1968 - How It All Started
In the late summer of 1968 after various construction/competition adventures in different aspects of motor sport, John Houghton decided that what the world really needed most of all was a Mini based equivalent to the Lotus 7 in kit car format. The first requirement was a new suitable chassis unit designed to accept mini components and in particular the front sub frame complete with engine, suspension, the whole bit together with the rear suspensions units complete, but not the rear sub-frame.
(See the Construction page)
By mid-October the model and the chassis drawings had been completed when it was decided that it would be a great idea to launch The BIOTA at 1969 Racing Car Show at the end of January 1969. Not a lot more than three months away, with no premises, only a graph paper a quarter-scale chassis drawing, no facilities and virtually no money but a lot of friends who seemed to like the idea and who were not only prepared to be caught up in the designer’s enthusiasm, but were prepared to help and make their resources available at absolutely minimal cost. In addition John Houghton also had 24/7 time available.
The race against time began with the designer welding two chassis in the engineering workshop of a local technical college. This was achieved by drawing out the top and bottom frames full size on an 8ft. by 4ft. by 3/4 inch reinforced fair faced concrete shuttering board. (See Construction)
The first chassis complete with side body rails, rear body work and nose support frames plus that borrowed mini sub frame, together with full size ply-wood formers for all the curved aspects, was delivered to the panel beater in the latter half of December.
The second chassis complete with a good but second hand sub frame arrived at Hayselden’s VW outlet and comprehensive garage and workshop in Wath near Sheffield much too close to Christmas.
Fortunately Tom Hayselden, the owner had kindly and courageously offered to provide free workshop space, and preparing and spraying services to assist in completing the aluminium original, not only in time for the show, but also at minimum cost.
1969 - Getting On The Road
January '69 is not a month that John Houghton wishes to remember personally, save for what was achieved by a lot of very kind people (many in their professional capacity and some of whom were not even personally known), who gave unstintingly of their time support and expertise, and very often for no more reward than being involved and see the car and show stand equipment and artwork come to fruition in bringing another enthusiast’s dream to reality.
John had already been devoting 80 to a 100 hours a week to the project, which increased to 120 plus during that January, but which culminated in, via various numerous minor disasters in the car arriving on its’ stand, in bright yellow on the morning of press viewing day. The car was complete with a smartened up engine with any fancy bits that could be scrounged, but no exhaust system and had of course not turned any of its, borrowed beautiful new alloy wheels and tyres. This was after nearly closing the whole exhibition two days earlier.
John had assisted and even exhibited in a minor way at previous racing car shows and knew how tiring it was. What John did not know was that stands could only be erected and furnished by members of the appropriate union and at their London rates. Imagine the scene; two days before the opening of the show John is at Heyseldens near Sheffield, tired out and desperately trying to complete the car whilst Ron Wilkinson, the friendly long suffering joiner is at the exhibition hall, 200 miles away, with all the stand artwork etc. Mid-morning John receives a message to ring Ron urgently on a London number. The whole of the show preparation is at a standstill, the entire workforce will walk out if Ron so much as breathes on the stand let alone lifts a hand on it. John is finally able to draw breath, sets about calming Ron down and enquires if he has anyone with him, to whom John can speak. The ensuing conversation with an extremely positive senior union official was short and very much to the point and totally without options.
By this time John had recovered some of his wits, engaged brain, apologised profusely to the union official, asked for his help and to liaise with Ron who was armed with fairly good sketches and detailed instructions on planned stand requirements.
When the car finally arrived on the stand, it was found to be totally as planned if more expensive than had been allowed for.
The show itself was encouraging, although no actual orders were taken, a lot of interest, when will it be available, fliers, forecast price schedules handed out, and a great sigh of tired relief at the end of it. Friends rallied round with half days here and there and learnt to answer the most common and baffling question; why had The Biota been made longer than The Mini, (Biota actually some 70 mm. shorter). We were, after all, allowed to take down our own stand material, and so all returned home without further shocks or disasters.
- John Houghton
What next? After a lot of sleep recovery, thanking all involved at length and paying bills. The car needed to be seen on the road as quickly as possible and so registration became the next obstacle to be overcome after completing all the time consuming detail, the small matter of an exhaust system for instance, to create an actual road going vehicle.
Several events now happened quite quickly, first of all John’s old company in Thurcroft, agreed to make a corner of their premises with separate road access available at a peppercorn rent, the first employee, Barry Jackson, a fully qualified car mechanic started work, and the company began to get organised with some small pieces of equipment. At this time the buying of a £25 Wolfe griderette was a major decision and purchase. Although the organisation now had premises and staff, it was still short on equipment, so it was decided to take the car to Coldwell Engineering in Sheffield for bodywork refinements and some much needed and appreciated help and guidance from John’s very good friend and previous car-collaborator Bill Needham.
Meanwhile back at Thurcroft, the need for the company (at this time still Houghton Coldwell Ltd.) to start earning a living, as well as gearing up to build kit cars was of paramount importance. John already had acquired over previous years, lightweight BOC oxy acetylene gas welding kit and portable 240 volt electric arc welding equipment, to which was added a flux bottle and shutoff and relighting system to make the intermittent flux-less bronze welding of the chassis practical. This meant that lightweight steel construction and repair work as well as third dimension jig considerations could be undertaken utilising the first chassis, now available from the panel beater. The aluminium bodywork was stripped off and retuned to Peter Edley for modifications (see body work), and then rebuilt and re-sprayed ready for the road. All the other little details such as an exhaust system, wiring loom etc., were then sorted and tested, by driving up and down the drive to Bill’s Coldwell Engineering works. The temptation to have a little drive on the road was courageously resisted, but only just.
The next crucial milestone occurred towards the end of March 69 when a licensing appointment was made for the police to assess the Biota’s roadworthiness at Coldwell engineering, or so it was assumed with considerable nail-biting trepidation. In the event; a police sergeant and a constable duly arrived on time with notebooks at the ready and proceeded to ask a lot of searching questions as to how all the standard Mini components had come into our possession. Bearing in mind that this March 1969, all the police appeared to be interested in was how much of it we had stolen. They didn’t even bother to turn the steering wheel to see if it turned the front wheels and so the aluminium bodied prototype Biota legally (YWT 65G) leapt on to the road, as soon as the new number plates could be attached.
John had been involved in the initial testing of his own prototypes and those of others, but this was the first time he’d had the experience of legally testing his own creation on the road. So with the sensible precautions of a brave passenger and a support vehicle, off we drove into the wilds of Derbyshire, West of Sheffield, an indescribable, once in a lifetime experience (inadequate word) began. Gently at first, watching the gauges, getting the feel, and gradually increasing the confidence and speed. At this time the car was equipped with a Hayselden loaned 997cc race prepared Mini Cooper unit, which had previously powered The Black Lawnmower to considerable success, and meant that with the car’s low weight, low centre of gravity and shorter wheelbase, it was very stable, fast, quicker than the equivalent race mini, and much more fun. All of the test team had a turn behind the wheel with some surprise and a lot of enjoyment. There were lots of detailed improvements to be made, such as the transverse gate gear-shift position etc., but nothing broke or fell off, so we all returned to Sheffield well satisfied and highly delighted.
BIG problem; we appeared to have a good product, but zero resources, with which to develop into anything vaguely representing producing replicas let alone production.
- John Houghton
However that did not deter John from arranging to demonstrate the car to Richard Hudson-Evans of Hot Car at Snetterton. This resulted in an encouraging and complimentary article appearing in the May edition, having frightened Richard a little as well as the intrepid pilot, trying to hard on a circuit, at which John had only pit-crew experience.
- May through Summer
Demonstrating at every opportunity, advertising where economic and the posting of details and other flyers continue to anyone who showed the remotest interest. Towards the end of the Summer the desperately needed financial break came in the shape of a small quantity of inherited none saleable shares being involved in a take-over battle, which meant that the long intended opening of discussions, and negotiations with the Jackson brothers at Specialised Mouldings could at least begin by taking the Biota down to Huntingdon for them to assess as a mould making project.