Making the Mini into a marque

Today, the car’s name is spelled out in upper-case letters, an acknowledgement of its ownership by BMW since 2000. But in the early 1960s, the Mini, lower case, was a product of British Motor Corporation and had yet to prove its mettle on the field of global motorsport, despite hugely innovative advances in layout and packaging via its designer, Sir Alec Issigonis. Even in its high-performance guise as the Mini Cooper, the tiny Austin sedan still had a 1,275cc engine (and again, this was the big-displacement performance model) turned sideways in its front subframe, along with a transaxle powering the front wheels, a simplified hydrostatic suspension, and all four wheels forcibly pushed outward to the corners of the car. It rode on tiny 10-inch wheels. It was roomy, surprisingly agile and undeniably cute, but the Mini hadn’t proven itself in combat yet. Then along came the guy in this photo, Paddy Hopkirk, a native of Northern Ireland and hillclimb specialist who was hired by BMC to take the Mini rallying.

Then as now, Europe’s most prestigious competition for production-based automobiles was the grueling Monte Carlo Rally, contested off and on since 1911. By the time the Mini was introduced, the wintertime event had been recently been commanded by the likes of Hotchkiss, Sunbeam-Talbot and most recently, another front-drive curiosity, the Saab 96. For the 1964 running, BMC fielded a brace of Mini Cooper S sedans with Hopkirk as lead driver. Hopkirk started out from Minsk, the Soviet industrial city, where he snagged a can of Russian caviar to keep him fortified during the run. It quickly settled into a second-by-second struggle between the six-car Mini team and a stable of factory-backed Ford Falcon Sprints with V-8 power, engineered in part by Holman-Moody, which ran Ford’s NASCAR team out of Charlotte. The battle was joined for real at the icy, dead-of-night Col de Turini mountain stage across the French Alps, where the Mini Cooper’s superior control despite limited grip allowed Hopkirk to erase a 14-minute advantage that the lead Falcon held during that one stage. Hopkirk’s drive instantly became the stuff of Monte Carlo legend, and led to an overall win by the tiny, underpowered upstarts from Great Britain. Hopkirk was immediately lionized as a British national hero, earning a handwritten postcard from the Beatles welcoming him as the group’s unofficial fifth member. The Mini, the Beatles and Hopkirk all became British icons during the same unforgettable era, and Mini Coopers would sweep two of the next three Monte Carlo events, the sole departure being the 1966 rally, when the three leading Mini Coopers were disqualified for using non-dipping single-beam headlamps instead of production units, a regulatory bungle that stands alone among Monte Carlo Rally controversies. Now 87, Hopkirk is an elder statesman of both BMW-owned MINI and British motorsport, having eased the way for other Ulstermen in racing including John Watson and Eddie Irvine, both of whom enjoyed significant success in Formula 1.

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