When you’re the MD of one of the World’s greatest seating companies, and you’ve got the industry’s movers and shakers on speed-dial in your phone, chances are you’re going to run some kind of tricked-out demo car as your daily. For Cobra Seats’ Mark Dunsford, there could only ever be one choice for the morning commute – this eye popping, highly specced R56.
Mark Dunsford is a lot of things. A thoroughly nice chap, a family man, a hard-working entrepreneur AND the third generation of his family to make seats , but above all that, he’s a real petrolhead… with a genuine passion for BMW Minis in particular. Hence the fact that he chose this rather lairy little number to showcase his company’s wares to the unwashed masses.
“It all started on a trip to our US distributor really,” he beams enthusiastically. “I tried a track prepped R53 out there, and was simply blown away by the handling, grin factor and ability. I genuinely had no idea at the time that these Minis were so good. The second I got back to the UK, I vowed to get one.” He did, of course, and that project become Cobra’s beautifully specced Silver track car that you can also see in these pictures. We’re saving that feature for another day however! What brought Mark to this particular 2006 car though was simply a case of right hue, right wheels and right time! “I wasn’t massively struck on the R56 when I first saw it,” he continues. “I felt it lacked a little of the design purity of the earlier car, but that said, when this one came up locally on Ebay, in great condition, and with a set of 17” BBS rims bolted up, it did look the part. I found it hard to resist, really!” So, for a few hundred under £7,000, the custard cruiser was on its way back to Cobra’s Telford HQ, for what would be an impressive set of enhancements, centred, unsurprisingly, around a hand-crafted Cobra interior.
While Mark’s long-suffering design team started their preliminary sketches, things were already hotting up mechanically for the unsuspecting Mini. Having done many favours for industry chums over the years, word soon quickly spread that the R56 was to get a makeover – with the inevitable result that boxes of choice parts started to arrive from the great and the good of the tuning scene.
Engine mods began with the stylish and sonorous addition of a full Scorpion exhaust system, sensibly featuring a 100 cell Sports Cat in order to keep thing legal and above board. On the other side of the breathing equation, a Pipercross performance panel filter was added to ensure that balance was restored. Cobra has a long history of working with Forge Motorsport, so it’s also unsurprising to find many of the Gloucester tuner’s wares lurking under the bonnet, too. From the uprated intercooler, dump valve and coolant tank – right through to the hoses and strut braces. Each one not only adding a welcome aesthetic improvement, but also future-proofing the powerplant for what was to come – namely, a P-Torque map on the rolling road which was to elicit and impressive 247bhp at the flywheel. Now that will make the drive to work exciting.
As the famous tyre ad once sagely noted, power is nothing without control, So Mark and his team sensibly uprated the stoppers, in order to cope with this new-found grunt. A sizeable pair of 330mm 4-pot Brembos now sit out front, with a set of JCW grippers out back. Forge brake lines finish this capable pairing, adding a little extra pedal feel for good measure.
Wheels are always a tricky choice on a Mini, but here, Mark had a few well-connected mates to help him out. The car currently wears this stunning set of 8.5” x 18” Rotiform Forged monobloc VCEs, but has also proudly worn a set of Team Dynamics Imola rims in the past, too. In both cases, Yokohama Paradas, in 215/35/18 size, have been used. Keeping the wheels pointing exactly where Mark wants falls down to the useful combination of Powerflex bushes throughout the car along with KW Variant 1 coilovers – and a trick set of alignment figures aimed at making the might Mini unbeatable on Telford’s ‘B’ roads.
Then it was time to tackle the bodywork. Like all good projects, this one has evolved over time, including three rear spoiler changes, but it’s now at a point where Mark is finally happy… probably… The kit is obviously a JCW original, with the GP rear diffuser adding a little visual ‘oomph’. The addition of the 2013 LED DRLs, allied to the glass black roof does nothing to hurt the car’s aggressive appearance, as do the Orranje rear spoiler, tinted glass and rear lamps and privacy glass. While the car was at the bodyshop. Mark also got them to waft a little black over the intake, fuel cap, mirrors and door handles too. The resulting contrast works exceptionally well to my eyes – especially with the addition of carbon viper strips and nicely proportioned graphics.
Not a bad spec is it really? And for many people, that would have been a great place to stop. But, when you’re set on creating a rolling catalogue to dazzle the world with your interior design skills, then this was only the beginning. As you might have guessed from Cobra, it was the interior of this car that got the most attention in the end. Two custom Misano Anniversary Carbon seats were made up, featuring a stunning combination of the finest leather and Dinamica fabrics. Naturally, the rear perches were recovered to match with the same materials, before attention could be turned to the rest of the car. “This was, perhaps understandably, our favourite part of this build,” laughs Mark. “We simply stripped the interior down to a shell and started again. People know we do seats, but not everyone knows that we also offer a bespoke design and trimming service on any car. So what better way to demonstrate what’s possible?” This meant that the dash, doors, plus all A, B and C door pillar trims would need to come out, along with the headlining, in order to receive the Dinamica fabric. Then it was the turn of the steering wheel, gearshift and handbrake gaiter, before a set of leather bound, custom-cut Cobra mats were hand stitched. In all, at retail cost, there’s enough money spent here to fund a reasonable project all by itself, but the end result in a cabin ambience that feels a lot more Crewe than Cowley! The final finishing flourish was a full Vibe audio install, complete with flush mounted amp and sub-woofer in the boot, for those moments when the Scorpion playing its tunes at full chat just wasn’t enough.
“I am so grateful to everyone that has helped us with this car,” Mark continues. “I wanted to build something that I felt reflected what we do here at Cobra – something that was the best it could be, and using the best parts and brands available. Thanks to some very generous people who have helped with their products and time – I really think we have done that.”
It wasn’t only Mark that was impressed either. Lending the car to good friend – and multiple BTCC champ – Matt Neal, for use on the Team Dynamics stand at the Essen Show, brought home just how easy on the eye the resulting package is. “We did have to laugh about it,” Mark explains. “The Mini was in a hall surrounded by several of the latest Lamborghinis – several million quid’s worth, in fact – and yet the crowd was three-deep around the R56, while the Italian exotica was being ignored. I think Minis do that, don’t they? Everybody loves them!”
As with so many of these feature tales, and despite having fettled it to perfection, Mark has now moved this Mini onto a loving new home. Fear not though, it’s simply to make garage space for the ex-demo S56 that is now happily sitting in this car’s parking space. That new car maybe standard now, but based on previous form, it won’t stay that way for long – and rest assured, we’ll be back over to Telford the moment it breaks cover! “The next one has to be bigger and better, doesn’t it?” teases Mark with a knowing smile. Yes it does! And we have a cover waiting when you finish it!
Words: Paul Cowland. Pics: Nick Williams