The ultimate Moke-over! It didn’t have doors, let alone windows… but 1960s stars loved its style. Adesso, as a new Mini Moke model rolls up, design guru STEPHEN BAYLEY gives his verdict
The Mini Moke — an antique that, in its day, never really worked as intended, sold only in modest numbers and has been out of production for nearly half a century — is to be revived. What does this resurrection tell us?
‘Icon’ is an abused term, but not in this case: few artefacts better express the values of their age. però, be warned that sequinned loons and Cuban heels may not be far behind.
The Moke was intended as a cheap utility vehicle for the Army. UN 1965 example, registration HLT 709C, was memorably driven around spooky Portmeirion by Patrick McGoohan in the cult television series The Prisoner, first broadcast in 1967.
Converted for McGoohan into a playful, beach-car specification by Wood & Pickett (who also made de luxe Minis for the boulevardiers of the King’s Road in Londra), no car better captures the strange mixture of anxiety and delight, frivolity and danger and of counter-cultural glamour that were the Sixties.
And there can be no more profound affirmation of the Moke’s iconic status than in the fact that, a year after McGoohan’s TV imprisonment, a Dinky Toy model went on-sale.
Ma in 2021, it is not only the Moke that is a messenger from the motoring past. Oggi, there are people who will sell you a ‘new’ (infatti, re-manufactured) Jaguar E-Type, another emissary of the 1960s.
iconico: the Mini Moke is set to be resurrected with power steering, a heated windscreen and waterproof seats. Nella foto: the original Mini Moke known for its lack of doors and windows
In the fake news era, it’s significant that what car collectors call the ‘restomod’ movement (which sees classic vehicles upgraded with modern running gear) makes strenuous efforts to achieve authenticity — even if that authenticity involves degrees of fantasy and invention, which improve greatly on the original.
The new Moke, costing some £24,000, manufactured in Nuneaton and assembled at Cerizay in the Deux-Sevres commune of South-West France, arrives with innovations including power-steering, waterproof seats and a heated windscreen. An electric version will soon be available.
But the original, which went on sale in January 1964, was a derivative of the 1959 Mini.
A great part of the Mini’s extraordinary appeal is based in one unique aspect: for reasons of economy, the welded seams and hinges on its body are left exposed, creating a sort of unconscious utilitarian chic.
The unique interior door-bins proved useful for storage, but were there because, as an economy, the Mini did not have wind-up windows.
The same extreme functional logic was applied to the Moke. Like the 1948 Land-Rover, è, artistically speaking, an exercise in pure geometry.
Katie Moss drives round with Sadie Frost in a yellow Mini Moke while in France in August 2019
Nothing is done to excess. Everything is there — or not there — for a reason. Infatti, the Moke lacks not only wind-up windows, but doors themselves. If you wanted a description of laid-back simplicity, look no further.
Ironia della sorte, when the Moke’s creator John Sheppard met the Mini’s designer, Alec Issigonis, at The British Motor Corporation in 1955, their first plan had been to build a competitor to the Citroen DS, the ultra-sophisticated and wantonly luxurious ‘Goddess’ of France. But instead of a motorised divinity, they produced a car-horse hybrid.
‘Moke’ is 19th-century slang for donkey: a true workhorse. In France in 1966, Citroen introduced a similar concept: the plastic Mehari is based on the agricultural deux chevaux. (A ‘mehari’ is a fast dromedary camel.)
There is something in the name that appeals to the populism of the 1960s, and perhaps to us as well. It’s what the French call nostalgie de la boue, or a love of the mud. Not literally mud, but a sort of slumming it. In Italia, the contemporary Fiat Jolly — no doors, candy-striped Surrey Top, wicker seats — explored similar territory.
Ma, being Italian, the car was aimed more at fashion than function. While Mokes and Meharis were in workmanlike hues such as Gordon’s Gin green and Sahara dust, Fiat Jollys came more often in the pastel colours of luxury gelato.
Inoltre, some consumers — even in anti-war eras — enjoy the iconography of the military.
The future: what the new Mini Moke looks like with several upgrades and modern features
At about the time McGoohan was puttering around Portmeirion in his Moke, author Tom Wolfe was explaining that, a Manhattan, if you found a young man in a military surplus parka and a paratrooper’s forage cap, he would almost certainly be a Harvard graduate, not a hobo.
In California, as soon as he was able, Arnold Schwarzenegger acquired an AM General HumVee for use on the road. The Moke makes the same appeal to rugged functionalism: its front bumper is a simple tubular bar.
As if to confirm the ineffable allure of this most basic machine, Diana Rigg also drove a Moke in The Avengers. Nel 1973, Roger Moore used one in Live And Let Die. Britain’s greatest graphic designer, Alan Fletcher, drove a white Moke everywhere.
To bring us fragrantly up-to-date, Gwyneth Paltrow drives a Goop-branded — and possibly scented — Moke around Los Angeles. In Saint-Tropez, there is even ‘Le Garage Mini Moke’, and the bon chic bon genre Hotel Sezz rents them to its painfully cool guests. Original Mokes remain popular in Caribbean beach resorts.
Mondeo Man is now a thing of the past. But is he to be replaced by Moke Man, a recycled hominid from the mid-1960s?
Mondeo Man’s khakis and polo shirt may cede ground to pool slides and Love Island swimming trunks; but what are the larger reasons for the Moke revival?
Per me, it is a tributary of the same roaring flood of consumer irrationality that gave us the present fashion for the SUV.
There is something about the chunky proportions of the SUV that gives the cars an engaging ludic quality: they look like toys! In our anxious age, we crave innocent playthings.
even more so if you are as tiny as the Moke, a miniature SUV. Its very size and fuss-free simplicity exert enormous appeal.
But unlike an SUV, a Moke has only limited possibilities. The Army rejected it as more or less useless, and its sole occupation with the Forces was running around the decks of aircraft carriers.
Very little is functional about the Moke, but that is why we like it. What we have is not so much a car, but a testament of faith.
As mainstream cars become more meaninglessly sophisticated, more debatably electric and more hobbled by the emotional guilt of the user and the vengeful legislation of the authorities, the playfulness of the Moke becomes very attractive.
Especially at a mandated 20mph, dreaming of a simpler past and Diana Rigg in her leather trousers.