Rallying: Romantics gather as Mini finally reaches end of the road

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The little car that became the scourge of the heavyweights in the Sixties and a motoring icon for eternity makes its final appearance in the World Rally Championship next weekend.

Britain's classic Mini, immortalised in the original film of The Italian Job, embarks on a final assignment against the best of the modern age at Rally Australia on Thursday.

The car will be ineligible for competition at this level of the sport from the end of the year, and two British amateur enthusiasts, Trevor Godwin and his co-driver, Ian Harrop, intend to give it an appropriate send-off.

Godwin, 56, said: "This is the end of the road for a special car, the last chance to see it on the world stage. We were determined to get down to Australia and make sure we gave it this final run.

"It is sad to think that after 45 years this car won't be competing in world rallying again, and it's bound to be a weekend of mixed emotions. We're all going to be reminded of its wonderful history.

"But the important thing now is for us to ensure the Mini goes out in style. We've no intention of just crawling around to the finish. We're going to give it a go and try to compete properly. This car deserves nothing less."

The rallying Mini, developed from the revolutionary city car, was unleashed on an unsuspecting sporting world in the early Sixties. It defied the odds and the best endeavours of established manufacturers to reel off an improbable series of successes. What it lacked in power it made up for in mobility, notably on the Alpine challenges that characterised the most prestigious rally of them all, the Monte Carlo. Paddy Hopkirk's landmark win with his Mini Cooper S on the 1964 Monte earned driver and car instant celebrity status.

Minis recorded further victories in the event in 1965 and 1967, and would have had a 1-2-3 clean sweep in 1966 but for a churlish disqualification over the alleged misuse of fog lamps. The car also won the 1965 RAC Rally of GB as it established its superiority in European competition.

By the end of the decade, embarrassed rivals produced the muscle and innovation to overcome the diminutive upstart, but the legend of the Mini was enshrined. A cult following pays due homage at historic events and owners' gatherings around the world.

A single-point injection Mini competed for the last time on a WRC event at the 2003 Rally GB and there were hopes that three of the old- style cars would be lining up, Italian Job style, in Perth. Alas, the other two would-be entrants have failed to make it, leaving Godwin and Harrop as the sole standard-bearers in their multi-point Mini. Sponsors and supporters helped the pair from Coventry raise around £10,000 for the venture, and the organisers of Rally Australia paid their air fares. A handful of local volunteers will service the car throughout the event.

"The response we've had has been terrific," Godwin said, "and the Rally Australia people were obviously keen to get us down here. We've competed in something like 20 WRC rallies in Minis and we've always done it on the cheap, so this is nothing unusual for us. It's just a pity the other lads couldn't make it, because that would have been a truly great way to finish.

"At least we're here. We won't be able to compete with the top cars of the top teams, who spend millions and have scores of mechanics. But I'm sure there will be no more popular car on this rally than our Mini."