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Mini Cooper S

John Rhodes Mini Cooper S. Photo: Maureen Magee
John Rhodes Mini Cooper S. Photo: Maureen Magee

Having a father interested in motorsport, and him taking me to watch Tazio Nuvolari race at the 1938 Donington Grand Prix, directly led to my lifetime of involvement in the sport. Nuvolari really left an indelible impression on me. Initially, as a young boy, I emulated Nuvolari in my mind, even putting pieces of cardboard on the front forks of my bike, so when the wheel went ’round they caught in the spokes and made a sound like the great man’s car. Well, I believed it to be so. My serious racing career started later in life driving a Turner owned by John Handley, but this was entered in speed events and hillclimbs rather than circuit racing. After some success in those events, I ended up at the Midland Racing Partnership driving their Formula Junior car. As a young driver the aim, certainly in my day, was to be spotted by a team manager as a potential race winner. I was lucky enough to be picked out by Ken Tyrrell, but sadly he had already got Tony Maggs and John Love racing for him. Then Bob Gerrard came along and I raced his Formula One Coopers in Formula Libre events. I got a “Driver of the Day” award at Bob’s local circuit Mallory Park, and was one of the last recipients of the Goodwood Trophy—just before the circuit closed. Emulating my hero, Tazio Nuvolari, Bob entered me in the 1965 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The three big names of the sport took the first three places; Jim Clark won in the Lotus, Graham Hill was 2nd in the BRM and John Surtees completed the podium in his Ferrari. I managed 38 laps before retiring with ignition problems. Although I was in tremendous company, I didn’t feel out of my depth at all, even though I qualified last on the grid.

Having said all the above, the car I became synonymous with was the Mini Cooper, a simply great racing car. I got the drive after talking to John Cooper and pleading with him to let me “have a go” in the same car Maggs and Love were driving. It was a very strange feeling at first, the power and handling of the Mini Cooper S were a lifetime away from the Formula One car I’d been driving for Bob Gerrard. The one thing I really remember was the car didn’t brake very well, so I ended up sliding it through the corners in a complete drift. Dunlop hated this style of driving, but it worked for me and entertained the crowd—“Smokey Rhodes” they called me due to the amount of fog coming from the squealing rubber of my Mini Cooper S. I always felt at home driving the Mini, it is always a great feeling when car and driver become one—that was the feeling I got with my car. My driving style allowed me to keep up with cars that had far more muscle and grunt in the engine department than I had. They could pull away on long straights, but I could catch them in the twisty bits and the corners; much to their displeasure. Success came too; I won the 1300-cc class of the British Saloon Car Championship in 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1968. At the back of your mind, you always know someone will come along and take your crown. After so many successful years. I called it a day and hung up my helmet in 1973. It was great while it lasted, and the Mini was just a fantastic car to drive.

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