22/05/2024
Norwich, GB 15 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

PADDY HOPKIRK, aged 89

MONTE CARLO OR BUST

Born a Catholic in Belfast to Kathleen and Francis Hopkirk, he was educated at a Jesuit school in County Kildare.

Paddy Hopkirk (courtesy Guardian)

When he was just 9 years old, an elderly clergyman left Paddy an old two-seater bath chair (an early form of invalid carriage) in his will. It was powered by an old motorbike engine – and it was Paddy’s introduction to the world of motorisation. He would drive it around the estate of a nearby old country house and because it had rear-wheel brakes – ““It taught me quite a lot about skid control”.

When he was old enough, he bought himself a motorbike. His father insisted he ride it with a sidecar attached, believing this would be safer.

This was followed by buying an Austin 7 ‘Chummy’ Tourer.

Despite being dyslexic, he got into Trinity College, Dublin, to study engineering. But Trinity College was a Protestant establishment. As a Catholic he had not asked the church permission to attend. And so, he was excommunicated!

“That gave me the freedom to kiss girls without committing a mortal sin”, he joked.

He didn’t last the course at Trinity College, dropping out to get a job at the Volkswagen plant at Ballsbridge, just outside Dublin.

He also bought a clapped-out old VW Beetle and won his first race in it – a hill-climb at Cairncastle.

A Mr Isaac Agnew of Belfast was so impressed with Paddy’s efforts that he offered him a free Beetle if he entered the Circuit of Ireland race in 1953.

1950s VW Beetle (courtesy The Classic Machines)

He did – and was leading after the first day. In the end he was delighted just to have completed the race.

He was then awarded the Hewison Trophy, given to the most successful Irish rally driver. He was to go on to win this in three successive years – and many more times in the future.

In 1955, Paddy turned professional and was given a contract to be the Standard Motor Company works driver. In his first race for them, the 1956 RAC Rally, he led in the early stages, eventually finishing third. He was also third in the Tulip Rally in the Netherlands. This was the first time he had ever been abroad.

But in 1958, Standard sacked him after the Alpine Rally. He had a puncture in the Stelvio Pass. Falling behind, he overdrove the car in an attempt to catch up and destroyed the engine.

In 1959, Paddy joined the Rootes Group and started to drive their Sunbeam Rapiers. With them, he won a stage of the Alpine Rally, ending up third.

He unexpectedly found himself thrust into the Safari Rally, driving a Hillman Husky. The drive belonged to the reigning Formula 1 champion, Mike Hawthorn, but he was killed in an accident a few days before the rally.

Finally, there was a victory – in the Circuit of Ireland race in 1960. He won it again in 1961.

But after three Sunbeam Rapier engines blew up in the Acropolis Rally, he started to get disillusioned with the Rootes Group.

He was so impressed with the fact Pat Moss was winning races with the Austin Healy 3000, that he joined Moss’ ‘British Motor Corporation’ (BMC) team in 1962. He loved driving for them and claimed their mechanics would, “lay down their lives for you.”

It was then that he began circuit racing in addition to rallies.

Driving an Austin Healey, he was the runner up in the 1962 RAC Rally (despite driving the last 2 miles with a shredded tyre). He also entered Le Mans for the first time in 1962.

Nevertheless, he grew to love the Mini Cooper that was specially prepared for him at their Abingdon Works in Oxford.

In 1963, he entered the 24-hour Le Mans long distance race with co-driver Alan Hutcheson. They won their class despite a 90-minute delay when Hutcheson had to dig their MGB out of a sandbank.

In 1964, he entered the Monte Carlo Rally, driving his Mini (Car 37). His navigator was Henry Liddon.

Racers were given a choice of 7 places to start the race to Monte Carlo. Paddy rejected Glasgow, Athens, Lisbon, Paris, Oslo and Frankfurt. Instead, he surprisingly chose Minsk as his starting point.

At this point, Minsk was in the Soviet Union (it is now the capital of Belarus). Paddy loaded up his car with nylon stockings, which he traded for the very best Beluga caviar. He had a deal to sell it to the top hotel in Monaco.

He was regarded as a rank outsider in the race as there were many more powerful cars competing, such as Ford, Mercedes and Saabs. In addition, unlike other racers who chose to start elsewhere, they had snow and ice to negotiate in the early stages. Paddy said Liddon, his navigator, was invaluable.

It was a 3-day race and was closely monitored by newspapers and television.

Amazingly, Paddy and Henry won the race. It was regarded as a major achievement for British motor manufacturing and brought them international attention. The Prime Minister, Alec Douglas – Home sent them a telegram of congratulations, as did The Beatles. He framed The Beatles’ telegram and hung it in his downstairs toilet. It said, “It’s nice to be number one, isn’t it?”  It also had an added line from Ringo Starr. “Thanks for the lift.” One of Paddy’s mechanics had given Ringo a lift home in another of the team cars.

He was also given the Freedom of the city of Belfast.

They were both invited onto Saturday Night at the Palladium, which was televised on ITV, to an audience of over 20 million. There they were introduced to Sir Alec Issigonis, the creator of the Mini. Their Mini (Car 37) was invited onto the stage as well.

Its registration number was 33 EJB. Paddy so loved this car that every private car he ever owned after this, had as close a registration number as he could manage.

In 1965 he won the Osterreichische Alpenfahrt, driving an Austin Healey.

He entered the Monte Carlo Rally again in 1966. It seemed to go well for BMC as they won all three podium places. Paddy was third behind his teammates Timo Makinnen and Rauno Aaltonen. But then, highly controversially, all three were disqualified due to using the “wrong” headlights. The race was awarded to a French driver who had come fourth. Paddy was so furious he swore he would never drive the Monte Carlo Rally again.

In 1967, he married Jennifer Manser (known as Jenny). They were to have three children, Katie, Patrick and William.

In 1968, he entered the London to Sydney Marathon. Tony Nash was his co-driver. They drove an Austin 1800 and were challenging for the lead, when they saw that the car ahead of them, a Citroen driven by Lucien Bianchi and his co-pilot Jean Claude Ogier, had crashed into a car which had strayed onto the course – the roads were supposed to be closed to normal traffic.

The Citroen burst into flames. Paddy stopped and along with Tony, managed to drag Lucien and Jean Claude to safety – saving their lives. They then turned around and drove back down the route to warn the police of the crash. This action cost them the race. They finished second.

He liked Sydney so much that he would go to race in Australia during the close season in Europe.

At the end of the 1960s he decided to retire from rally driving. This decision was prompted by the decision to close down the competition department of British Leyland (as BMC had become).

He was asked his favourite race – and it wasn’t Monte Carlo, despite it being his greatest success. He chose the ‘Targa Florio’, through the twisting, winding mountain roads of Sicily.

His very final race was the 1970 World Cup Rally, from London to Mexico City.

Paddy moved into business. He briefly worked for Toyota, importing their cars into Northern Ireland. He also started a driving school and a car accessories company, both of which he sold in the 1990s for vast profits, enabling him to start a marketing company.

He also authored a comic strip, published in the Sunday Mirror for two years, to teach people how to improve their driving.

Paddy made a comeback in 1977, racing the London to Sydney Rally. He came third. The winners were Claude Laurent and Jean Claude Ogier – the man he had rescued in 1968.

He raced the RAC Golden 50 in 1982, before winning the Pirelli Classic Marathon in 1990, with co-driver Alec Poole, driving a similar mini to that he had driven at Monte Carlo in 1964 (although it was now produced by Rover).

And in 1994, despite swearing he would never be involved again, Paddy returned to the Monte Carlo Rally. Unfortunately, he came 60th and he acknowledged that modern cars were much more powerful than the traditional ones he favoured.

He was made President of the Historic Rally Car Register and also Vice-President of the British Racing Driver’s Club.

He worked as an advisor for BMW on their modern minis and was ambassador for the Institute of Advanced Motorists.

His wife, Jenny, became the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 2005.

In 2010 he was one of the first 4 people to be inaugurated into the Rally Driver’s Hall of Fame.

He was also a patron of ‘Wheelpower’, a charity which promotes wheelchair sport, and also ‘Skidz’, a company that gave young people the opportunity to work in the motor industry.

When he retired, the young people at Skidz restored his old bath chair, which started it all. It now resides in the British Motor Museum at Gaydon in Warwickshire.

In 2016 he was awarded an MBE.

He was also inducted into the Buckinghamshire Sporting Hall of Fame – which pleased him greatly.

Buckingham Sporting Hall of Fame (courtesy Leap)

He remained a major figure in British motor sport right until his death, in Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

At his death, his family put out a statement. “Paddy leaves an incredible legacy of motorsport and business success, while his hard work in support of British motorsport and wider car industry continued until his final days. His family, friends and fans will never forget his sharp wit and wicked smile. He brought fun and joy to anyone in his company and inspired many.”

Jenny survives him.

RIP – Rallying In (exotic) Places

Previous Article

GENERAL EVA BURROWS, aged 85

Next Article

MARTHA WHITE, aged 99

You might be interested in …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *