John Rhodes’ lifelong passion for cars was best demonstrated in the Mini Cooper, as he burned rubber en route to a clutch of British saloon class titles
By Richard Heseltine
Exuding an easy charm he has the look of someone accustomed to the line of questioning. It’s nothing new. “I’ll admit that my style of driving was pretty flamboyant but I liked showing off!” says our host with magnanimous understatement. “Dunlop’s competition manager Ian Mills claimed he never worried about his tyres in Formula 1 but had sleepless nights thinking about those on my Mini. They were spinning at up to 128deg C with all this smoke pouring off them. You’ve got to remember that tyres back then were nothing like they are today. I know my style is not the fastest now. Levels of adhesion are that much higher; today, tyres are 100 per cent grippier. But back then…”
And who are we to argue? Nobody drove a Mini like Smokin’ John Rhodes. The Midlander’s Cooper S was always identifiable: it was the one with its tyres aflame, a fug of charred rubber engulfing his pursuers. In this, the model’s 50th year, much is being made of its rallying pedigree, yet for much of the ’60s the Mini Cooper also owned its class in the British Saloon Car Championship — and Rhodes was often the one wearing the
garlands. But his success in saloons tells only half the story, our man also flourishing in single-seaters and sports cars.
Yet Rhodes wears his status without affectation. You’re unlikely to encounter anyone who loves racing for racing’s sake quite like this deceptively youthful-looking octogenarian. But then he had plenty of time to obsess about it before ever venturing trackside: Rhodes was comfortably into his thirties when he hit the big time and it was through enterprise, pluck and sheer force of will that he got there at all.
“All I ever wanted to do was be around cars,” he smiles. “My grandfather was a pioneer motorist and had the first car registered in Wolverhampton. My father, too, was a great enthusiast. When we were little, my sister and I would be dropped off with one of our grannies while our parents went away in Dad’s Standard Flying 12 to places with strange names like Torlock Hill’ and ‘Beggars Roost’. In fact they did rather well on the Lands End Trial judging by the smiles and awards that always seemed to accompany them.
“I can pinpoint the moment when I decided I wanted to compete. As a boy I was taken to the 1938 British Grand Prix at Donington and clearly recall it saying on the back of the ticket ‘Motor racing is dangerous’. I thought, ‘this is for me’. Seeing Nuvolari blast by inches away from my feet left quite an impression, too. I tried to get my bicycle to make similar noises to his Auto Union but it wouldn’t…”
Fast-forward to the early 1950s, and Rhodes had completed his apprenticeship as a mechanic with a Ford dealership and embarked on a career on two wheels before National Service ended play. “I was desperate to race cars but it was beyond my reach, although I’d built an Austin Seven ‘special’ by then. Well, one day I was driving my car to the camp in Catterick when this Ford Pop screeched to a halt in front of me. An officer jumped out, seething with rage, wanting to know what I was doing driving his car. When he realised it merely looked like his he calmed down and we ended up becoming friends. His name was Major Arthur Mallock, the man behind the U2 racing cars.
“I then got ambitious and built another special, which in my head looked like a Bugatti T57. Through joining the Hagley & District Car Club I got to know Julian Threlfall. I remember going to Hornsey with him to pick up his Lotus Eleven from the factory. A young Graham Hill was there in his brown smock, sorting out parts in the stores: there were two left-hand wishbones in our kit… A while later Julian invited me to a meeting in Chimay where he proceeded to somersault the Lotus while his brother Chris had a coming-together with Bernard Cahier’s Maserati. The remains of Chris’s Tojeiro and the crumpled Lotus were tied to the trailer and we made for home. Back then you could only take £50 out of the country
at a time and a UK customs official surveyed the wrecks and asked in all seriousness, ‘Have you done anything to enhance the value of these vehicles while abroad?’ As we approached Julian’s home he said, ‘Mother mustn’t see the Lotus. Take the engine out and you can have the car.’ I drove it for a few years and also had the use of his RGS Atalanta. He’d had an accident near Blackpool and suggested that if I could find it, I could hillclimb it. I was in heaven! Julian’s generosity in those days made all the difference.”
It was Rhodes’ willingness to get his hands dirty — and to recognise an opportunity — that led to his leap from wannabe to player. “Alan Evans was my mentor, and without him I wouldn’t have had a motor racing career. It all began when Alan was studying [in a pub…] to become an accountant. A mutual friend, a doctor, enquired as to Alan’s well-being and the answer was brief and to the point. Dr Cameron suggested he found something to distract him from the stress. I’d read about John Cooper’s DIY Formula Junior kits so suggested to Alan that ‘we’ bought one. His father was the chairman of Britool and not short of a bob or two. I would assemble and maintain the car and we’d share the driving. Alan thought it was a great idea.”
So in 1960, with only a few circuit outings in a front-engined Lola behind him, 33-year-old Rhodes ventured onto the single-seater nursery slopes. “Alan wanted to do the first race which was at Mallory Park, but sharing the track with 30 other cars wasn’t for him and he never raced again. Fortunately, he was happy for me to carry on and we had a great year. It also led to me getting a test with Ken Tyrrell’s team. Unfortunately for me he already had Tony Maggs and John Love, but it stood me in good stead for the future. My exploits also led to a small band of friends getting involved in what became the Midland Racing Partnership, with [team-mate] Richard Attwood’s dad letting us have some space at his dealership in Wolverhampton; he was a concessionaire for Bentley and other marques. I was chief mechanic, I suppose, and also the lead driver. It also meant I spent more time at Cooper’s in Surbiton building up the cars.
“The old man Charlie Cooper was still there from time to time. He was a real tyrant. So was John Cooper when he felt like it, but most of the time he was very helpful. He had this clever wheeze whereby if a customer enquired about the progress of a car that was in build, the delivery ticket with his name on it would be tied to one that was almost completed. The chap would go away happy, and the ticket would then be removed and replaced with one bearing the name of the next concerned customer. Anyway, in 1961 I raced all over the place and took the Irish Formula Junior title for MRP with wins at Phoenix Park, Dunboyne and Kirkistown. What I remember most about that is the chief constable asking us to stop driving our racing cars through Dublin…”
A year later Rhodes embarked on a long relationship with Bob Gerard, driving his Cooper T59 in the International Trophy at Silverstone, while also racking up further Formula Junior and Libre triumphs aboard an Alexis and a factory Ausper. “Bob was a real racer and it was great to be driving ‘big’ cars, but they were always outdated. I did the British GP in 1965 in his Climax-powered T60 but the race I remember most was the Mediterranean GP at Enna that season. The track was built around a lake and divers were on hand in case you went in. Just to be difficult, I opted for the trees instead. The chassis fractured during practice and the car just turned sharp left. Fortunately I was rescued and we got the car patched up enough to get some start money.”
Having touched the hem of F1, there would be no further forays at World Championship level. However, in a roundabout way, Rhodes’ ‘big car’ experience would lead to a starring role in Minis. “I was testing Bob’s F1 car at Silverstone. This would be 1963,” he recalls. “The works Mini Cooper team was there, too, with dear old Ginger Devlin looking after the cars. I’d become quite friendly with Ginge while I was building the FJ cars and enquired if I could have a go in a Mini. Ginge was very possessive and didn’t like just anyone driving them, journalists especially, but he said yes. Jumping out of an F1 car and into something with tiny front disc brakes was a bit of a shock. Arriving at Copse going far too fast, I pointed the car’s nose into the apex, lifted the throttle and got it to oversteer. I then floored the throttle and found that I could control a perfect drift through the corner. Ginge was happy with my lap times and John Cooper offered me a contract.”
As a fully-fledged professional driver, Rhodes no longer had to oversee the preparation of his own car and could instead concentrate solely on driving. “Ginge always did a great job; his cars were immaculate. Test days were thorough and if [team chief] Ken Tyrrell was there you
certainly knew about it: if we were at Silverstone it would be smoked salmon sandwiches at The Green Man. If it was Ginge then we each got a cheese roll. Silverstone has many happy memories for me. The team would set up before the entry to Woodcote — on the original layout — just to see if your brakes lights came on!”
As a contracted player, Rhodes also got to savour other marques within the BMC portfolio. “I was invited to race an Austin-Healey Sprite with Paul Hawkins at Le Mans in 1965. `Hawkeye’ was a sympathetic driver. Neither of us did anything silly and we won our class and finished 13th overall. The following year I went back in a similar car with Clive Baker: the engine went bang in the night so I got a lie-in. I also did some races in MGBs. Warwick Banks was my team-mate for the 1965 Guards 1000 mile race at Brands which we won outright, while Timo Makinen joined me for the Targa Florio in ’66. We finished ninth and won our class but we could have done better still as we ran out of oil during the race. I’d stop in these villages and shout `0/io’ but nobody helped so I had to nurse the car home. Timo was a madman. He always pulled rank when it was time to drive back to the hotel [cue a look of mock terror].”
Having taken consecutive British Saloon Car class titles from 1965-68, not to mention a European class gong in ’68, a fat retainer with newly re-minted British Leyland was followed shortly thereafter by the closure of the famed Competition Department. BL chairman Lord Stokes declared that motor sport didn’t sell cars. “By now I was in my forties. Rallycross was the new thing and I did quite well in that, having already done some rallying in the past [he was a class winner aboard David Baker’s Aston Martin on the 1960 RAC]. I raced a works Opel at the ‘Ring and also John Handley’s Triumph TR6, but after that I concentrated on my classic car restoration business.”
There would be sporadic comebacks, not least for the Goodwood Revival (where he was Driver of the Meeting in 1999), before an epic shunt at Brands in ’06 almost claimed his life. Rhodes made a remarkable recovery even if the permanency of his injuries ensured he’d never drive again. Not that he obsesses on the negative. Instead he raves about his MG champion son Tim and his love of cycling, before lapsing into a yarn about Tony Lanfranchi’s waterbed and how he came to be performing stunts for The Monkees. He may have been a late bloomer, but once the anecdotes start tumbling it’s clear that Rhodes more than made up for lost time.