- If you're looking for the perfect beach car this summer that gets amazing gas mileage, can be built to order and is guaranteed to turn more heads than something twice the price, then Ryan Pilla
has exactly what you're looking for: a custom built Mini Moke.
With everything done in his shop, there is virtually no limit to the things Pilla and his crew can't do to customize each Moke. Upholstry, paint, wheels, engines can all be ordered to the customers liking. There is truth behind their motto: "If you can dream it, we can build it." On this particular one, Pilla even installed a trailer hitch so he can put his 17 foot boat in and out of the water. "It tows without a problem," he says.
If you've ever spent anytime in the Caribbean you've probably seen a few of these interesting little cars running about the islands. Originally designed in Britain in 1964 by Sir Alec Issigonis
, designer of the Mini Cooper, Mini Mokes were originally intended to be a counterpart to the American Jeep to be used by the British military. Because it shared many of its components with the Mini Cooper, Issigonis named the simple, toy like car Mini, after the Cooper, and Moke, which is an archaic term for "donkey."
The military passed on the idea of using them for land transport, but Issigonis switched over and began making a civilian model. Since then, Mokes have been built in Australia, Germany and Portugal, and as of last year, at the Car Doctor in Water Mill.
I just love what they look like; you look at this car and you just smile," said Pilla gazing over two Mokes outside his shop. "People were recreating them over in Europe so I said I want the exclusive rights in this country to recreate the Moke, and I wanted to put all Mini components on it because obviously none of the components back then are made anymore so we just use Mini parts," he explained. "Everything on here is Mini except the tub; the drive shafts, the axle shafts, the transmissions, the engines, all the suspension is done by Mini."
After finding a manufacturer in England that still makes the Mini Moke body tubs, and acquiring the rights to make the cars from British Leyland and the Austin Morris Group, Pilla began production. "We get the tubs sent over to us and then we build the whole car to order. We've done 17 so far," he said. "There are three or four of them out here, but we've sent them from Canada to California. This winter we built 15 of them right here in the back bay at the shop. There is really nothing to them: I can build one of these with two people working on it in two weeks flat."
Pilla showing off the Mini Cooper engine in one of his Mini Mokes. The cars can be built with three different types of one liter Mini blocks: a 1,000 cc version, 1,250 ccs or 1,375 cc flavor. He's even crammed a couple of Honda Civic V-TEC engines that make about 240 horsepower under the bonnet.
One part of the appeal of these cars is their simplicity, which makes them easy to maintain, very reliable and tougher than their small size would have you believe, even able to withstand years of abuse here on the East End, where the sand and salt air can wreak havoc on car bodies and frames, especially if they are driven on the beach. "The whole body tub is made from galvanized steel, which is perfect for out here because people don't have to worry about rust. Everything else that's on the car is solid stainless steel so it's not like the body is going to last but the window frames rot out. On top of that we take the floorboards and go a step further and do Rhino lining on the interior and on the bottom. It just has the necessities so there is nothing to go wrong so it doesn't matter if you're coming off the beach soaking wet or not."
But just because you won't find your standard Moke with all the creature comforts people expect out here in the Hamptons, doesn't mean Ryan can't install them for you. Since each car is custom made, Pilla and his team can do just about anything you want with the car, from dropping in different engines, supplying different sized wheels, custom interiors and paint jobs; like their motto says: "if you can dream it, we can build it."
As far as the motor goes, Pilla explains that they can horseshoe just about anything into the small 1,200 pound car. "We can do one liter engines, which are the ones from the old Mini Coopers that were 1,000 ccs, 1,250ccs, or 1,345ccs and if you really want to get nutty, we just did two Civic motors, 1,600 cc V-TEC engines. The V-TEC motor makes 240 horsepower so the thing just rocks and with front wheel drive you can just burn it up."
"I love this car," says Pilla. "They're just so much fun and you don't have to worry about anything with them. Of the 15 that we've done, we haven't had any issues with them yet."
When asked about some of the crazier modifications they've done to the cars Rod Davidson
, Pilla's second in command, says that "mostly we've done creature comfort stuff, special designs, upholstery, but we've gone pretty crazy though, we've gone totally surf and sport or totally elegant, someone who just uses it to run to an estate party."
"It totally captures the entire audience," added Pilla. "It captures the guy who wants to go out to Ditch Plains
and throw his surfboard in there or you can throw a big hat on and go to the polo fields." They were even going to build one for Christopher Fischer
complete with a cashmere lined interior and seats.
Each Moke comes with a fully adjustable suspension that can be raised or lowered with common hand tools right in the driveway; slap on some bigger wheels (the Mokes can run anything from 12 inch wheels up to 15 inch wheels all on the same hub) and you're ready to take it for a spin on the beach. "You can play with the suspension and the power of the car and they're so light you can rip them around on the beach," Pilla points out. "It doesn't matter that they're not four wheel drive, when you raise them up they're just like a dune buggy. You've just got to be careful if someone else has made huge ruts but once you jack them up there's a good amount of ground clearance."
Ground clearance isn't the only surprise the Moke has in store, for such a small looking car, they actually have a decent amount of interior space as well, which of course, can also be customized to the size and needs of a particular client. "We can set it up to for a specific driver, whether it's a big guy or a small guy it's very deceiving; when you get in there is actually tons of room. It can be a little unorthodox getting into it for a split second but then otherwise it's all good. Some of them we put the seats farther forward to leave space in the back," Pilla explains before pointing out that the versatility doesn't end there. "We even put a trailer hitch on one of them because we put our 17 foot boat in and out of the water with it," he grinned. "It tows it without a problem."
And as an added plus in these fuel economy sensitive days, these cars get incredible gas mileage due to the small engines. "This thing right now, you're only turning 3,000 rpms almost wide open with this gear ratio. It holds 10 gallons and I would say it's an honest 52 miles to the gallon," said Ryan. "But of course it depends on how you drive it; if your foot is into the throttle the whole time you'll probably see 30 miles to the gallon."
Compact but durable and powerful - the Mini Moke gets amazing gas mileage, and can be built to order.
So how much will one of these little custom beauties set you back? That depends on what you want done to them says Pilla. "They're roughly $25,000, depending on what we do to them. You can get a Jeep for that and be like everybody else or you can get one of these and turn some heads. But the Mini motors are the major cost of this car: we can buy a Honda Civic motor for $3,000 brand new, out of the box or we can get a used one for $1,500. The Mini motors here are eight nine, ten, $12,000 motors."
But even for their small size, there is plenty you can do with the small displacement Mini engines. "The 1,375's go really well, they really run," mentions Pilla. "This car will go wide open flat out about 78 mph, but it cruises beautifully at 60, it's totally stable so it's a perfect car here in the Hamptons because the speed limit is 30 generally but if you do need to take it on the highway like if you need to go to Quogue, or Westhampton or Manorville, you're not going to get lost in the shuffle," Pilla points out, and there is even an option for more performance minded people that want to stick with the stock Mini blocks. "We've seen people take these engines and build them up - they have a supercharger kit already made that you can put on this and a turbo kit for it as well; you can get one from $3,900, punch out the motor to 1,175 ccs and just put it on this engine. The stock bottom end is strong enough to handle the power."
With 17 Mokes built so far, and two more orders to complete this summer, Pilla and his crew are getting ready to step up production this winter. "We're going to build a lot of them this winter. I'd like to say we're going to build 30 of them, which isn't really a lot because they're so easy to build, and they're real simple and there is really nothing to go wrong. On all of the ones we've built so far, we haven't had any issues at all. The engines have a three-year, 36,000 mile warranty on the drive train, but what else is there to break? You've got windshield wipers and headlights," he jokes.
"I love this car, I drive the red one back and forth everyday from Water Mill to Amagansett," he said pointing to one that he built with a right hand drive setup. "They're just so much fun and you don't have to worry about anything. The mini motors are really good and reliable and the suspension can be set to whatever you want."
"I want to definitely do something with crazy power to one of these, maybe horseshoe a 2009 Mini Cooper S motor in one of these," he said with a mischievous grin on his face. Coming from a guy who has worked on or driven just about everything under the sun, both on and off the racetrack, this isn't just talk, so don't be surprised to see Pilla in a "Super" Moke driving around this summer, dealing out reality checks by dusting Porsches and Ferraris. You can too, just give him a call.