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Ulsterman Hopkirk recalls that astonishing victory in the Monte Carlo Rally


 Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon during the triumphant Monte Carlo Rally in 1964

Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon during the triumphant Monte Carlo Rally in 1964

The famous Mini is still in pretty good nick today

The famous Mini is still in pretty good nick today

Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon during the triumphant Monte Carlo Rally in 1964

FROM Minsk to Monte Carlo in a Mini Cooper. The story of Paddy Hopkirk's David versus Goliath victory 50 years ago was the stuff of legend and turned the fun-loving Ulsterman into a household name.

It also changed the face of the British motor industry, elevating the biscuit box Mini from a thing of curiosity into the must-have car for everyone from the Beatles to city bankers.

"When Alex Issigonis designed the car for the old BMC company they saw it selling to district nurses and suburban housewives," laughs Hopkirk, now 81-years-old and as incorrigible as ever.

"After Monte Carlo everybody wanted one and it started the whole rage for small front-wheel-drive cars."

Coming nine years after Ronnie Adams had become the first Ulsterman to win the Monte, Hopkirk's victory was, and still is, the most talked about in the history of the world's most famous rally and, 50 years on, will be celebrated next Saturday with a gala dinner in Belfast's Titanic Quarter.

Why was it so special? Partly because the little Mini, with its cross-mounted engine of not much more than 1000cc, was such an unlikely rally car at a time when bigger was deemed to be better and partly because of the sheer force of Hopkirk's personality. He was every PR man's dream – and their worst nightmare.

Articulate and intelligent, a product of Trinity College in Dublin, he might have struggled to fall into line with the corporate speak of today's drivers and was known to "enjoy" himself. But contrary to perceptions at the time of an enthusiastic "gentleman driver", Hopkirk was an experienced and admire professional who had finished third on the 1962 Monte in a Sunbeam Rapier.

He was carefully selected by BMC to link up with Finns Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Makinen to form one of the finest rally teams of all time. Initially he drove a powerful Austin Healey 3000 for them, finishing second on the 1962 RAC Rally of Great Britain.

But it was the Mini which was to launch his career to a different level, his first association with the dinky car coming in January 1963 when he drove a 997cc Cooper to sixth place on the Monte.

Just months later, and with a more powerful 1071cc engine, Hopkirk won the Tulip Rally in Holland and followed up with third place, first in the touring car class and, on handicap, the outright winner of the Tour de France.

It was all building nicely towards the team's top target – the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.

Much more than it is today, the Monte was a huge event then, attracting over 250 drivers and factory teams from Europe and America.

Ford, for instance, entered six of their massive V8 Falcons, hiring racing stars like F1 World champion Graham Hill, Jo Schlesser and Bo Ljunfeldt to drive them, and Chrysler sent a team of three equally powerful Plymouth Valiants from Detroit led by US champion Scott Harvey.

There was also the considerable figure of Erik Carlsson, the Swedish master who had won for Saab in the previous two years and was joined in the team by his wife Pat, the sister of Stirling Moss.

The format then was so different, too, with drivers choosing their starting points from cities like Oslo, Lisbon, Frankfurt or even Monte Carlo itself. All had to complete a route of more than 2500 miles before converging on Reims in France for the final push to the Mediterranean.

The BMC team decided to spread their hand by selecting three starting points for their star drivers and Hopkirk plus navigator Henry Liddon ended up in Minsk in Soviet-era Belarus along with legendary BBC commentator Raymond Baxter, who was also driving a Mini in company with Paddy's fellow Ulsterman Ernest McMillan.

Paddy remembers it mostly for the bitter cold, an awful hotel, even worse food and the giant tin of Beluga caviar he swapped for some ladies nylon stockings he had brought with him!

"The intention was to sell it to the chef at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. It was worth more than the prize money for winning the rally," he explained.

"It was minus 20 but felt like minus 50," he says. "It was so cold we couldn't start the cars and they had to be towed round the square to the bemusement of the locals who had never seen Minis before and thought this was the normal way to start them."

He remembers, too, the fur-hatted soldiers manning road junctions, standing like frozen statues, as they passed and being "heartbroken" as people pushed notes into the car pleading: "Take us with you – get us out of this place."

Despite the bitter cold, the snow and the difficulty of navigating in Russia, Hopkirk and Liddon progressed safely down through Poland, Holland and Germany, rendezvousing with their BMC service team at predetermined points along the way, and on towards Reims before the all-important speed tests through the Alps.

It took three days of day and night driving, Liddon taking spells at the wheel while Hopkirk slept, and they were sustained by a diet of Heinz self-heating soup and tins of Shippham's Chicken Supreme supplemented by biscuits, chocolate and Lucozade.

"Unlike the current drivers we didn't have our own first-class chefs or dieticians to prepare our food, we ate what we carried or what was given to us along the way."

But like modern day rallying, Hopkirk knew what lay ahead. He and the BMC team had spent a week in Gap, in the south of France, checking out the route – in effect, preparing pacenotes as they do today – but there was less snow than expected. It was bad news for the Minis – dry roads would favour the more powerful Fords and Chryslers.

Yet Hopkirk still managed to keep pace with the Falcon of Ljunfeldt and the Saabs of the Carlssons, arriving in Monte Carlo with a 30-second lead based on the 'factor of performance' – although he didn't know it.

"There was no electronic timing in those days and the time cards had to be brought back and calculated by hand so no one knew exactly what the positions were," he recalls.

It was so close that Paddy, awakened to be told he was the outright leader of the Monte Carlo, couldn't be persuaded he wasn't just winning his class!

All that remained were a series of three-lap races around the Monaco GP circuit and although the Mini was out-powered by Ljunfeldt's Falcon, which swept past the Carlssons, Hopkirk used every ounce of his skill and tenacity to maintain his lead.

A Sunday night at the London Palladium appearance – complete with the car – in front of a live Sunday Night television audience of millions, served to hammer home the message, as did telegrams from the Prime Minister Sir Alex Douglas-Home and even the Beatles.

Astonishingly, it later emerged that Hopkirk might never have won the rally but for his quick-thinking.

Navigating their way through Paris en route to Reims, Hopkirk and Liddon made a mistake, proceeding up a one-way street where they were confronted by an angry gendarme. He demanded their rally road book to record a breach of traffic regulations – an offence which carried disqualification.

But Paddy is nothing if not sharp. He smoothly explained his mother had died back in Ireland – 'ma mere est morte' – and they had already abandoned the rally to return home to attend the funeral.

The sympathetic policeman let them go.

How Paddy would have loved to see the policeman's face when he read in L'Equipe that an Irishman called Hopkirk had won the Monte Carlo Rally!

And the Minsk caviar? "We ate it, washed down with champagne and vodka at the victory party," he laughed. That's Paddy Hopkirk, a winner with style and panache.

Belfast Telegraph