Rejected by the Army, the Moke became a symbol of the swinging Sixties, reports Giles Chapman

Funny, really, that a vehicle intended to be dropped into enemy territory and then used as a nimble cross-country troop-carrier should, instead, finish up a rolling symbol of holiday freedom.

Funny, really, that a vehicle intended to be dropped into enemy territory and then used as a nimble cross-country troop-carrier should, instead, finish up a rolling symbol of holiday freedom.

Flat-panelled and more open-air than any sports car, the Moke - Australian slang for obstinate pony - was adopted as Britain's eccentric riposte to America's beach buggy. As carefree transport to the golden sands of the Mediterranean, it was ideal: sling in your towel, leap into the driving seat and off you went. Many also stayed in 1960s London, where Afghan-coated hippies shivered at the wheel as they waited at Notting Hill traffic lights.

Alec Issigonis, the Mini's creator, devised a military version shortly after he finished work on the ground-breaking saloon. A prototype was running by 1959, using a standard 850cc Mini front-wheel drive engine/subframe in a simple, lightweight body, officially called a "buckboard", that appeared to have been designed with Issigonis's set square. Mokes were intended to be stacked on top of each other, windscreens folded flat and wheels resting on the mudguards of the car below, so they'd be easy to pack into military transport aircraft.

The Moke was meant to be parachuted into combat, and then be light enough to be carried by four squaddies if conditions overwhelmed it. British army chiefs put prototype Mokes on trial in 1960, but their reaction was lukewarm. Its low ground clearance, 10in wheels and two-wheel drive hindered progress over anything much more arduous than wet grass.

The Royal Navy bought a handful but the Army stuck to Land-Rovers. An undeterred Issigonis built an experimental four-wheel drive "Twini Moke", with two engines and two transmissions giving 87bhp of power at each end. But military chiefs again spurned the Moke, maybe slightly concerned by the Twini's complexity, including its two gearlevers. Still, having splashed the cash developing the Moke, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) didn't want to waste it. So it went on sale in January 1964 as either an Austin or Morris Mini Moke and, with its open-sided canvas tilt/hood and storage lockers built into its sides, it was utilitarian.

The price was just £405, undercutting every other four-wheeled car on sale, for one simple reason: it wasn't actually a car. As the Moke came with just a driver's seat - and, indeed, just one windscreen wiper - Customs & Excise classified it as a commercial vehicle, on which no Vat was payable. It was barely capable of 65mph, took almost 22 seconds to hit 60mph, and was super-basic. There was one colour option: dark green.

The cunning bit was that, once you'd bought your Moke, you could turn it into a car by adding passenger seats, a wiper and flimsy sidescreens. About 90 per cent of Mokes were exported as beach cars and hotel taxis in hot countries.

They were fitted with all four seats, and Crayford Engineering, a British conversion company, did a roaring trade in export Mokes fitted with striped upholstery and a fringed Surrey top. It did find another niche, though: as a film and TV prop, where cameras could keep actors driving them engagingly "in shot". Mokes featured in cult ATV series The Prisoner, and in the amazing underground scenes in the Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun.

By 1967, the VAT man noticed the Moke's tax dodge and reclassified it as a car, raising the price by £78. UK sales were killed stone dead and in October 1968, British manufacture ended after 14,518 had been built (all but 1,467 exported), and the Moke tooling shipped to Sydney where Mokes had been assembled by BMC since 1966.

Once it had emigrated, lots of changes were made to make it attractive to local leisure markets, such as bigger 13in wheels and gutsier engines. As Australia's cheapest car at A$1,295, it was sold under the slogan "Moking is not a Wealth Hazard", and offered in cheeky colour schemes. In 1972 it was renamed the Leyland Moke, in 1974 came a pick-up version, and production rolled on for years. Leyland got the Australian Army to buy 500 of them and by the time it stopped in 1981, another 26,142 had been built. And nor was that the end for the stubborn little Moke.

Production shifted back to Europe between 1980 and 1994 and 9,277 more were made. The assembly plant was in Portugal and the Moke was used as a bargaining chip to sell Austin Metros there in the days before free EC trade - if you built cars in Portugal, the government granted a bigger import quota.

The car was in its element, but that didn't prevent one last act of Moke madness: the final example, in those most open of open cars, came with the bewildering option of air conditioning.

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