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Story and photos by Paul Williams
The narrow mountain road from L’Escarane to Col de Turini in the south of France is much the same today as it was 40-years ago. Drive it slowly and you’ll meander through ancient villages nestled between spectacular alpine peaks; drive it fast and you’ll frighten dogs and annoy the locals, while inducing some unusual noises from your car and your stomach. Learn to drive it flat-out and you might win the Monte Carlo Rally.
That’s what Paddy Hopkirk did 40-years ago behind the wheel of a red Mini Cooper S, much to the amazement of the entire rallying world, and to the delight of Mr. Hopkirk himself, who, after the results were tabulated, only learned of his victory the next day. Rauno Aaltonen, the “Flying Finn,” repeated the achievement in 1965 (35 out of 237 cars finished the tortuous race that year), and 1967 saw Mr. Aaltonen’s fellow Scandinavian Timo Makinen complete the hat-trick for the Mini.
What happened in 1966? The Mini team came first, a British Ford Cortina came second, and Minis came third and fourth. But after stripping the cars down to nuts, bolts and engine parts, rally scrutineers disqualified these cars for running “illegal” bulbs in their headlamps. This suspiciously gave the victory to a Citroen (which apparently used the same bulbs) and became part of rally lore.
It’s a disqualification that still rankles the three drivers, and according to Peter Browning, former competitions manager for the Mini team in his 1971 book “The Works Minis”, likely came about because organizers and manufacturers simply couldn’t believe that a 70-horsepower, showroom stock, Mini Cooper S, could possibly prevail over established teams and technologies. Basically, he felt, they were embarrassed by being beaten by such a pip-squeak of a car.
But what also happened is that the revolutionary concept of a tiny car (what we now call a subcompact), with front-wheel drive, a transverse-mounted engine and wheels located at its extreme corners, convincingly demonstrated its superiority against all types of vehicles in the harshest conditions. It’s a configuration that’s become a standard platform for many cars today, and is reproduced in everything from Volkswagen Golfs to Toyota Echo Hatchbacks and most faithfully in the new Mini itself.
Although no longer a competitor on the world-rallying scene, Mini’s BMW owners are keen to preserve, promote and celebrate the marque’s unique and illustrious history. As a result, the three veteran Monte Carlo Rally drivers — Hopkirk, Aaltonen and Makinen — recently met in Monaco for a 40th anniversary celebration of Mr. Hopkirk’s win. They explained driving techniques like heel-and-toe shifting and left foot braking to invited auto writers, and at 66-years old, an enthusiastic and still blazingly fast Mr. Aaltonen took eager volunteers for a quick squirt along slippery mountain roads in a new Mini Cooper S.
“Did you ever think about going off the edge?” I asked Mr. Aaltonen, while he smoothly drove the Mini Cooper sideways around a corner. “I did go off the edge!” he replied, working the pedals and deftly catching the car before he repeated the feat. “Right here,” he pointed. “I went straight down the embankment.”
What he didn’t mention was that the car ended up on its roof in flames. His driving partner at the time, Geoff Mabbs, himself badly burned, pulled him unconscious from the car.
“Looks like there are more trees now,” he observed, while sliding around another hairpin. “That would help.”
Along with Mr. Aaltonen’s exhilarating driving lessons, each writer got the opportunity to drive a 2004 Mini Cooper S on the 68-kilometre rally stage, and a selection of 2000 Mini Coopers were supplied for comparison. However, when I say these were 2000 Mini Coopers, I may inadvertently be conferring upon them an expectation of technical sophistication that far overstates the reality. In fact, these four-year old curiosities, never sold in Canada, were closer to Paddy Hopkirk’s 1964 Mini than anything outside Prince Rainier’s local automotive museum.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t fun to drive, but the comparison between “then” and “now” magnified tenfold my admiration for the rally drivers’ ability after a stint behind the wheel of these automotive anachronisms.
Monte Carlo, you probably know, is a magnet for the world’s super-rich, famous and fashionable. Multi-million dollar yachts line the marina (small cruisers rent for $60,000 per week), tiny apartments start at two-million dollars, and the main streets are lined with exotic cars, car dealerships and numerous stores selling items related to cars. Monte Carlo, actually, is car mad. It hosts arguably the biggest race of the Formula 1 season, the Monaco Grand Prix, and it’s still a major event on the world rally championship calendar (the Monte Carlo rally opens the season each January).
If you can afford to actually rent a room in one of the swank hotels, you’ll experience one of the most filmed and photographed locations in the world. The roads through town are ridiculously narrow, and most people drive as if their last name is Villeneuve. It’s hard not to, when your local streets double as a Formula 1 track (our man Jacques owns a home in Monte Carlo, as do many race car drivers).
To get to the Col de Turini rally stage, you drive only 20-kilometres from Monte Carlo to L’Escarenne, where the road begins zig-zagging up the side of a mountain. We have switchbacks in Canada, of course, especially prevalent when traversing the Rockies, but the frequency with which the lacets, as they’re called there, appeared, was enough to turn some passengers green as they hung on for dear life around the 180-degree corners. In between the lacets the narrow roads carved through tunnels and around bends, hugging the side of the mountain as sea-level became alarmingly distant and the road surface became more treacherous.
Fact is, we rarely got into third gear, but second can be pretty quick in a 163-horsepower Mini Cooper S, although first was the only option for the lacets. Half way through the rally stage, at the Col de Turini (the highest point), you can stop for a breather at the Hotel des Trois Vallees. There, the rooms start at a mere 25 euros per night, which offers an affordable alternative to the stratospheric prices in Monte Carlo.
Inside the hotel’s restaurant are posters and photographs of old rally cars and the people who drove them. During the rally, we were told, hundreds of people line the road at this famous location. If word reaches fans that a particular car is using tires for a dry surface, they’ll pelt the road with snowballs to inject a little action as each vehicle roars by.
Outside, an amused 71-year old Mr. Hopkirk signed autographs, posed for photographs, and was pursued like a movie star by Italian film crews, German magazine photographers and Canadian auto writers.
“It’s great being back,” he said. “It’s amazing how the new Mini has revived interest in the achievements of the old cars. At the time, you know, people didn’t view them as ‘real’ cars at all. They were built as family cars. It was John Cooper who saw the potential and got them into racing.”
The drive up to Col de Turini in a modern Mini Cooper S was truly exciting, but the drive back down to L’Escarene in the “2000” Mini Cooper proved to be a real education. This is because the road is virtually carved into the sheer vertical face of the mountain. We have nothing like this in Canada — looking over the edge was like looking down a stairwell in the middle of a skyscraper. Barriers were few and short. There were numerous opportunities to simply drive off the road into thin air.
The “classic” Mini we were driving seemed half the size of the modern version. Its steering wheel was set almost horizontally in front of the driver (there were no adjustments; if you were to change the wheel’s angle, you’d never be able to raise your leg to operate the clutch). The 64-horsepower motor seemed quite powerful in 727-kilogram car (going downhill, it must be said), but second gear of its four-speed manual transmission kept popping into neutral, compromising acceleration and control.
Steering, though, was super-quick, and you could see why this little machine was so competitive on twisting roads. Its front-wheel drive and 10-inch studded tires would dig into the ice, and drivers could fling the car around corners, through snowdrifts up to its windshield, and along the occasional straights, at speeds approaching 160 km/h. Surprisingly, Mr. Hopkirk said that he found this section rather tame, and in 1964 he drove it with his right foot planted on the floor after making several runs at night to get the feel of it.
That could have been some Hopkirk blarney, but then again, he was a driver who got spectacular results from the tiny car. He even raced one across Canada in the 1968 Shell 4000 rally.
In contrast, the new Mini Cooper S is a completely modern car, with the full range of electronic stability aids, anti-lock brakes, six-speed gearbox, electric steering, climate control and multiple airbags. But its behavior on the road easily recalls the achievements of its historic namesake. In my view, its connection to the old version is indirect, but legitimate.
Order a red one with a white roof, put Paddy Hopkirk’s number “37” on the side, and some fog lamps on the front (with regulation bulbs, of course), head for your nearest rally and you’ll be competitive. I recommend the third-annual Targa Newfoundland this coming September.