Relive that Monte Carlo magic, when our Mini beat the world

Where have all the real heroes gone? asks Jason Barlow. One is preparing to drive from Minsk to Monte Carlo
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was The Stranglers, I believe, who bemoaned that there were "no more heroes any more". It's a common complaint in today's motorsport world.

The modern era has seen the rise of the private jet, the mammoth sponsorship deal, and the talent-squeezing ministrations of such things as traction control and semi-automatic gearboxes. Meanwhile rally drivers have four-wheel drive, personal physios, and motorhome support crews. Heroes? Oh, they still are. Just a different sort.

Paddy Hopkirk, though, is one of the old breed of motorsport hero. On 23 January 1964, the genial Ulsterman and his co-driver Henry Liddon, sadly no longer with us, became a sensation when he piloted a Mini Cooper S, (Car No. 37, registration 33 EJB) to victory in the Monte Carlo rally against the toughest competition from Ford and Saab.

It was the first of a hat-trick of wins for the Mini Cooper. Hopkirk was feted in the newspapers in a manner which pre-empted the hysterical hero worship that would attend George Best a few years later. Hopkirk's fame was such that he was invited on the country's biggest television programme, Sunday Night at the Palladium. Beatlemania? Not quite. But he got to meet the the Fab Four.

Forty years on, the Mini nostalgia industry has received a welcome shot in the arm thanks to the enormous success of the New Mini, as BMW likes to call it. Right in the thick of it, Hopkirk still cuts the same swashbuckling figure as he did way back when and, at 70, is a renowned raconteur. He's also a successful businessman, with a pad in Kensington and a palatial home in Buckinghamshire.

And if he isn't quite as iconic a figure as Ulster's hell-raising footballing son, people of a certain age still become dewy-eyed at the memory of his unexpected Monte triumph.

Hopkirk began driving when he was only nine, but quickly became obsessed with what was and remains one of sport's most celebrated events.

In the early 1960s, though, Monte Carlo epitomised a louche Continental glamour, aeons away from today's Easyjet and Hello magazine culture. The rally was a cross between Wacky Races and High Society, the playboys jousting with semi-professional drivers against a jaw-dropping Alpine back-drop.

"The world is a much smaller place in 2004 than it was in 1964," Hopkirk confirms. "These days people are jetting off everywhere. But then, Monte Carlo was this faraway place, dripping with mystique."

By the time he embarked on his famous victory, Hopkirk had been rallying with some success for 10 years. He finished sixth in the Monte rally in 1963.

With an eye on the press coverage, the British Motor Corporation's bosses decided that Hopkirk's marathon campaign should kick off in Minsk in the Soviet Union, a daring move at the height of the Cold War.

"The joke was that it would remind me of Belfast," says Hopkirk. "Not many people went there, and they took our passports off us at the border to make sure we didn't wander off.

"I took a load of ladies' nylon stockings with me, knowing that things like that would be in short supply. I swapped them for a big tin of Beluga caviar with the hotel chef. We thought we'd make a killing selling it when we got to Monte, but ended up eating the lot. And there I was with all the big cheeses and people like Fangio eating caviar and drinking champagne."

The stories keep flowing, and once motorsport's very own Peter Ustinov gets going, he's impossible to stop.

Which is good news for me, because on 29 February Hopkirk and I will be flying to Belarus to begin filming a recreation of his celebrated journey for a BBC documentary.

From this former Soviet republic, we'll be driving a New Mini through Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, into Italy via the infamous Col di Turini, and onwards to Monte Carlo.

Hopkirk, a twinkly-eyed combination of blagger and diplomat, is already in negotiation with Prince Albert to ensure an appropriately warm reception in the Principality.

"Make sure you bring your best whistle," he tells me. "And plenty of under-arm deodorant and smellies if I'm going to be sharing a car with you for a whole week."

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