Mini Cooper S – The tale of an astonishing Monte Carlo Rally

Paddy Hopkirk, the Mini Cooper S and the tale of an astonishing Monte Carlo Rally

To those more accustomed to today’s era of fire-breathing, heavily modified four-wheel-drive rally cars producing many hundreds of brake horsepower, it might be hard to believe that a two-wheel-drive city car serving up less than 100bhp was ever capable of scoring overall victory on one of the world’s most iconic motorsport events. But the car that triumphed on the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally was no ordinary car, and in many ways, won because of everything it wasn’t.

What car could we possibly be talking about other than the simply immortal Mini? Although there are many explanations for the iconic nature of the current-day Mini brand, Northern Irishman Patrick “Paddy” Hopkirk and his co-driver Henry Liddon’s unexpected success on the notorious stages of the Principality unquestionably has much to do with it.

Today, the original ‘classic’ Mini has ceased production, having long been replaced with a modern hatchback under the ownership of BMW. However, it will forever remain a symbol of British ‘swinging sixties’ cool – a status to which it was arguably first elevated when Paddy crossed the line ahead of Bo Ljungfeldt’s much more powerful V8-engined Ford Falcon.

The victory that kick-started the Mini legend

It was a victory so historic as to also make Hopkirk himself a legend, as he received a telegram of congratulations from then-British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and even a signed photo from the Beatles – bearing the words, as the driver remembered years later, ‘You’re one of us now, Paddy’. He was even flown back to the UK for an appearance on Sunday Night at the Palladium with Bruce Forsyth and an interview with the BBC’s Raymond Baxter.

This kind of reception – which also led to Hopkirk touring the factories of the then-manufacturer of the Mini, the British Motor Corporation (BMC) – may shock those familiar with the more muted responses to today’s Monte Carlo Rally victories, but of course, these were very different times.

For one thing, the then-Monte barely resembled the modern iteration of the event with its centralised servicing and relatively short special stages. Instead, it was characterised by vast mileages and the competing crews starting with various European cities, including Paris, Minsk, Frankfurt, Glasgow, Athens, Lisbon and Warsaw. Then, there was the small matter of the small car that in theory at least, should never have been able to cope with its much more powerful rivals.

Compactness, lightness and agility – just some of the traits powering the Mini’s success

When the Mini had first been developed by BMC’s then-Deputy Technical Director, Alec Issigonis in the late 1950s, its ability on the rally stage was far from his first priority – or indeed, a priority at all. The onus had been on the creation of a practical and affordable means of urban transport, but the resulting vehicle – cleverly packaged and compact – also just happened to have traits lending themselves well to what would eventually be three Monte Carlo Rally victories.

One aspect of the original Mini that wasn’t so well suited to motorsport was its 34bhp engine, which explains why the Cooper S that BMC entered into the January ’64 event housed a tuned engine producing a much more promising 90bhp. However, it was still a surprise to many that such an unassuming car would hold its own so convincingly against cars that were as much as three to four times more powerful.

It was thanks to sports car designer John Cooper that the sporting potential of the Mini’s front-wheel drive orientation, modest weight and comparatively long wheelbase were spotted – but it was thanks to Hopkirk that by the time his four-cylinder, 1071cc charge reached the finish line of the rally’s penultimate stage, he was a mere 17 seconds behind Ljungfeldt. However, with the handicap formula then in place to equalise the power and weight differences between the various cars, Hopkirk was – in effect – at the top of the overall standings.

It was therefore simply left to Hopkirk and Liddon to complete the rally-ending sprint around the streets of Monte Carlo to confirm their victory. With BMC team-mates Timo Mäkinen and Rauno Aaltonen finishing in fourth and seventh places overall respectively, the age of the Mini-driving “Three Musketeers” had begun, with both pilots claiming their own overall wins in future editions of the celebrated event.

Seizing a momentous advantage on the “Night of the Long Knives”

From the moment Hopkirk and Liddon set off at the start of the event in Minsk, the crew were competitive with the leading Falcon, making good use of their Dunlop tyres. Even on the mile-long flat-out sections of the rally, the Mini’s bigger-engined rivals – also including the likes of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SE – were prevented from building up the kind of advantage that they would have been able to convert into victory.

It was, however, the famous Col de Turini stage where the rally was ultimately won for Hopkirk and Liddon. On what became known as the “Night of the Long Knives”, the fearsome 1,607-metre (5,270 ft) stage showed off the Mini’s agile handling at its best. Assisted by a great tyre choice, inspired driving and thick snow, the crew were able to gain the decisive advantage, setting up a victory that continues to be warmly remembered by motorsport enthusiasts today.

While, here at U Drive Cars, we unfortunately can’t put you behind the wheel of the Monte winner itself with its now-iconic number 37 on its front doors and 33 EJB licence plate on the bonnet, we can give one of the next best things – the chance to sample one of the rarest of all Cooper S Minis over six laps. The car in question is a 1970s Mk3 Cooper S, of which just 1,580 were ever built. Our example was fully restored in 2010 and remains a true pocket rocket, producing 76bhp and 72 lb ft of torque.

Much more importantly than all of this, however, is that our Mini is guaranteed to leave you with a big smile on your face – much as the immortal ’64 Monte-winning Cooper S did for Hopkirk all of those years ago!

  • Hawdd Cwyno

    I just love them and have one in a dehumidified garage!! 1967 89bhp 1293 with Jack Knight 5 speed helically cut Gear box.. priceless.

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