‘The Mini is lovely to drive, whether fast, slow, or some point in between’
From 1962 to 1963, the Saab 96 reigned supreme at the historic Rallye de Monte Carlo, with its goofy two-stroke three-cylinder engine and moon-faced Swedish pilot, Erik Carlsson. But this glory was short lived. The next four years would be dominated by a racing effort featuring a Greek-designed car run by a British racing team featuring a mad Irishman and two Flying Finns. This is the story of the Monte Carlo Mini.
Monte Carlo seems a million miles away from where I am standing right now, though. As the morning mists clear over Clark International Speedway, we’re standing around waiting for the crew to finish prepping our brand-new Mini. Last time I was here, I had a turbocharged Ferrari and the whole track to myself. Unfortunately, this was for a contract which involved driving in a straight line, stopping, and returning to the garage. Even with carte blanche to do as I wished, I couldn’t necessarily do anything fun with a car that expensive. In an expensive exotic, each and every one of Clark’s candy-striped curbs flashes like a neon ‘OFF LIMITS’ sign. Anything beyond a mild 8/10ths lap is strictly verboten.
But the Mini is something different. Where a Ferrari or a Porsche will claw at the tarmac so hard, it’s doing double the speed limit before the tires let go, the buzzy Brit is infinitely adjustable and biddable. I haven’t driven a Cooper S for a while, but within a few laps, I’m teasing the edge of oversteer, bouncing off curbs and into delicious four-wheel drifts for the camera. And when I say I’m doing it for the camera, really, I’m doing it all for myself.
It would be easy to discount the Monte Carlo Edition as a simple stickers-and-stripes package, but there’s something appealing about the thing. A John Cooper Works bodykit and JCW wheels wrapped in sticky Dunlop Sport Maxx RT tires mark the Monte Carlo Edition as somewhat more special than the regular Cooper or Cooper S. Yes, that’s a lot of Coopers. Indeed, without John Cooper himself, the Mini would never have become a legend.
It was Cooper who first saw the Mini’s potential. When Alec Issigonis’ little BMC Morris Mini Minor hit showrooms in 1959, it was notable mostly as the cheapest thing on four wheels, and nothing more. Sales were not promising at the start, but things would soon change. Legendary racing driver and manufacturer John Cooper—the man who introduced the mid-engined layout to Formula 1—saw the potential of the car, and persuaded Issigonis to work with him on a sporting model.
Thus, in 1961, the Mini Cooper was born. With a powerful twin-carbureted 997cc engine making a heady 55hp (the standard Mini made a measly 34), a short-ratio gearbox, front disc brakes, and a revised suspension, it was certifiable. So much so that it claimed third place overall in the 1963 Monte Carlo Rallye, just over a minute behind Carlsson’s Saab.
But in 1964, BMC ran the Cooper S, with a 70hp 1,071cc engine. And at the famous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ stage, run at the Col de Turini mountain pass, Irishman Paddy Hopkirk crushed everyone—including ace teammates Rauno Aaltonen and Timo Mäkinen, left-foot braking virtuosos both. And Bo Ljungfeldt in his awesome Ford Falcon Sprint, running a 305hp V8, an LSD-equipped nine-inch rear differential, and lightweight fiberglass body panels. Granted, class handicapping gave Hopkirk the advantage, but he dominated the snowy mountain stages and crossed the line just 17sec adrift of Ljungfeldt’s almighty Falcon in the final Monte Carlo city stage. On countback, Paddy had won the overall event.
The sight of the jolly Irishman and his Mini on TV sparked a media frenzy in Britain. The Mini, already gaining popularity, suddenly became cool. Celebrities had to have them. Specialty shops like Radford offered luxury variants for the moneyed bourgeois. Designer Mary Quant named her iconic skirt after it. And over the next few years, it dominated at Monte Carlo, winning every single race from 1964 to 1967. The Mini’s 1-2-3 finish in 1966 so incensed French officials that they spent hours scrutineering the cars, finally disqualifying them for non-regulation light bulbs.
Of course, the lights on this Monte Carlo Edition are fully legal, unless the LTO suddenly decides that factory-installed LEDs and foglamps aren’t kosher. The bodykit should pass, as should the limited-edition scuff plates. The JCW-sourced rims are the same size as the stockers on the Cooper S, and the engine still makes the standard 192hp . Not that you’ll miss the extra rush or the rock-hard ride of the JCW. With this car, you’re paying for the overall experience. The cheeky British flag LEDs built into the dashboard and taillights. The special Harmann Kardon sound system. The panoramic sunroof. The goofball interior with its preponderance of chrome rings, dip switches, and hidden Mickeys. And the rorty, naughty snap-crackle-pop exhaust note as you flip the starter switch to bring the car to life.
From the far end of the racetrack, the howl of tortured tires comes filtering through the wind, only dying down as the track clears and we head out. I can’t actually go all out on these tires, as this car is going straight to the Mini Festival after this test. It’s blazing hot, and the tires are getting sticky from simply dawdling along down the straights. It’s four corners at full chat and half a lap to cool off between takes. Like a roller coaster with just one loop followed by a string of gentle curves.
Not that it’s such a chore. The Mini is lovely to drive, whether fast, slow, or some point in between. The bespoke cloth racing seats—lifted from the JCW catalog—hold you in firmly but comfortably through every flick-flack. The broad torque curve of the new 2.0-liter engine makes it more tractable than the old 1.6, and it never has problems putting the power down through an aggressively snappy seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. In contrast to the occasional turn-in understeer of the old car, this one’s razor-sharp on entry, only washing wide mid-corner if you really lean into it...arcing into gentle and balletic four-wheel drifts. This is no Porsche 911, aching to be driven on the razor’s edge. Instead, it’s more forgiving, and utterly more approachable.
It’s those Porsches that ended the Mini’s Monte Carlo reign. In 1968, the Porsche team, which only managed third in 1967, claimed the top two spots, followed by a flurry of Minis. The following year, the BMC Mini team would quit for good, no longer competitive with the incredible 911s.
While Paddy Hopkirk would never again stand on the top step at Monte Carlo, the number 37 has gone down in history as one of the most iconic racing cars ever. And as I coast burbling back into the garage, I can’t help feeling a pang of regret while preparing myself to hand the keys back to the Mini marketing team. Granted, the Monte Carlo Edition isn’t quite a race car for the road, but it’s loads of fun, better kitted than the standard Cooper S, and will only be available for purchase online at Lazada Philippines starting November 11. And only for the first 20 customers.