‘Never meet your heroes’ the old adage goes, ‘they almost always disappoint you’. I was wary of meeting Paddy informally as he has always been a hero of mine, from sitting in my first rally car aged 17 to the present day, his name has been synonymous with rallying and motorsport for those of us who are a certain age and beyond. As a spotty teenager, the garage I worked in during summer holidays had rows of Paddy Hopkirk endorsed products -and many were sold solely on that association, Hopkirk meant performance and quality. I’d met Paddy on several occasions at various shows and functions around motor sport and had always found him easily approachable and very enthusiastic, something that when you go back through the annals of the internet and read various books about him this always comes across – none of the big “I am” or “Do you know who I am?” Far from it, this is a gentleman that is still relishing life and above all he loves one thing. Passion.
This passion has brought him Ambassadorial roles for Mini and more recently the Institute of Advanced Motorists where he holds the title of Mature Driver Ambassador, as well as these two titles Paddy is one of the Patrons of the disability charity WheelPower and with all this awareness raising work he was bestowed the OBE in the 2016 honours list.
I caught up with Paddy after the recent press day for the RAC Rally of the Tests where Paddy agreed that he would be attending the event – and flagging off the competitors at the re-start from RAC HQ Bristol on Saturday the 5th of November – where spectators can meet him and watch the hundred or so vehicles taking part in a driving test before setting off on the day’s action. On asking what he thought of the continuing rise in popularity of classic rallying, his face lights up and he says. “I look at it two ways, we have the real enthusiasts that are putting their heart and soul into the sport and working to make it enjoyable – these are the future of the sport and these are the people who will carry it on. On the other hand, we have those who are finding that cars are a great investment and that classic rallying is a great way to enjoy themselves and the vehicle that they have purchased, how long they remain in the sport is to be seen, but it can’t be bad with so many classics out on events. After the very recent Kop Hill Climb I was told that last year £85000 was raised for the Heart of Bucks appeal and that cannot be discounted, classic vehicles have a huge pull and long may it continue.”
I have been reading the wonderful book about Paddy that was written in the main by Bill Price – along with contributions from Paddy as well, the book is named “A Dash of the Irish’ and details Hopkirk’s career in a way that only someone who was truly close to him was possible. Part of the folklore of rallying is the story about the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon where on the Nowra checkpoint (part of the penultimate stage in New South Wales, Australia with just 98 miles to Sydney) Hopkirk and co-driver Alec Poole came across the stricken works Citröen DS of Lucien Bianchi and Jean-Claude Ogier (no relative to the current WRC Champion) which had been hit by an oncoming vehicle in what was supposed to be a closed road test. Paddy recalls, “Alec went to try and get the guys out of the car and when he looked in he could see fire coming from under the bonnet, he quickly grabbed a small extinguisher from the boot of the Morris 1800 we were in and had the forethought to try and keep the bonnet of the Citröen down, miraculously he got the fire out otherwise both cars involved would have gone up in flames. After this he returned and cleared the cars of their occupants and I set off back up the road to warn people and find a Doctor, just about then, Andrew Cowan passed and we let him know all was under control and I went back like a bat out of hell to try and warn others and get some assistance. Alec shouted in despair that one of the crew in the Citröen had lost a foot as there was a shoe on its own, fortunately, it was just that. A shoe had come off, nothing more sinister. There are a lot of tales that we gave up the rally win for this but that is not true. Sure, neither Alec or I would have passed the incident by as we both valued life and people more than a rally win, but the fact is that Andrew Cowan / Brian Coyle / Colin Malkin inherited the lead from the French crew and won the event, Alec and I wouldn’t have won even if we hadn’t of stopped.”
As mentioned previously, 2016 was a big year for the likeable Belfast-born Hopkirk, the work he has put into several charities was recognised by the nation and an OBE was the result of this work over time. One of his lesser known roles is that of Patron of the disability charity, WheelPower, I asked how this came about. “I met Frank Loeffler when my Wife, Jennifer was pregnant, he was her gynaecologist and introduced me to his Father-in Law Ludwig Guttman who was a neurosurgeon. Ludwig became the Father of the Paralympic movement with his work at Stoke Mandeville – he recognised that people in wheelchairs had a future and started to find things for them to become involved in. The first sport he introduced was archery which was a huge success, the rest, as they say is history. I became a Patron and although I am not as involved now with the charity, it is a cause that is very close to my heart.” More recently Paddy has been joined by the very popular TV Celebrity Mary Berry in becoming Senior Motoring Ambassadors for IAM Roadsmart – who have recently changed their name from the Institute of Advanced Motorists, their mission is to encourage senior people to take a look at their skills and brush up on them if needed. Paddy stated “ I really support Roadsmart and wish that the government would listen to them or go to them for advice, they are really switched on and are the way forward for motorists – they’re actually interested in your skills as a driver and not intent on getting you to sign up for breakdown cover or insurance.”
Of course, Paddy is famous for his Monte-Carlo win in 1964 and also Acropolis in 1967, but his career was much more than that with Le Mans, circuit racing, hill climbs and trials all in his CV. Outside of Europe, he was fascinated by the road races that took place in Australia, Rauno Aaltonen won in 1966 with Hopkirk competing in the Gallaher 500; “It was incredibly twisty and dusty.” he says, “The roads made the Nürburgring look like a straight road and they were very slippery, I also drove the Southern Cross Rally with local co-driver Garry Chapman and it was here that Koni dampers were used for the first time with Hydrolastic suspension on the rear. I really liked this set up and the car was going well until we broke the gearbox”.
With 6 EMO being a past winner on the Pirelli Classic Marathon with Paddy and Alec Poole, the entry from Blackburn based Steve Entwistle in the car on this year’s RAC rally of the Tests was really welcomed, it was mooted that the car may do the event at Gaydon HRCR Open Day and we awaited final confirmation of the entry. Paddy has been involved with world –renowned Mini Specialists Mini Sport for several years and got to know Steve through them. “Steve has got passion and absolutely loves the sport to bits, I am delighted that we could get 6 EMO out on the event and hopefully it will do well. I know that Steve is a very capable driver and has a good navigator in Henry Carr at the side of him. I’ve known him for a while now and would really like him to shine on this event.”
My time speaking with Paddy has flown by, his telephone has rung several times and he hasn’t answered it once, concentrating on our chat and sometimes shooting off at a wild tangent where we would chew the fat on other things, it felt like I had known him all my life – he was that easy to get on with. We parted ways with Paddy giving me a big grin and thanking me for asking him to the press launch day of the RAC Rally of the Tests. Classic rallying is very lucky to have people like this involved with it, their legacy goes far beyond what they did and what they won – they inspired a generation (and more) of us to compete in the sport. Heroes? Go out and meet them. Forget what anybody else says.
Blog credit: Hero Rally 2016