LURKING at the back of a workshop, covered in dust sheets and surrounded by battered old car panels, lies an extraordinary slice of automotive history.

To most, the dismantled shell of a lilac Morris Minor would not seem significant.

But this is the one millionth Moggie and the one millionth British car ever to role off the production line.

How this milestone Minor, chassis number 1,000,000, came to be at Shoreham Airport is a tale as amazing as the success of the car itself.

And it is a story that will soon be told to thousands of enthusiasts, thanks to a painstaking restoration project nearing completion.

Current owner Richard Elderfield did not realise its historical value when he stumbled on the decrepit Minor, one of 349 Millions to be made as a celebration by Austin Rover, then known as the British Motor Corporation.

Retired businessman Richard, 58, of Angmering, near Worthing, came across the car in the Welsh town of Penrhiwllan in 1971 where it had been driven into a ditch and left.

Dad and grandfather-of-two Richard said: "I was in the pub chatting to a guy I knew, who owned the car. I was not particularly interested in the car, but more in the number plate, which is 1 MHU, Greek for millionth.

"This guy wanted new central heating in his house, which I agreed to pay for in exchange for the Minor.

"My biggest problem was where to put it. I stored it for a while in a chicken shed before I came down to Sussex. But now I think it is important that the car, the first of the Millions, is restored to its original condition.

"When it's finished, I'm sure my sons will drive it around but hopefully it will end up in a museum for all to see."

On December 22, 1960, the mauve Minor rolled off the assembly line at BMC's giant Cowley works. It was a milestone to be savoured by the British motor industry, not least because the car itself had captured the hearts of the people from the day it was launched 24 years previously.

The millionth Moggie, with its 948cc engine and white leather seats, was used by the British Motor Corporation for publicity until April 1961 when it was passed to the National Union of Journalists.

The Union then handed it to the British Red Cross, which raffled it, and it was won by a young girl in Wales.

As she was too young to drive the Minor went to the firm owned by the girl's family and was eventually sold to a postman, by which time it had been painted red.

Now, more than three decades later, it is heading back to glory thanks to students at Northbrook College, at Shoreham Airport, and their course leader Derek Smith.

Mr Smith, a lecturer in body repair, has been working on the car for Richard for nearly four years, squeezing the intricate project in between routine college work.

So far, Derek has restored the car's body using traditional lead filling. Next he will fit body panels, including the wings and bonnet, before the car is painted in its original vivid lilac colour.

Then it's off to motor-racing legend John Cooper in Ferring, whose Minor collection is among the finest in the UK, to be fitted with the electrics, engine and the original tell-tale leather seats.

Derek, who lectures at Northbrook's automotive department, said: "Students have been involved in the project, but only to watch the techniques used. It would be too risky to let them work on it.

"It's a very exciting project. We have had to use traditional lead body solder filling to make it as original as possible and we have had to literally rebuild some panels that had decayed. We are really getting there now."

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