Paddy Hopkirk: a personal tribute

Published: 25 July 2022 Updated: 25 July 2022

► Paddy Hopkirk 1933-2022: an obituary
► Phil McNamara remembers a family friend
► One of the UK’s motorsport greats

Paddy Hopkirk MBE, the racing driver who put the Mini on the motorsport map, has died aged 89.

His defining moment was winning the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, with the tiny Mini Cooper beating bigger and more powerful rivals such as the V8 Ford Falcon. I was fortunate to hear him recount the race first hand, complete with engine noises, excited chuckles and a few f-words, when I interviewed him trying to break into journalism college.

Paddy gave up a couple of hours for me that day in 1997, which was typical of his generosity. I’d got to meet him living with his youngest son William at university. Paddy and I looked around his replica rally winner – 33 EJB – immaculately preserved in a plastic bubble in a barn at his home.

And we talked and talked, Paddy in his strong Belfast accent that never seemed to fade, modestly crediting the victory to his co-driver Henry Liddon, the pioneering tactic of having reconnaissance drivers to cross the passes in advance to warn of treacherous sections, and of course, the Mini itself.

Paddy Hopkirk and a glut of silverware

Here are some quotations from the article I wrote, which I found today laid out on primitive desktop publishing software. ‘The little Mini’s agility and handling were fantastic,’ said Paddy. ‘Although I couldn’t see far in blizzards or fog, I could go like hell on the [pace] notes, just by listening to Henry, holding the wheel straight, watching the odometer and praying!’

The victory propelled Paddy into a life of celebrity, appearing on Sunday Night at the Palladium and mixing with the stars. But I don’t think it went to his head: he probably just took the mickey out of them, as he did to me and my university mates, after a glass of wine (or several). 

In 2014, Paddy loaned CAR magazine Monte Carlo entrant number 37 for our ‘50 years of the Hot Hatch’ cover story, and sat with me for the interview which is replicated below. He turned up in a Mini Paceman, and was an ambassador for the brand for years, coupling it with his automotive business interests, road safety work and vice presidency of the British Racing Drivers Club.

The last time I saw Paddy was at a 50th anniversary screening of The Italian Job at Plant Oxford. He was one of the good guys: I’ve exchanged messages with three other motoring hacks today who will also miss him.

And there’s a serious chance that I wouldn’t have this platform today, if it wasn’t for Paddy. Thanks again – and rest in peace.

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Paddy Hopkirk was a rallying great

CAR magazine’s 2014 interview with Paddy Hopkirk to mark 50 years of his Monte Carlo win

Your Cooper S won the Monte Carlo rally 50 years ago. Big engine, small car: it was the original hot hatch…

‘I suppose it was. John Cooper swapped Formula Junior parts into the Mini to make the Cooper; my S had a bigger, 1071cc engine. It was close to a showroom car, though they revised the wipers so they didn’t fall off and the seat brackets so they wouldn’t break, stupid things that would wreck your chances.’

When did you realise you had something special?

‘I drove the Cooper S on the roads around Oulton Park, and thought its performance and handling were something else: it drove like a go-kart. We did the ’63 Tour de France and the French fell in love with it, this underdog against the big teams.’

What was your driving style?

‘The Finns used left-foot braking to compensate for no limited-slip differential: it saved you if you were going too fast into a loose-roads corner. But it was very hard on the car, they would break gearboxes, unlike me. I could do it but not naturally. I heel-and-toed, but I had ability because I started driving aged nine.’

Can you believe it’s 50 years ago?

‘It’s wonderful, I didn’t think I’d live this long! People say “Paddy put the Mini on the map” but I didn’t realise it at the time.’

Back then, was rallying bigger than F1?

‘It was bigger then than now: you were driving for your country, trying to sell British engineering. Rallying felt adventurous, going to places like Monte Carlo.’

Why did you win in 1964?

‘A mix of things: I was a reasonably good driver, Henry Liddon was a wonderful co-driver, we had a great, well-prepared car. I was there for three months practising, getting the notes right.’

Did the mountain passes favour the Mini?

‘On winding, fast roads it was very good: the roads were snowploughed, so the small Mini probably had an advantage with those narrow stretches and high banks.’

What was the reaction when you won?

‘It was tremendous. Life magazine flew in from New York, we met Princess Grace, had telegrams from the Beatles and the prime ministers of the UK and Ireland.’

What happened next?

‘I did five Le Mans, the Targa Florio, Sebring. I liked rallying, endurance racing wasn’t bad, but circuit racing doesn’t bring out the best manners in drivers!’

And did you spot rally driver Kris Meeke?

‘I was judging a competition at Silverstone, and picked him not only for his driving ability but his charisma, being an Ulsterman! He wore my logo when he drove the Monte this year.’

Have you driven many hot hatches?

‘I drove an Integrale: terrible ergonomics but wonderful four-wheel drive. I owned a 205 GTi: in the ’80s that was the closest you could get to a Mini Cooper S!’

Leave your memories of Paddy Hopkirk in the comments below

By Phil McNamara

Group editor, CAR magazine