Rile Britannia

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British passions surged after the victorious Minis were thrown out of the 1966 Monte Carlo Rally. Fifty years on, how do the main players view that bizarre decision?

Writer Gordon Cruickshank

Motor sport’s history is littered with great injustices, real and imagined. Half a century after maybe the most notorious overturning of results ever, a decision that provoked patriotic outrage even as far as the national broadsheets and seemed to threaten the future of the event concerned, we thought we’d investigate whether passions still simmered; whether blood pressures had subsided; even whether any of those close to the action had over time changed ends on the playing field. Monte Carlo 1966: were we robbed – or were we rumbled?

The facts are plain – and to many, still raw. Following victories for BMC’s cheeky little Mini on the 1964 and ’65 Monte Carlo, most prestigious of rallies, Timo Mäkinen and Paul Easter came first on the ’66 event. Not only a hat-trick but a triple triumph, a Mini 1-2-3, a British walkover that draped the Union Jack all over the Principality. For a few hours, until the stewards declared the Minis plus the fourth-placed Ford Escort illegal and excluded the lot, with six other cars including the Imp of fastest lady crew Rosemary Smith/Valerie Domleo-Morley. A Citroën vaulted from fifth to first – and British indignation almost boiled the Med dry. It was down to bulbs. New regulations demanded a completely showroom-standard car, and the Minis complied, even to their skinny 3½in tyres. But they sported advanced new iodine-vapour headlamp bulbs…

Back then the Monte was national news, reported in the mainstream press with BBC broadcasts from the UK start and updates throughout the event. ‘The Monte’ was part of the nation’s sporting calendar, like the Derby and the FA Cup. A British win was cause for cheering; being hoofed out was a national slur. Words like ‘scandal’ and ‘fiasco’ flamed from the papers, including The Times; ‘Future of rally in doubt’, reported the Beeb. “This will be the end of the Monte Carlo rally,” said a British official. The UK contingent were reported as ‘boycotting’ the prize-giving; in fact being classified as non-finishers they weren’t entitled to attend. But Timo’s ‘winning’ car and crew, flown home, were cheered onto the stage of the London Palladium on live TV to the resonant strains of Rule Britannia. The entente hadn’t been less cordiale since Agincourt.

“It was almost the start of an Anglo-French war,” laughs Paddy Hopkirk MBE, binned from third place. “But remember, it was a war – a commercial war. There was no EU. It was important to win not for sport but to sell British goods. You were driving for your country.”

Languid-larynxed Raymond Baxter, BBC voice of motor racing and regular Monte entrant and radio reporter, was another works Mini driver to be excluded. Obliged to remain neutral, the strain shows in his closing piece. His wrap-up words, scribbled on his copy of the official results, betray a weary tone: “Well, who knows whether we shall be calling you again from Monte Carlo. Everyone here hopes the rally may survive this traumatic experience. If not, there are plenty of other excellent events…”

It wasn’t all injured home pride; newly-elevated winner Pauli Toivonen was deeply embarrassed, refusing to accept the winner’s trophy. A Citroën faithful, he would never drive for them again. And it went right to the top: Monaco’s Prince Rainier left before the prize ceremony, something he had never done before.

***

No-one was claiming the Mini win was a fluke. By 1966 the pocket rocket’s grippy road-holding, front-wheel traction, eager engine and skimpy form had shown up its traditional rivals – Twiggy’s gamine charm upstaging glamour’s conventional curves. Once the first Cooper engine arrived in 1961 the tiny tearaway was off. And not just within the baby bracket: a first Monte victory could have been Rauno Aaltonen’s in 1962 but for a topsy-turvy termination, while a year on, now in the immortal Cooper S, he proved the point by topping the Touring section of the snow-decked Alpine and taking third on the Monte. Then jovial Ulsterman Hopkirk proved you don’t need cubic inches with third on the ’63 Tour de France, that stop-start road-race where the Jaguars and Falcons thought they were uncatchable.

So while Hopkirk and Liddon’s breakthrough 1964 victory in Monte Carlo looked like giant-killing to an excited public at home – crew and car were flown home to appear on the top-ranked Sunday night TV show – it was little surprise to the wider rally arena. After Mäkinen and Paul Easter did it again in ’65 the only question was when the others would catch up.

There was more to this endeavour than the metal, though. In 1961 BMC gained a new competitions chief, Stuart Turner, who had an insatiable drive for thoroughness and an eye for upcoming talent. As well as signing up the home-grown skills of Hopkirk and Tony Fall he also realised what the Scandinavians could bring. Reared on gravel and snow, they weren’t afraid of a studded tyre or the attitude that winning was more important than merely playing. Turner soon had in his stable Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen, Finns who could fly for Britain. 

His spread of co-drivers, too, was top-notch. UK rallying required a certain type of detail mindset, and from this world Turner plucked Henry Liddon, Tony Ambrose and Paul Easter, all able to exhibit unruffled office skills and unflagging mental GPS while being hurled sideways, on ice, above a boulder-filled gorge. 

Turner was also years ahead in tyre strategy, placing thermometers on stages and making someone run up one section to see where the ice was. Over Mont Ventoux they could use racing tyres as they knew there was very little ice. Rallying was on the cusp of professionalism; for Turner, it was time to start winning.

***

All of that to reinforce this: for 1966 Minis were expected to triumph. They deserved to win, and they led throughout, ending with a decisive advantage. And instead of laurels they were lambasted. The cars were stripped to their parts in a hunt for – what?

“I’ve never seen the like,” says Bill Price, Turner’s assistant. “They took the pistons off the con rods to weigh them. I was concerned as I was responsible for the homologation papers. Then they thought they’d got us on track measurement – but they did it with people sitting on the wing and we had to correct them.”

“I’m not sure it was entirely about preventing a British win,” says Stuart Turner today. “I think there was an element of ‘bloody hell, they’re so quick they must be cheating’.” He’s surprisingly relaxed, perhaps because losing made a far bigger story for the firm. As he points out, TV viewing figures for the insulted ‘winners’ were twice what Strictly gets today… 

Some of the grievance came from the rule change. Appendix J framed Group 1 as standard touring cars with 5000 built. Below that and you were in Gp2, which the latest Monte rules hampered with an 18 per cent handicap. Thus the winner was expected to be from the slower Gp1 cars – perhaps a Citroën, especially as Saab, Volvo and Alfa could not homologate in time. But BMC was a jump ahead.

“They didn’t expect us to get 5000 built in time,” explains Paul Easter, who would have been winning co-driver. “They thought we’d be in Gp2, with no hope of a win. I’m convinced they were just looking for an excuse. René Cotton [Citroën’s manager] hated Timo – I saw him throw a brick at him as we were walking along the front at St Tropez. We were getting suspicious already because after the Ardèche loop they were checking dipping – with a piece of cardboard! Rumours were already flying…”

Bill Price confirms the cardboard story, which would test beam pattern but not intensity. “Maybe we should have told the drivers to dip to the spots, not just dim. But the first set of Appendix J regs said lights were free.”

Ah yes, the changing rules. Translations are a minefield, so Turner and Ford team chief Henry Taylor had met the FIA in Paris in 1965 to clarify anomalies. “It was a good meeting – we felt no hostility.” But in an effort to tidy up, the FIA then redrafted the wording and somewhere the bulb waiver disappeared; meanwhile double-dip iodine bulbs became available abroad, and Citroën fitted them. 

Writing in Motor Sport afterwards, reporter John Davenport, co-driver to Vic Elford and also excluded, pointed out that the French teams all knew of the changes and criticised both the FIA and ACM for not notifying entrants, and the RAC for scrutineering in London without checking for updates. As a result many British private Gp2 entrants were excluded in France for lights infringements even before the first stages. More illogically, Gp1 cars weren’t excluded here; those were checked during the event, yet allowed to continue – until that British 1-2-3-4. Even then the lights were not used for exclusion until after 18 hours of scrutiny, and the Clark and Smith cars were not inspected. Ironic, as the Fords by now had the right bulbs.

Today Davenport attempts a cold-case view: “The key players at the ACM were Louis Chiron (sporting), Jacques Taffe (technical), and a chief scrutineer borrowed from the AC de Marseille Provence, called Charles Faucon. And Cotton was very likely whispering behind the scenes.”

Most of the people I spoke to cited Cotton as a stirrer – rally historian Graham Robson says “Machiavelli could have been his uncle!” Turner, though, says “I never felt the shots were fired by Citroën. I always had a healthy respect for the team and René.” Second finisher Rauno Aaltonen concurs: “He was a gentleman; I drove for Citroën under him, and I’m sure it wasn’t him. Even the Citroën team was surprised.”

Speculating on undercurrents, Davenport says “Taffe and Faucon seemed to have an almost personal enmity towards the British cars on this rally. I just wonder if there were not something in the past between these two gentlemen and the BMC team – maybe something about Timo Mäkinen’s remarkable victory in 1965 [in the worst conditions ever, when only 35 cars finished] that had upset them.”

In fact there persists a whisper in France that BMC actually cheated in ’65, an unfounded suggestion that a lightweight ringer was used on stages and swapped back for scrutineering. It’s baseless, but might illuminate this wild goose chase a year on. “Whatever the reason,” Davenport continues, “the motive for pursuing this lunacy must have been very strong. Chiron and Taffe had many opportunities to change course and stop short of exclusion. Faucon could have been popped back into his lamp like some evil genie, sent back to Marseille, and that would have been that. A slight loss of face but not the media blitz and the feeling it was a stitch-up.”

The sense of persecution was widespread. “We got excluded even though we had retired before reaching Monaco,” says Davenport. “More evidence they were out to get people – even if you had retired they wanted to exclude you!”

Bill Price has a telling memory: “At Monte Carlo we all went to Le Bec Rouge and the head waiter said ‘You know a British car isn’t going to win this year, don’t you?’ It seemed odd a waiter with no interest in rallying should know that.” 

Aaltonen tells a supporting tale: “I told Stuart in December we were going to be disqualified. On the recce, Henry Liddon and I went to the restaurant at the top of the Col de Turini and the manager told us the top ACM people had been in for Sunday lunch. He’d heard them say that no matter what, the Minis would be excluded. So we made sure everything was correct.”

***

Having gone to bed in weary triumph, Aaltonen and the others were summoned at 8am to the ACM HQ. “A gentleman in a black suit announced ‘you are excluded.’ Why? For not having yellow lights. Paddy said it wasn’t a requirement. He went rather red and left. Fifteen minutes later he returned to say the track was wrong. We protested. He came back again to say dipping to foglights was illegal. Not true either, but…”

Not all the French were agin us. Amidst the fuss Edouard Seidler of sports magazine l’Equipe proposed a back-to-back test with a standard Mini. “We borrowed a second-hand car from Wrights’ showroom in Monte,” says Price. “Edouard and Timo both tried it and the winner on a short section of the route, and both achieved better times in the standard car.”

“Not surprising,” says Turner. “There was no rally clobber weighing it down!”.

Despite the furore and an FIA appeal, the result stood. When Aaltonen won yet again in 1967, Faucon was the only dissenter. Aaltonen: “He was famous for putting the Minis down. He slammed my bonnet five times until a lamp filament broke, then gave me a penalty. I said some very strong things until he cancelled it.” 

So – were we robbed? By the strictest definition the lights were non-standard and thus not showroom-spec. The absurd thing is that with standard bulbs they’d have won anyway – the Minis were simply quicker even in daylight. But in every other respect the Minis were scrupulously prepared in accordance with their homologation papers. The game little hot-shots were quickest thanks to top crew skills, superb preparation and mechanics, and brilliant tyre strategy. There’s no doubt the exclusion was contrived, and illogically handled. But by whom? And does it matter now?

Aaltonen is sanguine. “I can’t say I ever think about it. In every sport there are bought victories; if we get upset every time, we should take up music instead.”

Bought victories? “Oh yes. Who knows – perhaps someone in French industry. But we shouldn’t condemn a nation because of a couple of unsporting people. I was only upset because
I didn’t get my prize bonus!”

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