The Story of Perry and the Building of Lowlife

( It rambles on a bit, but worth reading if your interested ).




Perry Watkins is a guy who likes his cars to be noticed. Not for him the simple additions of, say, a body kit or a flashy set of aftermarket alloy wheels, no sir, he likes to go the whole hog and create something that tends to stop people in their tracks.

In 1984 he built a 9-foot tall, road-going Dalek and followed that up with a radically altered Hillman Imp just 26 inches in height that was a joint-production with friend Danny Curtis. The minuscule measurement garnered the pink peril a place in the esteemed Guinness Book of Records as the world's lowest car. Both the aforementioned have been stars of the small screen in addition to being well chronicled in newspapers and magazines worldwide

His latest venture - and dare I say the best-constructed offbeat vehicle to grace the Watkins' rural retreat - is truly a showstopper extraordinary. Lowlife, a finely crafted, radically chopped, sectioned and elongated Mini featuring mid-mounted Rover V8 motivation and trick hydraulic suspension is just two foot in height from Tarmac to rooftop. If there's a street-legal car that's any lower I'm sure the Guinness Publishing folk would be pleased to hear about it!

Perry, employed as a regional manager with Timpson, a national chain of shoe repairers, based the project on the ubiquitous Mini because, " it's a cult car in its own right and would therefore be immediately associated with small dimensions and the fun aspect, to say nothing of the difficulty of me having to start off with a large family saloon and paring it down to the size of Lowlife." The downsized delight involved eighteen months of planning before starting actual construction. " I took many measurements from the Mini range, as well as checking out the size of various axles and the dimensions of the Rover 3.5-litre engine that I wanted to use. Advice upon the feasibility of the project came from many quarters and I also made several sketches of the intended final appearance prior to tackling the first stage about 3 years ago.

The powerplant earmarked for amidships installation was acquired from a friend's 1983 Rover SD1 that I bought. It was plonked in the garage and left until the time came to tackle the task of reducing the overall height of it. I figured the unit needed to be no taller than 22 inches from the top of the carburettor to the bottom of the sump. I initially endeavoured to retain the engine's original SU carbs, mounting them on extended pipework down beside the bellhousing. This proved to be no good due to fuel supply problems and so I reverted to using the standard inlet manifold, which needed machining in the name of further height reduction prior to welding a Holley adapter plate on top. This allowed me to install a 390 carb, the choke section of which was itself skimmed as low as the accelerator jets in order to provide adequate clearance between it and the chromed air intake mounted in the roof.

Two inches were also shaved from the oil pan, the oil pickup was raised by the same amount and one inch was removed from the bottom of the bellhousing." Ground clearance is a mere one-inch when at rest, I should point out! Anyhow, with the V8's revised dimensions being all in order and the alternator relocated to the bottom left-hand side and fitted with a dolly wheel to tension the water pump belt, Perry then aimed to rebuild the old SD1 lump for service in Lowlife. All well and good until he started stripping it, that is, and found it needed far more refurbishment than he originally bargained for. The solution lay within the classified pages of Street Machine magazine, where an already rebuilt unit was on sale for a reasonable sum. Folding money changed hands and the freshened engine passed into Perry's inventory of parts. Although the replacement unit was in fine fettle, further performance-enhancing modifications were later made to meet the owner's exacting requirements.

Next on the agenda came fabrication of the extended coachwork. A '67 Mini was procured for the princely sum of 100 and work duly commenced on cutting the tired body section in order to make the oh-so-low configuration necessary to meet the squashed specification. A further 3 bodies were used to complete the elongation exercise, a moot point about which Perry said, " the low-lid roof required me cutting no less than 34 sections to attain the correct contours. It has been chopped 9 inches and the body sectioned by a whopping 18, making for an overall height of just 23 inches. All the roof guttering was removed, the body de-seamed and the sheet-metal patchwork welded by myself. Incidentally, although I didn't carry out the paint chores, the sprayer told me he used 49 kgs (seven 7-litre tins) of filler to smooth out undulations in the body shell over the course of the 3 weeks it took him to finish the onerous task! The big problem I found involved the curves in, for example, the door and side panels, which made it a nightmare for me to symmetrically lengthen. In fact, trying to weld everything reasonably in line I found the hardest part of the project."

Once the body chores were completed, the owner moved on to fabricating a chassis. He said, " I'd never built a frame before, but I made a jig on the garage floor and proceeded from there. The crafting primarily involved using 4x2 box-section steel. It's a basic rectangle with a kick-up at the rear to house a Jaguar S-type axle. I had to be creative in regard to the front end because there was nothing suitable I could adapt to take the suspension units, which have to sit under the bonnet of course, itself only about 8 or 9 inches off the ground. I used the article entitled Hydraulic Suspension - a DIY Guide in the September '94 issue of Street Machine to point me in the right direction suspension-wise. And thanks to the input of Ray Ramsay of Rayvern Hydraulics, the whole kit and caboodle works a treat.

Detailing the interior and wiring the electric's pretty much brought the long-winded project to conclusion in the late summer of '99, with acquisition of an MOT certificate -- it passed with flying colours -- being the final task to facilitate issuance of a fee-exempt (it's based on a vehicle originally registered more than twenty-five years ago) road fund licence.

Watch out for Perry, wife Angie and their two boys, Daniel and Jack, making local excursions around their Buckinghamshire abode before hitting the high road in due course. I guarantee it will brighten the day of everyone who spots the ground hugging, red roller-skate scooting along in inimitable fashion. Come to think of it, in the smiles-per-mile rating, Lowlife is going to be hard to top Guinness entry or not!

Andy Willsheer.