yes, this was British Leyland’s concept of the Californian psychedelic era.

BL’s publicity man was called Ian Millbank and his concept to promote this variant was more towards the ‘great white hunter’ idea. He envisaged hunters and models, trees and the veldt and the piece de resistance was to be lions! In Sydney, Australia, in those days there was just the location – the Warragamba Lion Park! The release was already in Millbank’s mind. The lion park was contacted, and two new Moke Californians were taken in secret one night to Warragamba. Remember that all ‘new’ models are driven round incognito before the release date, and in fact there is an army of press photographers on the lookout for pre-release vehicles.

But back to the lion park. The photographer and models had been contacted and the shoot scheduled for the following day. The sight that confronted them the next morning was certainly theatrical. There were two half-eaten Moke Californians, being devoured by all these lion cubs. They had systematically eaten the seats, the floral roof, the wind wings and anything else that a pride of hungry lion cubs felt was suitable for breakfast, including the spare tyres!

Even for Ian Millbank, this was a situation that could not be recovered from. The models were discharged, as well as the photographer, the Mokes brought back to the factory on a truck under tarpaulins in disgrace!

A little background to this story. Ian Millbank was a wonderfully flamboyant chap who loved the theatre of model releases, but hated cars. Based in Sydney Australia he was given a vehicle, because of his high position in the company. But he didn’t want it, so he would deliberately leave it somewhere and report it as stolen. This became so frequent that the police would ring British Leyland, saying, “We’ve got Mr Millbank’s car again, if you would like to pick it up.”

Last time I saw Millbank he was running a hotel in Katoomba, New South Wales, called the Palais Royale, flouncing around from table to table at lunch and inviting Miss Spink to play the spinet, to furious applause by Millbank. (Miss Spink had come for a holiday 10 years previously and stayed as the residential entertainment.)

Unfortunately, the Millbanks of this world are few and far between.

Yes, that was the psychedelic seventies! I am lucky that I not only experienced them with Millbank and BL – I survived them!