Paddy Hopkirk’s victory in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally was such an event that he, his navigator, Henry Liddon, and their car, a Mini Cooper, were invited to appear on Sunday night at the London Palladium, an ITV show with a public which sometimes approached 20 million.
The rally, a three-day winter event in which competitors set off from all points in Europe to converge on the principality, with the winner judged via a complicated handicap system, was closely followed by television and newspapers . The victory of a small British car that symbolized the revival of British cultural energy was seen as a cause for national celebration. The Beatles sent a congratulatory telegram, as did Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
Hopkirk, a friendly Northern Irishman who died aged 89, had become and will remain a major figure in British motorsport, as a rally and racing driver, owner of a successful business selling car accessories, chairman of the Historic Rally Car Register and vice-president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club.
Born in Belfast to Kathleen and Francis, he was educated at the Jesuit College of Clongowes Wood in County Kildare, Ireland. His first automotive experience came at the age of nine, when a clergyman left him an old two-seater bath chair in his will. At the compound of a local estate, he learned to master his motorbike engine and rear wheel brakes, noting that “it taught you a lot about skid control”. The bath chair was followed by a motorcycle and sidecar, then an Austin 7.
At Trinity College Dublin, despite his dyslexia, he studied engineering. Since he had not asked the Catholic Church for permission to attend what was then considered a Protestant institution, he was automatically excommunicated. “It gave me the freedom to kiss girls without committing mortal sin,” he said.
He dropped out of school to take a job at Volkswagen’s assembly plant in Ballsbridge, outside Dublin, buying a second-hand Beetle to win a hill climb at Cairncastle. It was in a similar car that he first took part in the Circuit of Ireland rally in 1953. Two years later, driving a Triumph TR2, he took a class victory in the event and won his first Hewison Trophy for the most successful Irishman. rally driver of the year.
Offered a seat as a works driver by the Standard Motor Company, he led the opening stages of the 1956 RAC Rally in Britain and finished third in the same year’s Tulip Rally in the Netherlands. In 1959 he joined the Rootes group, in which Sunbeam Rapiers won the Irish circuit in 1960 and 1961 and took a class victory in the alpine rally.
Impressed by Pat Moss’ successes in the mighty Austin Healey 3000, in 1962 he joined the British Motor Corporation, driving a Healey to second place in that year’s RAC Rally. But it was with BMC’s tiny 1100cc Mini Cooper S, prepared at the Abingdon factory in Oxfordshire by a group of mechanics who, he says, “would lay down their lives for you”, that he will achieve its greatest success.
In January 1964, he and Liddon made their selection from seven designated starting points for “the Monte”. Rejecting Glasgow, Athens, Lisbon, Oslo, Paris and Frankfurt, they chose to leave from Minsk, then in the Soviet Union. Hopkirk took away a batch of nylon stockings, which he exchanged for a large box of the finest Beluga caviar, planning to sell it to the chef of a major Monaco hotel. Competing with more powerful cars from Ford, Mercedes, Saab and others, Hopkirk and Liddon negotiated treacherous roads made by snow and ice to secure the trophy, which was presented to them by Princess Grace. The caviar was consumed as part of the victory celebrations, which was also attended by Alec Issigonis, the car’s designer.
There would be far more success and near success in Hopkirk’s long rallying career. In 1966 there was a bad feeling at the Monte when he finished third, behind teammates Timo Mäkinnen and Rauno Aaltonen, only for the organizers to disqualify them all for using non-standard headlight bulbs, allowing a French car to win. In the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon, via Kabul and Mumbai, he and Tony Nash finished second in their Austin 1800 after stopping on the final day to pull an injured rival from a burning Citroën.
Hopkirk also enjoyed long-distance sports car events, winning his class at Le Mans in 1963 despite being 90 minutes behind while his co-driver, Alan Hutcheson, dug their MGB into a sandbar. He particularly enjoyed the Targa Florio, held on the narrow, winding roads of the Madonie mountains of Sicily. His retirement from competition at the end of the 1960s allowed him to concentrate on his business, including a driving school, which he sold in the 90s before setting up a marketing company.
In 2016 he was appointed MBE for charitable activities including support for Wheelpower, the national wheelchair sport charity, and Skidz, which provided work experience with cars for young people, some of whom restored Hopkirk’s original bath chair prior to its installation in the UK. Motor Museum at Gaydon in Warwickshire. He was an ambassador for the Institute of Advanced Motorists and a consultant to BMW on its modern Minis.
In 1967, he married Jennifer Manser. She survives him, along with their children, Katie, Patrick and William, and six grandchildren.