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50 Years Past the Finish Line: Relive the Historic Monte Carlo Win for “33 EJB”

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33 EJB. Six random characters, destined for fame.

It was 50 years ago on this day that Belfast-born driver Paddy Hopkirk rode his Morris Mini Cooper "S" and its indelible number plate into the history books at Monte Carlo - in the ultimate underdog victory.

The Monte Carlo Rally had, since its inception in 1911, been the ultimate battleground for innovative automobiles. Far more than a simple foot race from point A to point B, Monte Carlo measured the performance of a car in its entirety, putting it through its paces in nearly every imaginable driving condition. In this 3,000 mile race, reliability and strategy like this was of utmost importance.

From Paris to Minsk, Glasgow, Oslo, Frankfurt, Warsaw, Athens, or Lisbon, drivers had their pick of starting points with the Monaco district of Monte Carlo as the opulent final destination, along the Cote d'Azur. And Monte Carlo Rally's unique scoring system meant that while some of these cities are a driver's dream, penalty points were doled out for taking easier routes, for having disproportionately large engines, and a slew of other complex factors. But when all the numbers are crunched, the ultimate goal was crystal clear: decide who's the outright best.

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To really place yourself in the driver's seat of this legendary victory, you need to recall this starkly different era. It was the height of the Cold War and Europe was divided by far more than just mountains; Beatlemania was in its infancy in the United States and the glamour of American steel dominated the covers of automotive journals.

Ford was a substantial investor in the 1964 race, sending a total of eight Ford Falcons - a large muscle car featuring a V8 engine - plus three spare cars, 16 mechanics and 16 drivers. By contrast, British Motor Company (BMC) sent to the course four of its then brand new "Morris Mini Cooper S" models together with two 997cc Mini Cooper, after a 1963 first in class win with a Mini Cooper. A big surprise was about to come in a small package.

Designer of the classic Mini Sir Alec Issigonis had envisioned a brilliantly efficient "car for the people," but it was his friend John Cooper who realized the extra potential of this revolutionary vehicle. Tweaking the engine to a different standard, it was under his guidance that classic Mini became a surprise champion of the circuit - he remains the namesake of its top tier models and John Cooper Works family.

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As 299 cars took off from all four corners of Europe, Patrick 'Paddy' Hopkirk and UK-born co-driver Henry Liddon departed from behind the Iron Curtain in Minsk, Russia, setting out on a storied journey that would end at the top of the winners podium. Along the way, hurdles that many would consider unusual by today's conventional racing standards were a constant threat - a bit of bureaucracy added colour to the contest.

"The Russians let us through with a wave of the hand," explained Hopkirk to the press shortly after the win. "But the Czech border guards obviously suspected the rally cars were being used to run people across to Western Germany. They bashed the luggage on the back seat of my car with their rifle butts. They did the same to all British cars. Fortunately we managed to make up time." At another point of the race, legend has it Hopkirk and Liddon were pulled over by police for going the wrong way down a one-way street, but were let go after telling the officer they were on their way to a funeral.

Deep winter winds, only enhancing the demand for reliability, were a significant opponent too. Rumour also has it Paddy slipped some gin into the washer bottle of his car to stop it from freezing.

The most infamous stage in the Mote Carlo Rally was the final stretch over a mile-high mountain pass where all routes converged. Known as 'The Night of Long Knives', cars are tested to the limits at the Col de Turini, elevation 1607 metres. The stretch of tightly twisting slender roads gets its lyrical title because of the sight seen from the valley towns below: crisp beams of incandescence cutting brilliantly through a cold night sky. And as teams endured white-knuckle driving, spectators would exercise a long-held tradition of throwing extra snow onto the road to liven things up - a ritual that carries on to this day.

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Nearly 3,000 miles after the start, a meagre 163 cars of the initial 299 had completed the daunting battle of endurance. Zipping through freezing fog in the valley the morning of the last day, 33 EJB charged through the glamorous streets of Monte Carlo to the finish line, a blur of iconic Tartan Red and Old English White, to the cheers of local crowds and an entire nation back home.

Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon's victory (with a low penalty score of 2,536.2) was only a piece of the Gland Slam MINI had achieved at the 1964 Monte Carlo. Also driving classic Mini Cooper S, Timo Makinen took 4th, Pat Moss Carlsson placed 5th overall (and won the Ladies Cup) and Rauno Aaltonen finished 6th. British Motor Corporation also won a stack of class victories, as well as the coveted Manufacturers' Team Prize. MINI became undisputed champion of the auto world, establishing itself from then on as a serious contender in the world of motorsport and in the eyes of driving enthusiasts everywhere.

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The years that followed were legendary for MINI, beginning with outright Monte Carlo wins in 1965 and 1967. In one of the greatest scandals of the race's history, MINI swept the podium in 1966 but was disqualified for using "improper" types of headlamps. Wins at races throughout the decade asserted to all that the power of MINI should never be judged by first glance when it rolls up to the starting line.

Today, the legend of John Cooper, Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon, Rauno Altaunen, and a host of other pioneering champions of MINI Motorsport, lives on with every pump of the accelerator. There's no question about it. Racing is in our blood.

All images © BMW Group Archive

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