Paddy Hopkirk’s strength and wit at the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964 launched the Northern Ireland racing driver into the United Kingdom’s most celebrated rally driver and propelled the Mini into racing stardom. Now 87, Paddy still enjoys his enthusiasm for the Mini and savors the trials of winding country roads.
It was in the winter of 1964 when Patrick “Paddy” Hopkirk competed in the Monte Carlo Rally. For competing race drivers at that time, the Monte Carlo Rally was a challenging adventure for all who competed, and the race was broadcast on TV live. The 60s was also the era when car manufacturers throughout the world used rally races as the ideal stage to display their flagship models. As a result, automobiles of various weight and performance classes raced against each other with a handicap formula implemented when allocating points.
At the time of 1964, Paddy Hopkirk had an extensive racing career, winning hillclimb races and being victorious in the Circuit of Ireland five times. In 1962 Paddy finished third place in the overall placings at the Monte Carlo Rally driving a Sunbeam Rapier.
Even today when reminiscing about the driving characteristics of the classic Mini, Paddy shows enthusiasm. “The Mini was a very advanced motor car. Its front-wheel drive and the transversely mounted engine at the front presented significant advantages, just like the fact that the car was small given that the roads had lots of bends and were narrow,” explained the Northern Ireland rally driver as he recalled his greatest achievement.
Paddy Hopkirk and his co-pilot, Harry Liddon began the Monte Carlo Rally in Minsk, which at that time originated as a star rally from nine different European cities. He volunteered to start the race in Minsk because he had never experienced driving on Soviet roads and wanted another level of challenge and adventure on his part. The six Mini works cars and the other cars in the racing field would only meet up in Rheims, France.
On the roads of France, Paddy’s Mini Cooper S was starting to build a duel with a Ford Falcon driven by Bo Ljungfeldt, a Swedish driver. Although the race started off well, there had been heavy snowfall on the day before the race. When they came on Col de Turini, heavy and powerful vehicles significantly slowed down. That did not happen to Paddy’s little vehicle as it powered on. “The Mini performed particularly well going downhill, and the tests had all been uphill and down dale so that we’re able to make good anything we lost going uphill when we were driving downhill” Paddy Hopkirk explained.
Despite Ljungfeldt making up 17 seconds during the “Night of the Long Knives” and gaining a 30-second lead in the final circuit race of the Monte Carlo Grand Prix track, success would be Paddy’s. It took quite a while once the cars passed the finishing line before all times were compared and all points tally counted. With great news to Paddy, the classic Mini was declared number one in the overall placings, giving Mini its first overall victory in the Monte Carlo rally.
Hopkirk’s triumph received international praise and acclaim with jovial celebrations erupting throughout the United Kingdom for their most illustrious rally driver. He was flooded with congratulatory telegrams and messages from thousands of fans, celebrities, and even the British Government. He and his beloved car starred in ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium‘- a popular TV show of that time. Most memorable to Paddy was receiving an autograph card from the Beatles themselves with the words, “Now you are one of us, Paddy!”
The MINI Cooper S would continue to see great success in the Monte Carlo Rally in future years. It took 2nd and 3rd places in overall standings in the 1965 and 1967 events respectively. Hopkirk himself finished in overall 6th position during the 1967 event and with the following year crossing the finishing line in 5th position. With the sun setting on this golden era for the Mini, Hopkirk changed to other models and won many races including the Acropolis Rally.
During the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon, in the true spirit of sportsmanship, Paddy Hopkirk forfeited his lead in order to rescue a team from their burning car that was involved in a dangerous car accident.
Around early 1970, Paddy retired from professional rally driving and started a career in importing automobiles to Northern Ireland. In addition, he sold accessory products with the brand of his name.
Today, among others, he is an ambassador for IAM RoadSmart, a charity organization helping to improve driving and riding skills through courses and coaching. His other involvements also include working on the Board of Management of the British Drivers’Club and supporting WheelPower, an association devoted to promoting wheelchair sport.