Rally archive: Rallying the Mini

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Small wonder!

When BMC’s Mini was unveiled in 1959 and enjoyed instant success, it caused a revolution in the car industry as other manufactures were panicked into setting their design departments working immediately on the front-wheel-drive, transverse-engine, small-car concept. It was a long time before they caught up, and meanwhile the Mini became so immensely popular that its sales exceeded what must have been BMC’s own expectations. Indeed, not to have a Mini was almost a social stigma, and the agile little cars were as common garaged alongside Rolls-Royces as they were on housing estate driveways.

Its sporting potential was quickly recognised, especially when the unofficial slogan “the car that can’t be rolled” began to be bandied about. That expression proved not to be true, of course, but Minis nevertheless began to flood the entry lists of competitions up and down the country, on circuits, in rallies, in driving tests – indeed in almost every kind of motoring event. It even replaced the standard GPO telephone kiosk as the “container” most often used in attempts to pack the greatest number of people inside!

In the early Sixties you could go to the start of any Saturday night rally, in Wales, the Lake District, Scotland, Yorkshire or anywhere else, and you would find that the model most numerous among those lining up for the start was the Austin or Morris Mini, and quite often one of them would win.

Internationally, the model enjoyed similar success, especially after its engine was increased in size from 850cc to 998cc, to 1071cc and to 1275cc, and tuned to be called Mini-Cooper and later Mini-Cooper S.

It was not long before the BMC Rally Team at Abingdon was astounding and confounding its opposition by scoring success after success in the world’s major rallies. Could such a diminutive car rally beat its much bigger rivals? Beat them it did, fairly and squarely, time and time again.

The first major Mini successes came in 1962, when Bengt Søderstrom won Sweden’s Rally To The Midnight Sun, forerunner to what is now the wintertime Swedish Rally, and Pat Moss won both the Tulip and German Rallies. The following year Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose gained a “coupe” in the Alpine Rally, and took another in 1964.

It was in that year that the fame of Mini rallying successes spread beyond the circles of motor clubs to ordinary road users of the High Street. To them, the Monte Carlo Rally represented the pinnacle of rallying, and when Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon won that event in a 1071cc Mini Cooper S, the little car really made its mark.

In 1965 Timo Mäkinen and Paul Easter repeated the success in a 1275cc car, and this time the Continentals found the humiliation of being beaten by such a small, insignificant car almost too much to tolerate.

It could not possibly be allowed to happen a third time, and no doubt knives were sharpened in readiness even then, as the Mini went on in 1965 to win the Rally of the Thousand Lakes (Mäkinens’s first of three successive wins), and the RAC Rally (Aaltonen) for the first and only time.

What happened during the Monte Carlo Rally of 1966 is not unique, for victories have been contrived in one way or another on several occasions, but the blatant and scandalous way that the Mini was deprived of its hat-trick is written boldly in the annals of rallying skulduggery. On the thirtieth anniversary of the Mini’s first appearance, it is appropriate to look back 23 of those years at the disgraceful fiasco which schemed the disqualification of Mäkinen and Easter after they had finished as unrivalled winners.

It has been said that BMC reaped more publicity for the Mini from that disqualification than from all the car’s victories put together, so although sportsmen were outraged by the disgraceful exhibition of determined favouritism, BMC’s publicists and sales staff were no doubt delighted! Car and crew even appeared live on the popular television show of the time, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and it might be the one case which disproves the theory that only winners ever receive accolades.

Whenever we see a list of past Monte Carlo winners the anger of January 1966 returns, and we find ourselves manipulating words in order to refrain from mentioning in writing that the rally of that year was officially won by a Citroen DS21. Mäkinen, Easter and their Mini-Cooper S were, and always will be, real victors.

To understand what led to the scenes of near-riot in rally headquarters, just off Casino Square, when the disqualifications of three Mini-Coopers, two Cortina-Lotuses and one Hillman Imp were announced, it is necessary to go back to the completely-revised vehicle regulations (Appendix J) announced by what was then called CSI of the FIA, now FISA. The intention was to create two main groups of cars: Group I for standard touring cars and Group II for modified cars.

Broadly, the rules seemed straightforward, insisting that for Group I homologation 5000 of a particular model had to be manufactured in one year. Furthermore, very little change was allowed, and the cars had to have the standard engine, steering wheel, road wheels, fascia and seats, among other things (this is when “wrap-around” seat covers became fashionable, because standard seats gave no sideways support at all). a choice of two gearbox ratios was permitted, and two axle ratios. Brake pad/lining material was optional, but forward lighting was restricted to the fitting of only two additional lamps.

It all seemed perfectly easy to understand, but there were several anomalies, and when the English translation was compared to the French original, little nuances seemed to exist in the latter which had not been written into the former.

This matter was urgent, because entries had already been put in for the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally and applications made for homologation in Group I. British manufacturers sent a delegation to Paris with the object of clearing up these irregularities, and the result was a better understanding by everyone. Shortly afterwards, the 1275 Mini-Cooper S, the Cortina-Lotus, the Citroen DS21, the Lancia Fulvia and the Ford Mustang were accepted as Group I cars.

This was important, for the Monte Carlo Rally regulations that year gave an 18% handicap on all penalties for cars of Group II, which made it very unlikely that such a car would win.

However, despite the Paris meeting, all manner of little things remained unresolved; things such as the degree of seat adjustment and whether they could be raised or lowered, and the position of dashboard switches. It was at this time that extension stalks were fitted to switches and to Halda Tripmaster buttons so that they could be reached by crews even when they were strapped in.

Even the most minute detail of car preparation had to be considered carefully, lest it should fall foul of whatever interpretation might be placed on the regulations by the scrutineers. In this respect, French manufacturers had the advantage, for all the regulations were written firstly in their language. The translations were sometimes strangely and ambiguously worded, but apparently the original texts were not. In any case, the French teams were on hand to query with the CSI any point which troubled them.

The Saab and Volvo teams were particularly unhappy, and eventually decided not to enter because their cars were not accepted for Group I, this was quite incredible, for the mass-produced Swedish cars, hardly modified at all for rallying, had far more right to be considered standard than some of the exotic machinery produced in less quantity in more southerly parts of Europe.

It was about this time that the CSI produced a revised version of the new Appendix J, no doubt with the good intention of including detail of the matters cleared up during the meeting between itself and the British manufacturers. However, other points hitherto not covered also found their way in, and the need for clarification would undoubtedly have arisen again had everyone been aware of this new revision. Alas, they were not, and many interested parties continued their Monte Carlo preparations quite unaware that vehicle rules had been revised once again.

Regulations, whether they be concerned with the construction of motor cars, the tensile strength of biplane struts or the water content of real ale, should be totally free from ambiguity. If a rule is open to more than one interpretation, it is a bad rule and should be scrapped in favour of another which has only one possible meaning. As an international organisation, the CSI should have ensured that its rules were absolutely precise – in French, English and whatever other language into which they were translated. Unfortunately, it did not learn by its neglect, for ambiguities just as serious have appeared since.

One of the new introductions which was not brought to the notice of British competitors was that all cars, whatever their group, should have no more than six forwards-facing lights, inclusive of standard headlamps. This was additional to the rule that Group I cars were permitted only two ancillary lamps.

When British crews left the London start several of them had more than six front lamps on their cars. They were under the impression that there was no limit on the number of lamps fitted to Group II cars. Imagine the surprise, disappointment and disgust of these crews when, on arrival at Monaco, they were immediately disqualified for having more than six front lamps.

The works Group I cars were in a similar situation, but for a different reason. Being allowed only two extra lamps, Abingdon hit on the idea of fitting their Minis’ standard headlamps with single-filament, non-dipping iodine vapour bulbs. The two extra lamps were foglamps, and when the dipswitch was operated, the main headlamps were extinguished, leaving the foglamps to act as dipped headlights. It was an effective, efficient system, considering that the maximum number of lamps was four, and the foglamps could be adjusted so that they caused no dazzle to oncoming traffic.

The fact that British teams intended to use iodine vapour bulbs had been made known, to the CSI at least, during the meeting with managers some time before, and the SCI’s failure to notify them subsequently that the rules had been changed concerning this very point was nothing short of culpable neglect. The rally organisers knew in advance about the rule changes; so did French competitors, but the very people known to be directly affected were not told. Even the RAC scrutineer who check the London starters before they left did not make any comment and it is the usual procedure for national clubs to be notified by the CSI of all rule changes.

In those days the concentration runs led all the way to Monaco itself, and were followed after a night stop by the main “Common Run” and, after another night stop, by the final “Complementary Run”.

The organisers displayed their knowledge of the new rules by disqualifying the British private entrants who had more than six lamps on their Group II cars at the first arrival in Monaco, but they did not to the same to the works Group I cars for having non-dipping iodine vapour bulbs in their headlamps. No doubt they felt that disqualification of the professionals at such an early stage would cause an enormous furore, and that it would be better to wait until the end, when perhaps the Minis would no longer be leading.

They did issue a statement declaring their knowledge of the dipping system of the three Minis, the two Cortinas and the Imp, but made no move to disqualify them.

At the end of the rally on Friday, a completely different situation prevailed. Not only had Mäkinens’s Mini won, but British cars filled the first four places and Rosemary Smith had won the Ladies’ Prize in her Imp.

Even then there was no talk of disqualification, but when the three Minis, which took the first three places overall and the Manufacturer’s Team Prize, went to scrutineering a stripping session began which took all of the Friday and most of the night. Everything was taken apart, checked closely and compared with the homologation forms. But no discrepancies were found. The cars obviously conformed mechanically to their declared specifications.

That the Minis should win for a third year seemed not only embarrassing but intolerable. Something had to be done, and the only thing possible was to invoke the rule concerning the lights. After the scrutineering session, a bulletin was posted stating that the three Minis, Roger Clark’s Cortina-Lotus and Rosemary Smith’s Imp had all been disqualified because they had the wrong bulbs in their headlamps.

The crowd of angry competitors, journalists, mechanics and supporters filling the outer hall of rally headquarters demonstrated their indignation so forcibly that the organisers’ counter was in danger of being overturned. But the protestations were to no avail. The organisers were unmoved. The six cars remained disqualified and the results were posted showing the winning car to be Toivonen’s Citroen DS21.

It is important to remember that the disqualification did not result from anything found at final scrutineering. The bulb situation had been known to the organisers three days before, and yet they allowed the cars to continue. Furthermore, Clark’s Cortina was not even checked at final scrutineering. Had they bothered to inspect the car, the scrutineers would have found standard, dipping headlamp bulbs, for they had been changed towards the end of the final leg. It was clear, therefore, that Clark was being disqualified on the Friday for a discrepancy found on the Tuesday!

Throughout the whole distasteful story it was perfectly clear that the three works teams involved had acted in good faith, had always declared their intentions, and had provided their crews with the best possible equipment allowed by the regulations. That they were not notified of a last-minute change of regulations was nothing short of disgusting. Fortunately, there have since been changes in the organisation of the Monte Carlo Rally, and such blatant endeavours to remove “undesirable” cars from the prize list no longer take place.

The story goes that, when the shouting subsided, BMC, anxious to demonstrate that there was nothing non-standard about the winning car, took a new Mini-Cooper S form the showroom of the Monaco dealer to the Col du Turini, whereupon Mäkinen drove over the stage and recorded a time fractionally less than that which he did in the rally.

In those days, Monte Carlo attracted national daily newspapermen in greater numbers than specialist writers, and the result was a degree of publicity that BMC had not thought possible. Much of what was written in the daily Press was somewhat removed from fact, to say the least, but publicity for the Mini was nevertheless quite amazing, and when Mäkinen and Easter took their Mini-Cooper S on to the stage of the London Palladium, you could have heard the thunderous applause in Abingdon itself!

The following year, BMC returned to Monte Carlo. This time there were no underhand tactics by the organisers, although they did point out that the rule that rally plates should be mounted in the flat, vertical plane meant just that, whereas the front of a Mini’s bonnet was actually slightly curved. Immediately brackets were made, and from then on the Minis were seen with their rally plates mounted vertically above the windscreens. In that year they also carried spare tyres on roof racks, due to a rule which gave an advantage to cars using no more than eight tyres per competitive leg, all to be carried in the cars. But that is another story.

As though to prove the agility and performance of the Mini-Cooper S, and that the 1966 victory was not produced by a magic, go-faster headlamp bulb, Aaltonen and Liddon were outright winners of the 1967 event in a similar car.

The little Mini was not a secret weapon devised by the British to defeat the other European manufactures by foul means. It was a straightforward piece of superb design and craftsmanship, available to anyone who wanted to go in and buy one, capable of taking on any other car in the world and winning! GP