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50 years since Mini won Monte

2014-01-27 11:26

MINI COOPER: Paddy Hopkirk (right) and team mate Henry Liddon stand proud next to the Mini that won the Monte all those years ago. Image: Newspress

LONDON, England - A big victory for the small car: 50 years ago the original Mini won the then gruelling Monte Carlo Rally for the first time. Paddy Hopkirk made the tiny British car a motor-sport legend in January 1964.

Timo Mäkinen and Rauno Aaltonen repeated the triumph in 1965 and 1967.

Gallery: When Mini won at Monte

Small car, huge win: it is now 50 years since one of the most spectacular victories in the history of international motor sport. On January 21 1964, a Mini Cooper S won the Monte Carlo Rally for the first time. It was the pairing of Northern Ireland’s Paddy Hopkirk and his co-driver Henry Liddon that pulled off the big surprise, resisting the supposed superiority of significantly more powerful rivals in their tiny British car.

Its faultless run over country roads and mountain passes, ice and snow, tight corners and steep gradients laid the foundation for the underdog-turned-giant-slayer to cement itself in the hearts of the public and the annals of motor sport legend. Indeed, the classic Mini’s dominance of the Monte Carlo Rally continued over the years that followed, Hopkirk’s Finnish team mates Timo Mäkinen and Rauno Aaltonen adding two overall victories – 1965 and 1967.

Now 80, Paddy Hopkirk’s eyes still light up when he recalls the driving qualities of his winning car: “Although the Mini was only a little family saloon, technically it had a lot of advantages. Its front-wheel drive and front-mounted transverse engine were a great advantage

We were very lucky – the car was right, everything happened at the right time and came together at the right moment.”


It was the legendary “Night of the Long Knives”, the penultimate stage of the Monte, which put the Mini Cooper S with car number 37 and the now famous licence plate 33 EJB on course for victory that winter of 1964. Hopkirk crossed the finish line just 17 seconds off the pace set by his chief adversary Bo Ljungfeldt in the far more powerful V8-powered Ford Falcon.

The handicap formula at the time – designed to even out the weight and power differences between the various cars – meant the classic Mini actually led the way in the overall standings. And Hopkirk defended his advantage in the sprint through the streets of Monte Carlo that rounded off the rally. At the winner’s ceremony he shared the cheers of the crowed with his team mates. Timo Mäkinen’s fourth and Rauno Aaltonen’s seventh overall set the seal on the success of the Mini Cooper S and ushered in the era of the “Three Musketeers” in the Monte Carlo Rally.

The classic Mini’s victory was celebrated with particular excitement in its native Britain. Hopkirk received a congratulatory telegram from the British government and the Beatles were also among those leading the applause.

The triumph of the classic Mini in the Monte was lauded as a sensation by motor sport fans around the world. But this wasn’t a success that came entirely out of the blue: the small car developed by Alec Issigonis, then deputy technical director at the British Motor Corporation, possessed an inherent. The first person to spot this potential was John Cooper, sports car designer and driving force behind of the more powerful version of the car.

The Mini produced only 25kW at launch, but its front-wheel drive, lightness, wide track and comparatively long wheelbase made it an extremely agile four-seater and paved the way for its forays onto race circuits and rally courses.


As early as 1960, big-name racing drivers Graham Hill, Jack Brabham and Jim Clark were spotted testing the cornering flair of the John Cooper-tuned small car on the Silverstone Formula 1 track. However, the classic Mini was most at home in rally racing. Pat Moss, sister of GP driver Stirling Moss, piloted it to wins in the Tulip Rally and Baden-Baden Rally in 1962.

And by the following year, the diminutive British car was ready to burst into the public consciousness at the Monte Carlo Rally. Preceding years had been a tough learning experience for the works team, but now they would make people sit up and take notice. Rauno Aaltonen and Paddy Hopkirk drove the 41kW Mini Cooper to a 1-2 finish in their class, which was good enough for third and sixth places overall.

It was clear that the classic Mini was better equipped than any other car to pull off the classic David vs Goliath act. John Cooper had long suspected that the car had what it took. Back in 1959 he instructed Roy Salvadori to drive a prototype to the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. The journey itself turned into a race between Salvadori and fellow racing driver Reg Parnell at the wheel of an Aston Martin DB4. The result confirmed what Cooper had foreseen: the Cooper-prepared classic Mini arrived an hour earlier than the much more powerful Aston.

Identifiable from a distance with their tartan red bodywork and white roof, the six small racers dispatched by the BMC works team for the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964 were – at least on paper – fighting against the tide again. The Mini Cooper S lined up at the start for the first time. Its new four-cylinder engine now had an increased 1071cc capacity and output had also been boosted to around 67kW. This was a lot more than in previous years but still modest in the face of competition from the likes of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SE and Ford Falcon, whose six-cylinder and V8 units had three or four times more power.

The 33rd edition of the Monte Carlo Rally began – as was traditional at the time – with a nod to the origins of the event, the cars starting from nine European cities before converging on the French city of Reims. The Hopkirk/Liddon partnership got their journey with the Mini Cooper S under way in Minsk, while for Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose the Monte adventure started in Oslo, and Timo Mäkinen and Patrick Vanson set off from Paris.


The classic Mini successfully negotiated all these journeys and all six works cars were able to take their place in the 277-strong field in Reims. The first stage of the rally to Saint-Claude brought together the two cars which were to define the 1964 Monte from start to finish. Bo Ljungfeldt roared to the top of the time sheets in his Ford Falcon, but Paddy Hopkirk remained hot on his heels in his Mini Cooper S.

The next leg of the rally was made up largely of flat-out sections, but Hopkirk refused to let his big-engined rivals build up a decisive advantage. The “Night of the Long Knives” would become the day of reckoning; this was the classic Mini’s chance to demonstrate its talents to the full. Hopkirk said: “It was quite snowy that year, so we had done a lot of practising and preparing. The Mini was particularly good downhill, and all the tests were up and downhill, so what we lost going up, I think we made up for going downhill.”

Irresistible handling, correct tyre choice, Hopkirk’s gifts at the wheel and the snow – which slowed the bigger cars – all came together and ensured that Hopkirk was able to take over the lead on the 1607m Col de Turini. However, it remained a tight contest all the way to the finish, with Bo Ljungfeldt, as expected, again posting the fastest time on the final stage through Monte Carlo. However, Hopkirk was squeezing everything from his Mini Cooper S once again and hung on to his advantage to wrap up the win.


Hopkirk said: “It’s not like rallying today when you know where you are. I had to do the final circuit, then the journalists told me I had won and I couldn’t believe it. It surprised the world and us, so it was very nice."

The most impressive and also most dramatic Monte Carlo Rally for the “Three Musketeers” was in 1966. Mäkinen, Aaltonen and Hopkirk dominated the event from the start, and it was in this order that they completed a clean sweep of the top three positions overall at the finish.

Public enthusiasm for the quicksilver classic Minis appeared to be boundless – as was the disappointment when the French race commissioners revealed their decision to disqualify the trio on account of lights that allegedly did not conform with official regulations. This was also the reason given for removing the fourth-placed Lotus Cortina from the classification, which meant that the Finnish Citroën driver Pauli Toivonen was crowned the winner.

The dream of a Monte hat trick lay in tatters, but in the winter of 1967 Hopkirk, Mäkinen and Aaltonen lined up alongside two other BMC works teams for the Monte and this time neither the rules nor the other cars could stand between the Mini Cooper S and victory.

Hopkirk finished the 1967 Monte Carlo Rally sixth and drove the classic Mini to fifth overall in 1968; Aaltonen was third. However, the era of the small car that stormed to the summit of rally racing was clearly approaching an end. Its rivals had grown just too powerful and the sporting zenith of the classic Mini was now behind it.

Memories of that famous triumph in the winter of 1964 will forever burn bright and the “Three Musketeers” wrote an indelible chapter into the history of motor sport.
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