Lester Steventon's Mini Cooper odyssey began with a toy.
"I always wanted one of these. I had a Hot Wheels car when I was 10 years old," he said. His dream was to have the real thing some day, and today, his maroon, pocket-size 1965 Morris Cooper tucks inside his garage with room to spare.
He had scoured the Internet for years, looking for just the right Mini. "I wanted 10-inch wheels, the 1275cc motor, and if I could get the right-hand-drive, I would take it."
The car he finally found about four years ago was all of that and more. It was a well-traveled Australian version known as a Morris Cooper, which had been imported to California seven years ago, before being resold and shipped all the way to Pawtucket, R.I.
"This is truly an Australian car," Steventon said, noting the previous owner had re-badged it as an Austin Cooper. "I didn't know all the differences between an Austin and the other cars... the Australian cars in the mid-'60s were the only ones with roll-down windows," he said.
He sent the seller $5,000 as a down payment on the Mini and a friend agreed to pick up the car with his semi-trailer rig and bring it to Wichita for a small fee. "I was sweating because I had never seen the car... I gave my buddy the rest of the money and said if it's not a rust bucket, go ahead and give it to him," he recalled.
The car turned out to be the perfect basis for Steventon's talented hands. He disposed of the Toyota Celica GT bucket seats in the car in favor of period-correct British racing seats and had Unique Auto Trim match the charcoal upholstery with red piping on the back seat.
He completely rebuilt the clutch assembly and installed a brand new 1.75 SU carburetor on the engine, which breathes through a racing header and a stainless steel exhaust system. He installed a completely rebuilt 4-speed transmission from Seven Mini Parts in California. He also added more highway-friendly gears to the differential so the car can cruise at speeds of 75 mph or better.
Steventon decided the car needed a Union Jack design across the top and had A-Plus Auto & Truck Repair spray the roof white for the background for the English flag decal.
"Nobody would have understood an Australian flag up there," he said, grinning. He also installed a complete new wiring harness in the car and freshened up the racing suspension underneath it. Steventon has run the car in some local parking lot events and says, "It is so quick in the corners."
"You draw a crowd in it," said Kelly Decker, Steventon's longtime girlfriend, who drives a "new Mini" of her own. "The right-hand drive freaks people out... they can't figure out who's driving the car," she said.
Steventon said he once was stopped by a police officer who mistakenly thought his 12-year-old nephew was driving the car.
Negotiating local traffic in a car with the steering wheel on the "wrong side" of the dash isn't all that difficult, he said. "I operated heavy equipment for 12 years, so I can drive about anything," he said.
The diminutive Morris Cooper rides on an 80-inch wheelbase, measures only 4-foot-6-inches wide and 4-foot-5-inches tall and weighs in at 1,398 pounds. The engine clearly produces more than the 78 horsepower that the stock version generated, adding to the fun factor, he said.
"I'm a perfectionist. I will never be done with this car," Steventon said. A new set of stainless steel bumpers are due to arrive any day now, and the correct "Morris Cooper" badge will be going on, too. In fact, Steventon says he has become good friends with an elderly Australian salvage yard operator in the process of making his Hot Wheels Mini dream a reality.