My first memory of an ace Mini driver was not of a heroic bloke, but a very feminine and fast lady called Christabel Carlisle, later Lady Watson. She made it all the way to the works BMC team as a driver and occasional rally navigator in an era when women rarely appeared as winning motor sport drivers. This dates back 60 years, before I could drive, but as a teenager I could buy a cheap softback book. It was a 1963 title: Mini Racing that fired my imagination; today Christabel’s low cost paperback demands some £40 on Amazon!
As soon as my maniacal motorcycle obsessions faded—prompted by regular accidents and occasional hospitalizations—I bought an 850 Mini. By 1965 I could watch works Minis at Brands Hatch work. Yes, John ‘Smoking’ Rhodes’ caught the eye for spectacle but I subsequently followed the fortunes of the yellow and black Britax Mini Cooper S-types driven by established ace Steve Neal and Downton sales employee Gordon Spice.
Both were tough team mates and both came into my working life. Steve monitored my first major multiple track test for the now defunct Cars & Car Conversions (CCC) and ‘Gordy’ was my hero for winning the1979 Spa 24 hours, the last time touring cars raced the long and ultra quick road circuit for a day and a night. The decades passed and Steve could be seen managing the British Touring Car fortunes of son Matt and the 100+ Wheels enterprises, whilst I worked with Gordon on his 2009 book : Life of Spice.
The Mini made many motorsport champions, but perhaps the biggest giant killer achievements were those of 1964 1-litre division and outright European Champion Warwick Banks, run by the Ken Tyrrell Team more famous for Formula 1 World titles with Jackie Stewart. Also worthy were 1968 European class winners Johns Handley and Rhodes versus stiff opposition and over longer races than the UK norm. For the 1968 season Gordon Spice took the 1-litre division of the British series, but in 1969 British saloon car title winner Alec Poole topped Spice with outright title victory, who also used an Arden-prepared Mini Cooper 970S rather than a factory Mini.
For the public, the earlier Mini Cooper S assaults on the Monte Carlo Rallye were probably the best-known exploits, thanks to BMC competitions manager Stuart Turner manipulating an appearance on national TV’s most popular quiz show for those victorious Mini Marvels. Thus, those emotive red and white Minis of Paddy Hopkirk, Timo Makinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Fall became established symbols of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ along with Beatle Mania, the Rolling Stones and Fashion Central in Carnaby Street.
Personally Minis on TV entered another era of my 1969-71 working life when the weekly paper Motoring News assigned me to report television rallycross events at Cadwell Park, Croft and Lydden Hill. Since the BBC could attract up to 8 million viewers of a Saturday afternoon—and ITV’s World of Sport also had a major series running that attracted the TV millions—this was a Big Deal.
Mud-splattered Minis and their courageously skilled conductors became living room heroes, perfect for the David versus Goliath roles as they fought bestial 4x4 Capris with more than twice the horsepower, but not a fraction of Mini’s manic manoeuvrability.
Although factory drivers like John Rhodes earned their professional retainers with honour, for many the heroes were Mini drivers like double Lydden Hill champion Hugh Wheldon, amateur to paid S-type driver ‘Jumping’ Jeff Williamson, David Angel, Nick Jesty, Pip Carrotte, George Jackson and Keith Ripp, who made it from sausage salesman to period proprietor of a major speed shop chain, Rippspeed. Also up there on the Mini honours boards were John Buncombe and Geoff Mabbs, plus auto and rallycrosser Glynn Swift. Always a standout in his colourful self-prepared Minis, Glynn became father of Nick Swift, present day classic FIA Mini winner and owner of Mini period engineering specialist, Swiftune. Nick is probably best known for his Mini Cooper and Mini 1275 GT Goodwood race appearances, as a consistent winner.
On the purely UK front, the Mini and those who wanted faster/more individual twists to the theme founded a flourishing tuning industry. One partially ignited by former Downton employees such as Jan Odor (Janspeed) and Richard Longman, who also set new club and British Championship standards as a Mini driver and preparation ace. The prize for long term Mini preparation expertise and fine race results should go to Peter Baldwin. In 2022, Steve Harris and his Salisbury engineering business are still associated with all things Downton in so many classic Mini minds--plus the Downton-linked motorsport championships in hill climbs and sprints.
In turn this cottage to larger payroll speed business created more Mini heroes in differing roles: Harry Ratcliff at BRT in Lancashire created some technically sensational competition Minis, Clive Trickey writing at Cars & Car Conversions and racing in the Mini 7 Championship boosted that magazine’s readership beyond belief. After Clive’s premature death, David Vizard was revered by many for his take on CCC technical articles. Later, Bill Sollis had his stint conferring CCC tech tips and driver prowess to that magazine and continues to be rapid Mini racer today.
It has been a privilege to witness so much engineering and driving talent at work.