The real Italian job
It was David versus Goliath when a Mini was entered against the Ferraris on the 1962 Targa Florio. And the tiny British car won fans all over Sicily. Bernard Cahier tells the tale
When the 1962 Monte Carlo Rally took place, I asked Paddy Hopkirk, one of the works drivers, if he would be kind enough to bring me a kilo of fresh caviar since he was starting that year in Minsk. Paddy promised that he wouldn’t forget and when he arrived victoriously in Monaco he brought that precious caviar to my hotel. Two other drivers, Makinen and Aaltonen, were also present, plus team director Stuart Turner and of course the genius engineer Alec Issigonis, the father of the Mini.
We had a great celebration that evening and when Turner heard what Hopkirk had brought me, he wasn’t amused. “Paddy, you know we have slaved to trim every gramme of weight out of this Mini.” he said. “And now I learn you have come all the way from Minsk with a kilo of caviar… “
In those days I was already driving a Mini Cooper and my relations were extremely good with BMC and lssigonis. BMC was a wonderful company in those days and it was run by a first class gentleman named Sir George Harriman. I often went to Birmingham to visit them, putting my car on the Air Ferry plane to Geneva and landing not far from Birmingham. It was on one of these occasions that I met two exceptional English characters, Daniel Richmond and his wife. Bunty.
A very talented engineer, Daniel’s Downton Engineering concern became legendary through its very fast Mini Cooper specials. His racing shop was in Wiltshire near where he lived in a country house loaded with the very best wines. Both places looked chaotic, but the work they were doing on the Mini Cooper was remarkable.
While in Monaco I suggested to him it would be fun to run a Mini in the Targa Florio. Issigonis loved the idea as it was so inconceivable to run one of his little bombs in a famous international World Championship Sports Car race. “Who would drive with you?” they asked me. “Prince Metternich,” I replied. “Not just because he is a prince, but also because he is a good driver and president of the German Automobile Club.”
So the implausible event was planned and on a sunny day in May 1962 a blue-and-white Mini Cooper S was unloaded in Palermo. With the Richmonds in their van was one mechanic and a few spare parts. With the help of Sicilian friends I’d made when driving on the Targa Florio on three previous occasions, we soon got organised.
We were staying in a superb hotel and to help us with everything we had an enthusiastic local garage owner, Giulio Bonaventuri. A couple of Fiats were rented for travelling back and forth from Palermo to the track and also to be used as practice cars. In those days, the 45-mile course was not closed for practice, so everyone used rental cars for this purpose. Needless to say, the Targa Florio was a real disaster for Hertz and Avis. Some of the cars that made it back to them on Monday morning were fit only for the junk yard.
On race day Prince Metternich, a gentleman of high standing, and who had come to the race with a beautiful Belgian princess, had looked after the food and drinks required for a long day’s driving. Fresh lobster, delicate hams, wild strawberries and chilled champage were stacked up in our pits and we were ready for action.
Cheered by the “Bravos” of the crowd, our Mini was on its way and, apart from some gearbox problems, we had an almost perfect race. When it was going right the Mini was spectacular and immediately became the darling of the crowd. Nobody in Sicily had every seen a Mini Cooper before and everyone got really enthusiastic about this sliding, noisy, arrogant, little car.
I soon discovered that we could not make three laps without refuelling. But I had seen that Ferrari had installed a fuel-pit in the wild mountainous region about half-way around the course and since I was good friends with the Ferrari team I made a quick pit stop there. No problem. I received the same rapid treatment as a works driver of the Scuderia and I told Prince Metternich that he could use their facilities as well. On this occasion the most surprised person was the Ferrari Team Manager, Tavoni, who heard on his radio that Cahier had been in and out of their pits.
With tender love and care our lithe Mini went all the way to the end to finish third in its class of bigger, more powerful cars. On the last lap the public was lined up along the track to cheer our car and even threw flowers at us. Yes the Targa Florio of 1962 was a wonderful experience which brought more fame to the Mini. In addition, last but not least, the lobster and champage we had when not driving were delicious.
Daniel Richmond and BMC decided to have another trip to Sicily the following year. This time two cars were entered, one ‘classic’ and the other one a very unusual specimen which used two engines. The result was a ferocious Mini with 200bhp. It was, perhaps, too wild and the car, to be driven by Sir John Whitmore and Paul Frere, suffered many gearbox problems. Mine was an improved version of the 1962 car. This time my co-driver was no longer Prince Metternich but a fast Dutch driver named Roby Sloetemaker, a good-looking, blond fellow. Roby was a real sportsman and an ex-Air Force pilot.
As in the past, the Richmond organisation was basic and down-to-earth. The spares were carried on the roof-rack as they came by boat from England. Our faithful Italian mechanic welcomed us and, with the help of several other friends, we certainly made a colourful and relaxed team.
Our Mini’s first appearance had been a crowd pleaser and we received a wonderful welcome everywhere from enthusiastic local supporters. The car seemed to run well, and life was beautiful. We even had time to go to the beach as soon as practice was over. We no longer had the Prince and Duchess with their lobster and champagne, but we did have our Sicilian friends who brought us many local specialities and the dry white Corvo wine was definitely up to our standards.
The race was long and difficult, but our Mini was very fast and much at ease with the 7100 curves of the circuit (710 per lap), though we encountered overheating. This prevented us from running a full lap safely without adding water, but I quickly found the solution. Halfway around the circuit, way up in the mountains, there was a group of enthusiastic Mini supporters. At the end of the first lap I made signals to them and then started to make my own pit stop. It worked like a charm. I would stop and our fan club would rush to the car, open the bonnet, pour water in, give me a drink, a lighted cigarette and oranges for the road. I was off like a flash, ears ringing with their cheers. When I handed the car to Roby I explained the situation to him and our special Sicilian pitstop continued to work like clockwork throughout the entire event.
We finished in style, and our supporters walked miles to Chefalu to find us and the little Cooper among all the big sports cars. Touched by this unforgettable memory of the most romantic race course in the world, Roby Sloetemaker was overwhelmed with joy. It was a great loss to me when this charming friend died in a race a few years later.