Adventures with a Nimrod – the car designed by a cartoonist

Mike Jupp is a man of many talents.

Not only is he an internationally renowned cartoonist, famed for his elaborate jigsaw puzzle designs, the creator of ‘90s TV shows The Dreamstone and Bimble’s Bucket, he’s also responsible for designing the Ray Jay Nimrod, a quirky little Mini-based car.

And 46 years after production car number one was completed by his friend Ray, Mike still owns the car he styled as the swinging Sixties breathed its last.

“It was,” he says, “a time when everything seemed possible, a great time with the excitement and dreams of what life could be.

“It was at about the same time as I designed the Nimrod that I came up with the idea for The Dreamstone.

Something in the air

“There must have been something in the air at that time, or whether it’s about being young and idealistic, and your imagination can stretch.

“There are one or two things I’ve done in my life I’m so pleased about. I came up with an idea for a TV series and eventually watched it, and I came up with an idea for a car and, thanks to Ray, I eventually drove it. More than four decades later, it’s in my garage so I can still show it to people.

“I love it and I will never sell it. When I look through its windscreen, I see a road connecting me to my distant past!”

Now 70 and living in Bognor Regis, Mike never set out to be a car designer but, while working in his first ever job, as an artworker on a local Chichester newspaper, he was approached by two “likely lads”.

It was the start of the kit car revolution, with small companies springing up across the country turning out eccentric designs and encouraging people to build their own cars to avoid purchase tax.

“I was 20 years old and these two blokes connected to the paper, the boss’s son-in-law and his mate, asked me if I could design a car,” says Mike.


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‘I’m a cartoonist, not a car designer’

“I said ‘why, I’m a cartoonist, not a car designer’, but then I looked out of the window at the passing traffic and thought, ‘Oh! I dunno though…’

“According to them, and based on the fact that everyone in Britain was making kit cars, they declared that within six months we’d have made hundreds of cars and that I would be a millionaire!”

Initially, Mike was sceptical, but he soon began drawing, with a brief to design a fun, beach buggy-style car.

“There was one vehicle that always interested me when I was a kid and still does, which was the amphibious Volkswagen Schwimmwagen,” says Mike, a vehicle based on the VW Beetle and used extensively by the Germans in World War II.

“I used the Schwimmwagen as an influence on the design. That’s why it’s got a slight boat shape to it.

“It’s designed so it could have been amphibious, but we didn’t have the money to make it float.

“When I take it to car shows I usually get the question ‘is it amphibious?’ I say ‘yes it is…for about a minute, then it sinks!’”

Six months after he had first drawn the Nimrod, not only was Mike not a millionaire, but no-one had been found to build the cars.

Ray Jay the genius

“That’s when the ‘likely lads’ got Ray involved,” says Mike. “He was an expert carpenter and engineer. Without his genius the car would never have existed.

“He translated my drawings, which were just visuals, nothing more, nothing like drawing office blueprints.”

With Ray on board, working from his parents’ farmhouse in Birdham, West Sussex, the mechanics of the two-seater and its fibreglass shell gradually started to come together.

Ray found a local firm to make the chassis while he began to construct a prototype vehicle, which was not even half-finished when the pair who had originally proposed the idea withdrew from the project.

“They gave up and disappeared, leaving poor old Ray holding the baby,” says Mike.

Rather than abandon the Nimrod – Mike contrived the name from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variation, part of the word Mini reversed and the rod from hot-rod – Ray decided to put the car on the road himself.

“I got a loan and paid Ray £250 to build me a car,” says Mike, whose incredibly detailed “I Love…” series of jigsaws are among the most popular in the world.

“Every weekend for two or three years my buddy Graham and I would go over to Birdham to witness painfully slow progress, because Ray had to earn money as well as continuing with the Nimrod project.”

In 1972, three years after those initial drawings, Ray had produced a 997cc prototype, then about a year later, Mike’s own brand new car was ready, fitted with a 1275cc engine from a Mini Cooper.

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I was in this dreamworld

“I didn’t really sink in that I was going to get a brand new car based on my design – I was in this dreamworld of a being a 20-year-old when it started,” says Mike.

“Only when Ray got halfway through construction did I really start to believe.

“When it was finished, it felt surreal to be actually driving something that started out as a scribble on bit of paper, and that was all down to Ray.”

The finished car, in white fibreglass nearly half an inch thick, featured a box frame chassis with a marine plywood floor and a roll bar made of scaffolding tube.

The subframe is standard Mini, while the fuel tank and rear swinging arm suspension are from a Mini van, rear springs from a motorbike, headlights from a Vauxhall Viva and tail lights from a Peugeot.

Ray produced another half dozen cars before selling the project to Nigel Talbott, whose company TACCO had built up to 10 more when production ceased in 1986.

To drive, Mike says the Nimrod is quicker than the Mini Cooper on which it is based, thanks to its light weight.

‘A Mini would be boring’

“I would not want to get in a Mini after being in the Nimrod,” he says. “A Mini would be boring. The handling is also better because it’s lower; it goes round corners like a slug on rails without any of the body roll you’d get with the taller Mini.”

Mike didn’t hold back when it came to putting his new car to the test, in 1974 taking it – along with a trailer and his friend Graham – on a road trip around Transylvania.

“I have strange ideas and I rope other people into them,” says Mike. “Why did I go? As mountaineer George Mallory said of Everest, ‘because it’s there’. Unlike poor old Mallory, the Nimrod made it back home!

“When you’re young you don’t consider the fact that the car might blow up, you might get shot or you might never come back home.”

The pair travelled by Motorail to the former Yugoslavia, before driving around the central Romanian region, then under the rule of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, with the Nimrod pulling a small trailer “mostly full of corn flakes and powdered milk”.

“They had hardly any cars over there, let alone a Nimrod,” says Mike. “I was proud of my ultra-cool Hot Car and Custom Car magazine stickers, which were all over the car. Well, they were all over the car but, on our very first overnight stay, they were peeled off and nicked by thieving natives.

“Strangely, I remember the item the locals wanted most from Graham and I was razors.

“I had an auto-reverse tape sound system in the back of the car, which broke almost as soon as we drove off the train.

“I had a case full of brand new cassettes – Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Yes, Deep Purple etc – and we got to this village and were immediately surrounded by a couple of hundred people all looking at the Nimrod.

“There was a bloke with a ghetto blaster. He only had one old naff cassette, the Red Army Choir or something. Anyway, I said ‘you may as well have this lot then mate’. He nearly died. One minute he’s got one ancient Soviet sing-along nonsense tape, then instantly, he’s got Western cool-dude hip stuff.”


A series of articles on our Cult Classics site.

Curious little car

The curious little car coped well with the journey, apart from the trailer suffering a snapped leaf spring near the medieval city of Brașov, ringed by the Carpathian mountains.

“We were more than 1,000 miles from home – I’d seen two beautiful girls and had put my foot down. I forgot we had a trailer until I saw it bounce up, and then rapidly down again, in my rear view mirror, followed by a loud ‘crack’ as the spring snapped. Oh dear!” says Mike. “We had a big Union Jack on the back, and while limping through a village towing a badly-listing trailer, a native appeared and shouted, ‘Hey, English! Stop! I help you!’ What with, I thought, chewing gum and a nail?

“But he had a full oxy acetylene / arc welding kit with him, he fixed the spring and it got us back home. Apart from that, mechanically, nothing went wrong at all.”

A year later, while working at Park Lane in London, in an office close to the Dorchester Hotel, Mike used the Nimrod to tow an 1898, eight-seater Danish stagecoach  / wagonette he and Graham owned into central London.

“It was wanted as a Christmas exhibit outside the Dorchester, so I pulled the carriage on a 16-foot trailer from Bognor Regis to the Dorchester, and picked it up from there a week later at about 9pm,” says Mike.

“I didn’t get back home to West Sussex until about 4am, and I certainly didn’t realise that I had forgotten to screw up the trailer’s jockey wheel, or that it was scraping along the ground.

“By the time we went over the swing bridge at Littlehampton, the jockey-wheel had been reduced to a white-hot stump, producing a shower of sparks that were spraying out from the back.

Phantom stagecoach

“Waiting on the other side of the mist-shrouded bridge were two rozzers parked in a cop car, and all they could see was what looked like a phantom stagecoach, with no horses but a huge shower of sparks which went past them, 10 feet in the air doing about 35 mph. They couldn’t see the little Nimrod towing it.

“They stopped me, obviously.”

Mike was also pulled over by police in the East End of London.

“The copper closed his hands behind his back and with knees bent, said ‘oh you are driving it? I thought you were taking a bath in it sir’,” remembers Mike.

Soon, Mike was swapping London for Holland, then California, his freelance work in advertising and publishing landing him a job art directing a Dutch TV cartoon show at the Mill Valley Animation studio in Novato, Marin County, where he was introduced by studio owner Jerry Smith to Smith’s friend, George Lucas.

All of which ultimately led to Central Television commissioning The Dreamstone, the cartoon TV series he had thought up while designing the Nimrod.

Based in The Land of Dreams, the show centred on the struggle between The Dream Maker and the dragon-like Zordrak, Lord of Nightmares.

It ran for four series, 52 half-hour episodes between 1990 and 1995, after which Mike co-created Bimble’s Bucket and art directed a new, CGI version of The Wombles before the project ran into financial difficulties with only four of 52 planned episodes completed.

Mike’s travels meant that the Nimrod was used sparingly for many years but, with the artist settled in his hometown of Bognor Regis and working on another epic jigsaw design, the car is back in regular use, delighting and amusing young and old.

“A few years ago, I was driving through Felpham village and stopped at traffic lights,” he says. “There was a group of kids coming out from a nearby school, and a big red Ferrari came alongside, the driver wearing a gold Rolex watch and black Ray Bans, accompanied by a stunning blonde woman.

‘Soppy little bit of plastic’

“All these kids were going ‘look at that!’ I assumed they were looking at the Ferrari, but they were looking at my soppy little £250 bit of plastic. I’ve never seen a Ferrari go away so quick – the look on his face was priceless.”

And that’s the very essence of the Nimrod – fun, and it’s one big reason why Mike has never let it go.

“The greatest thing you can say about the Nimrod is that it’s fulfilled the brief – it is a fun car,” he says. “People laugh with it and not at it. It’s also proof that my youth actually happened as I can still drive it.”

Mike’s daughters, Merrin and Eleanor, will one day inherit the Nimrod, having both experienced its unique joys as children.

“They loved it,” he says. “Though Merrin isn’t too keen now because she says everyone looks at her, but Eleanor says she wants it…because everyone looks at her!”

Come January, the little car will undergo something of a transformation, with not only a much-needed new roof but also a wrap featuring his own Dreamstone dragon creation, Zordrak.

“The typeface I found is called Dragon Slapper, so that’s what I’ll called the car – it’s a great name, and better than the Juppmobile,” he says.

“I’ve had it 46 years and I’ve still not quite finished it. I want to get the engine bay pimped out really nicely too.”

It’s somewhat fitting that two of Mike’s proudest achievements, The Dreamstone and the dream car, will soon be joined together.

A cartoonist, not a car designer? Don’t you believe it.

* The one and only exhibition of Mike’s work (hopefully including the Nimrod) will be held at The Oxmarket Gallery, East Street. Chichester from October 30 to November 4, followed by an auction of original artwork, including his popular jigsaw puzzle designs, at The Henry Adams Auction House, Chichester, on the November 8.

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