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[NEWS] Obituary: Rallying legend Paddy Hopkirk dies aged 89

Obituary: Rallying legend Paddy Hopkirk dies aged 89

Paddy Hopkirk with Monte Carlo Mini
Hopkirk and '33 EJB' – the Mini Cooper S he drove to victory at Monte Carlo

Hopkirk won fame with 1964 Monte Carlo rally victory and remained involved in motorsport for the next half-century

Legendary rally driver and charismatic brand ambassador Paddy Hopkirk has died at the age of 89 - some 69 years after his first motorsport victory.

It’s a measure of the man that he was almost as famous as the Mini, the car that carried him to a brilliant - now legendary - victory on the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.

It’s also a mark of him that he subsequently enjoyed not only more success in motorsport, but also built a thriving automotive parts business, worked energetically supporting various charities, played a prominent role in the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC), promoted safer road driving with the Institute of Advanced Motorists and in later life earned an MBE in 2016 for this mountain of work and success.

That single Monte victory made him a household name in the Swinging Sixties, earning him telegrams from prime minister Alec Douglas-Home and The Beatles to display alongside his trophy, as well as the freedom of his city of birth, Belfast, and an appearance, alongside 33 EJB, his winning steer, on Sunday Night at the Palladium.

But brilliant though it was, that Monte win was just a snapshot of his incredible talent behind the wheel and gave the public only a glimpse of the generous, gregarious personality that put an individual at ease just as readily as it could win over a big audience. Hopkirk, dyslexic but academically accomplished, hungry for victory but ready to give up success to help fellow competitors in trouble, was a man who had the desire and personality to achieve whatever he set his heart on, and take people on that journey with him.

Legend had it that he honed his talents behind the wheel from the age of nine, having persuaded a clergyman to leave him his invalid carriage in his will. The bug clearly bit, as he progressed to a motorbike and sidecar (the latter added by his father in the hope it would help keep his son safe) and then, while studying at Trinity College in Dublin, acquired an Austin 7, a car that changed his life and set him on his route to stardom. The rally bug having bitten, he dropped out of university and set off to work for Volkswagen, as he told it, as much for his access to Beetles he could compete in as for the salary. 

Offers of factory drives didn’t take long; first in a Standard Ten on the RAC Rally, then with Rootes in a Hillman Husky on the Safari Rally. Underlining his versatility, that Rootes link led to a touring car outing in a Rapier in a British Grand Prix support race; he duly finished first. He would go on to show off his prowess in circuit racing regularly, as far afield as Bathurst, Australia and as close to home as Goodwood. He never failed to entertain.

A move to BMC (British Motor Corporation) followed, and after showing promise in 1963, his appointment with history in Monte Carlo arrived the following year. Co-driven by Henry Liddon, he secured victory with a gutsy drive in typically difficult conditions. Despite the world championship success of Colin McRae and Richard Burns, and top-level success of Roger Clark, Kris Meeke and Elfyn Evans, Hopkirk remains the last British driver to win the blue riband event.

There were many wins, podiums and demonstrations of his remarkable ability, including an Acropolis Rally triumph, five Circuit of Ireland victories, three Le Mans finishes, a Spa 24hr class win and regular Targa Fliorio outings. But perhaps one outing - not victory - highlights the breadth of his personality more than others. On the 1968 London-Sydney Rally Hopkirk and co-driver Tony Nash were following Lucien Bianchi and Jean-Claude Ogier, locked in a battle for the win, when their rivals hit another car head on, their Citroën DS bursting into flames. Stopping to pull the occupants out of both crashed vehicles, Hopkirk and Nash then warned oncomers of the hazard ahead until emergency help arrived. A chance of victory was gone (although they still took second) but Hopkirk never paused to rue what might have been.

Hopkirk carried on competing full-time until 1970, adding to his victory tally on national events and fighting at the sharp end of internationals, but even in ‘retirement’, the lure of competition never really went away; in 1977 he made the podium on the London-Sydney again, in 1982 he won the RAC Golden 50, a special anniversary event featuring many legends of the sport, and in 1990 he won the Pirelli Classic Marathon. Time may have taken the edge off his enthusiasm for full-time competition, but the speed was still there, always accompanied by a mischievous grin that could light up any room, but especially the post-event bar. When a Rally Hall of Fame was established in 2010, he was one of the first four inductees.

Hopkirk died in Stoke Mandeville Hospital yesterday (Thursday) but, true to form, had been working away on various automotive and charity projects even recently. His passing leaves a hole in the lives of many he helped and supported - but a legacy for them to be proud of.  He is survived by his wife Jennifer and children Katie, Patrick and William, and six grandchildren.

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