The Belfast rally driver who won the Monte Carlo rally in a Mini Cooper
The 1969 movie The Italian Job is instantly memorable for its thrilling car chases in the narrow streets of Turin, with Michael Caine and his cronies attempting to make their escape in tiny Mini Coopers.
Perhaps the film’s director Peter Collinson got the idea from watching the skills of Belfast rally driver Paddy Hopkirk and navigator Henry Liddon, who five years earlier successfully got away from their pursuers to win the Monte Carlo Rally.
The 31 year old Hopkirk, who gained five victories in the Circuit of Ireland rally during an illustrious career and was inducted in the Belfast Telegraph’s Hall of Fame in January 2005, had already been involved in motorsport for some time – he began to drive at the age of nine when his next door neighbour gave him a Harding car.
Hopkirk loved tinkering with car engines and, as soon as he was old enough to drive on public roads, successfully rebuilt an old Austin 7. In 1955 he won an Irish rally championship, the Hewison Trophy, and moved on to the RAC Rally in England.
When the British Motor Corporation launched their new small town car, the Mini Cooper, they wanted it to be taken seriously, so moved into rally sport, hiring Hopkirk and several Scandinavian drivers to compete in the glamorous Monte Carlo event in 1964.
The red and white Mini Cooper S, registration 33 EJB, was one of 30 cars to start from the Belarus capital Minsk, the format of the rally being for competitors to converge on the French city of Reims from various European countries.
Once the competitors reached Reims they all drove the same special stages through the Alps into Monte Carlo.
‘I had done the Monte Carlo several times by then,’ remembered Paddy. ‘The challenge of driving through the mountains in ice and snow for three or four days was always an adventure.
‘You didn’t hang around. You drove as fast as you could to build up some time in case you met something uncertain’.
Once he had secured winning place, Hopkirk got to meet Princess Grace of Monaco. One wonders if he shared any smuggled contraband with the former Holywood film star as Hopkirk had bought some caviar in Russia with the intention of selling it in France. However, the winning team had a caviar party instead.
Back in Britain, the publicity generated by the success in Monte Carlo led to a special guest appearance for the car and its team on the television programme Sunday Night at the Palladium.
Interviewed by the BBC shortly after winning in Monte Carlo, Hopkirk remarked:
‘I’ve been knocking on the door of international rallying for some time. I’ve never won before and what better one to win than the Monte Carlo, since it’s my first one. I’m absolutely thrilled and I can’t believe it’s happened.’
In 1966, Hopkirk was part of the BMC team that took the first three places in the Monte Carlo, only to be disqualified because of an irregularity with their headlights.
In 1968, Paddy and his co-drivers Alec Poole and Tony Nash drove an Austin 1800 for the British Leyland team in the ten thousand miles London to Sydney Marathon, where they finished in second place.
The front passenger seat converted into a bed that allowed each member of the three man crew turns at getting sleep. Their diet was supplemented by whatever they could get along the way. Tins of pistachio nuts purchased in the Iranian capital Teheran added variety to the many cans of self-heating soup consumed en route.
In 1990, Hopkirk steered a Cooper S to victory in the Pirelli Classic Marathon but was out of luck in 1994 when he was forced to retire from the Monte Carlo Rally because of electrical problems.
He remembers how his life changed dramatically after his first Monte Carlo victory: ‘At that stage I was a professional rally driver, but with the Monte victory I could really use my name.’
Four decades later the trade name 'Paddy Hopkirk' is still riding high in car accessory shops throughout Britain and Ireland.
By Padraig Coyle