Meeting Mr MINI: Paddy Hopkirk

Paddy counts the silverware while his co driver Henry Liddon looks on.
Paddy counts the silverware while his co driver Henry Liddon looks on.

Mike Humble:

It’s staggering when you consider that it’s just over 50 years since BMC fought a real David and Goliath battle with their plucky little Mini in the 1964 Monte Carlo rally. Half a decade ago to many, seems a lifetime, and in the often dangerous world of motor sport, some participants lifetimes seldom last that long.

Belfast born Paddy Hopkirk will be forever regarded as the man who put the original Mini on the Global map after winning, against all odds some say, that famous aforementioned rally with his trusted co-driver – the great late Henry Liddon who succumbed to a fatal flying accident in 1987. Now at the wonderful age of 81 Paddy looks, talks and speaks with entertaining animation like a man much younger than you would believe.

AUTOBRITANNIA.NET were invited by MINI down to the opening day of the Goodwood Festival of Speed to chat with Paddy one to one for a while and to gain some insight into a man who truly is of living legend status. He first steered a Mini to victory back in 1964 which some might have put down to sheer luck, but to for the car to win a further three times suggests the Mini had real talent.

Paddy had in fact come third in the event two years earlier behind the wheel of a Sunbeam Rapier but to most people he will be, and continues to be – known as Mr Mini. Sitting in the glorious sunshine of the Goodwood estate alongside the impressive BMW and MINI stands, Paddy waxes lyrical about what made the Mini so special all those years ago.

He tells us; “despite the fact our cars were small and our team was not as well financed as some of the others, we were incredibly well prepared” his broad Irish lilt has you hanging on every word. Paddy then goes into detail about preparation; “we practised day and night for what seemed months prior to the event and the mechanics? Well… let me simply say they were some of the best in their field”.

We asked the question if they were instructed by Stuart Turner (BMC works team manager) if they were ordered to go out and win or simply go out and come back; “we didn’t think we had a chance in hell of winning in reality in all fairness” his face is replaced with a massive cheeky boy like grin. Continuing he states “we were simply told to get out there and do our best” and he certainly did just that.

Asking of the most import attribute of the Mini, Paddy quips “it was then… and still is now… an amazing car that did everything you asked it to do. You know? This latest MINI on an all new platform is just as brilliant” the enthusiasm that radiates from him being more infectious that a winter cold as he points a sausage like finger towards the recently launched cars on the MINI stand.

…the special stages were pretty rough going but not especially scary, but some of the political and cultural aspects were pretty worrying at that time to a young Irishman like me – Paddy on driving in Russia

We remark about how daunting that must have been all those years ago so far from home and ask what scared him the most during the whole event. Pausing to think for a moment he replies; “well, the special stages were pretty rough going but not especially scary, but some of the political and cultural aspects were pretty worrying at that time to a young Irishman like me” and he expands on this.

Taking on a serious expression for a while he explains: “when we entered Minsk the Russians took our passports from us and told us they would be delivered to our hotel – some 200 miles away so we couldn’t get up to no good”. Thankfully, things are much different now with the cold war that’s turned into a hot-bed of trade with the former Soviet Union.

With Global news travelling much slower back then, Paddy told us about how the Soviets were less than happy about the BBC being there to report on that part of the rally: “Ray (Baxter) and the beeb arrived at my hotel to interview me and before you knew it the authorities arrived outside making a bit of a song and dance about it. Looking at it now it was funny, but at the time it was quite intimidating”. His Irish charm and broad grin returns.

Becoming a household name after winning the rally took a little getting used to as he recounts: “Meeting and being congratulated by Princess Grace of Monaco is perhaps one of the proudest moments from back then, I had to pinch myself at the time… she was a very special and pretty Lady”. There is a certain pride that comes through with Paddy and we ask him about this.

Paddy told us: “it was quite surreal at the time… even the Beatles sent me a signed picture and a telegram stating I was one of them now and I’m reminded of that almost every day… its on the wall of my downstairs loo”. But taking on a serious tone for a moment, Paddy hits the nail on the head and his passion comes through once again.

we weren’t just driving to compete, we were driving for Queen, for Country and everything that stood for British manufacturing, engineering and design – Paddy on the importance of the Rallies front page media coverage

Jabbing a finger onto the table he says “we weren’t just driving to compete, we were driving for Queen, for Country and everything that stood for British manufacturing, engineering and design. Great Britain was very influential at that time to the world and the Rally made front page news so a lot was at stake… if we did well, Britain did well and BMC would do well”.

Paddy acts as brand ambassador for MINI and his wit and charm knows no bounds.
Paddy acts as brand ambassador for MINI and his wit and charm knows no bounds.

Paddy, who now represents for MINI as a brand ambassador, pauses to look at his watch and we ask him if he has other pressing engagements. He proudly shows me his watch “this was sent to me by a couple of Danish guys who made this watch out of recycled Mini metal… isn’t it something?” he’s right too, even the dials emulate the clocks of an original Mini in an oval type face. “I might introduce them to MINI and get this thing marketed” – typical Irishman, always up for a gamble and a money spinner.

And then it clicks as we suddenly remember his expansive range of branded car accessories that were hugely popular a few years back and we ask him if his DIY heated rear window kit was a money maker – all we get back is a chuckle and a little shake of the head. Our meeting of minds has now ended and its time for us to make our leave which is a shame, we seem to part as friends. Paddy Hopkirk is a true gent and top class entertainment with seemingly crystal clarity recall from an era so long ago.

AUTOBRITANNIA.NET would like to express our thanks to MINI and of course to Paddy himself.


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