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 an audience that sometimes approached 20 million.
The rally, a three-day midwinter event in which competitors set off from all points of Europe to converge on the principality, with the winner judged via a complicated handicap system, was closely followed by television and the newspapers. Victory for a little British car that symbolised the revival of Britain’s cultural energy was seen as a cause for national celebration. The Beatles sent a congratulatory telegram, as did the prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
Hopkirk, a convivial Northern Irishman who has died aged 89, had become and would remain a major figure in British motor sport, as a rally and racing driver, the owner of a successful business selling car accessories, president of the Historic Rally Car Register and a vice-president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club.
Born in Belfast to Kathleen and Francis, he was educated at the Jesuit-run Clongowes Wood college in County Kildare, Ireland. His first motoring experience came at the age of nine, when a clergyman left him an old two-seater bath chair in his will. In the grounds of a local estate, he learned to master its motorcycle engine and rear-wheel brakes, noting that “it taught you quite a lot about skid control”. The bath chair was followed by a motorcycle and sidecar, and then an Austin 7.
At Trinity College Dublin, despite having dyslexia, he studied engineering. Since he had not asked the Catholic church for permission to attend what was then thought of as a Protestant institution, he was automatically excommunicated. “That gave me the freedom to kiss girls without committing a mortal sin,” he said.
He dropped out of college to take a job at Volkswagen’s assembly plant in Ballsbridge, outside Dublin, buying a used Beetle to win a hill-climb at Cairncastle. It was in a similar car that he competed in the Circuit of Ireland rally for the first time in 1953. Two years later, driving a Triumph TR2, he took a class win in the event and won his first Hewison trophy for the most successful Irish rally driver of the year.
Offered a seat as a works driver by the Standard Motor Company, he led the early stages of the 1956 RAC Rally in Britain and finished third in the same year’s Tulip Rally in the Netherlands. In 1959 he moved to the Rootes Group, in whose Sunbeam Rapiers he won the Circuit of Ireland in 1960 and 1961 and took a class win in the Alpine Rally.
Impressed by Pat Moss’s successes in the powerful Austin Healey 3000, in 1962 he moved to the British Motor Corporation, driving a Healey to second place in that year’s RAC Rally. But it was with BMC’s little 1,100cc Mini Cooper S, prepared at the Abingdon works in Oxfordshire by a group of mechanics who, he said, “would lay down their lives for you”, that he achieved his 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 set off from Minsk, then in the Soviet Union. Hopkirk took along a batch of nylon stockings, which he swapped for a large tin of best Beluga caviar, planning to sell it to the chef of a top Monaco hotel. Competing against more powerful cars from Ford, Mercedes, Saab and others, Hopkirk and Liddon negotiated roads made treacherous by snow and ice to secure the trophy, presented to them by Princess Grace. The caviar was consumed as part of their victory celebrations, also attended by Alec Issigonis, the car’s designer.
There would be many more successes and near-successes in Hopkirk’s long rallying career. In 1966 there was bad feeling at the Monte when he finished third, behind his teammates Timo Mäkinnen and Rauno Aaltonen, only for the organisers to disqualify them all for using non-standard headlight bulbs, enabling a French car to win. In the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon, via Kabul and Mumbai, he and Tony Nash finished second in their Austin 1800 after they stopped on the final day to pull an injured rival out of a blazing Citroën.
Hopkirk also enjoyed long-distance sports car events, winning his class at Le Mans in 1963 despite a 90-minute delay while his co-driver, Alan Hutcheson, dug their MGB out of a sandbank. He particularly relished the Targa Florio, held over the narrow, twisting roads of Sicily’s Madonie mountains. His retirement from competition at the end of the 1960s allowed him to concentrate on his businesses, including a driving school, which he sold in the 90s before starting a marketing company.
In 2016 he was appointed MBE for charitable activities, including support for Wheelpower, the national charity for wheelchair sport, and Skidz, which provided experience of working with cars for young people, some of whom restored Hopkirk’s original bath chair before its installation in the British 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.