The Monte Carlo Rally, one of the world's great motoring classics, celebrated its 100th anniversary in January with a highly tweaked version of a tiny brick-shaped economy car - the Mini Cooper - marking its 50th year by winning the historic division and in the process reprising its mid-1960s domination of the event.
From its inception in 1911, the Monte Carlo Rally has been one of the toughest of tests for machine, driver and navigator. Multiple starting points were scattered across Europe - in the 1960s, Glasgow, Stockholm, Warsaw, Paris, Frankfurt, Lisbon and Athens - and, after a couple of days of driving in winter conditions on complex routes, the cars converged on the south of France. Here things heated up with a series of stages and tests, some more than 1,000 km long, and ranging from icy Alpine passes to just plain "nasty little roads" that had to be driven flat out night-and-day day-after-day in often appalling conditions and with timing to the second.
A win in "the Monte" elevated a car and the team that drove it to international hero status and was solid gold in marketing terms, which by the early 1960s had led to a high level of competition among factory-backed teams.
One of this grand event's enduring legends was created between 1964 and 1967 by the Mini Cooper, which had arrived on the motoring scene in 1961. It won the Monte outright in three of those years - and if it had been fitted with the right headlamp bulbs - would have made it four in a row.
To begin the Cooper story, we have to back up a couple of years to 1959 and the introduction by the British Motor Corp. (BMC) of the Mini. This snub-nosed box on wheels was the creation of engineer Sir Alec Issigonis and BMC's answer to the mid-1950s fuel-crisis-inspired motorbike-engined microcars.
The Mini, although just three metres long, was the real thing, with room inside for four, a clever and compact front-engine/front-drive powertrain and thanks to a unique suspension system astonishingly good handling.
The Mini was a virtually instant hit, finding favour with the frugal and the rich and famous. And, once they'd figured out that it handled better than many sports cars, the go-fast crowd who were soon catered to by firms offering potency improving parts.
Among these was one run by an old racing pal of Issigonis's, John Cooper, who was busy setting the Formula One world on its ear -world championships in 1959 and 1960 - with his rear-engined racers.
His drivers Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren were already Mini fans and driving around with motors tweaked to Formula Junior race engine specs. And after trying a Mini Cooper himself, so was Cooper, who approached Issigonis about building a Mini hot-rod.
Issigonis was reluctant but his boss at BMC bought into the idea after being taken for a blast around the proving grounds in a prototype by Cooper who voiced his now-famous quote, "Let's build some for the boys."
The Mini Cooper that arrived in September 1961 was powered by a twin-carb, 55-hp, 997-cc A-Series four (the Mini made do with a 34-hp, 850-cc unit), a remote gear change to stir the cogs in a close ratio gearbox and what looked like scale-model disc brakes up front. Suspension and steering were already so good they were unaltered. Two-tone paint jobs with a contrasting roof became a Cooper trademark. Cooper got ₤2 per copy from BMC.
More powerful Coopers followed, including the famous S models produced from 1963 to 1971, and the car became a giant killer on the road, race track and in rallies.
The Mini Cooper made its Monte debut in 1962 but didn't fare too well, scuttled by a lack of preparation. In the 1963 event, things improved with a class win and third overall going to Finnish driver Rauno Aaltonen and co-driver Tony Ambrose.
For 1964, six factory Coopers were entered backed by no less than 24 privateer entries and after an epic fight the win went to Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon in their Cooper with the Ford factory Falcon second and Erik Carlsson's Saab third. The 1965 event was a snowy nightmare but a Cooper S prevailed again, this time driven by Timmo Makinen and Paul Easter.
The 1966 Monte results still raise the hackles of Cooper enthusiasts. After a first-, second- and third-place finish, all three cars were disqualified after an excruciating post-event scrutineering by the French organizers deemed the headlamp bulbs of the Coopers weren't legal. The win was handed to a Citroen.
Although starting to show their age, the Mini Coopers still won it again in 1967 with the team of Aaltonen and Ambrose victorious and might have in 1968, their last attempt, if it had snowed. Dry roads gave the advantage to a pair of Porsches, which finished ahead of the third-, fourth- and fifth-place Mini Coopers.
The Mini brand is now owned by BMW, but the Cooper name and legend survive and were burnished to brightness once more when Rauno Aaltonen returned to drive a 1969 Cooper S to another historic Monte win in January. The Mini name also returns to big-time rallying this year with Mini planning to run a Countryman in selected World Rally Championship events.