Driving with Paddy Hopkirk


Paddy Hopkirk is still a great driver

Half a century separates two memorable drives in Minis old and new. Same driver, same exuberant enthusiasm.

Strapped into the driving seat of a bright red MINI Cooper S is someone whose driving credentials far exceed those of his contemporaries. He has driven half way round the world, all the way from London to Sydney – twice – and had a distinguished career in motorsport, including a famous victory in the Monte Carlo Rally.

So why, then, has Paddy Hopkirk subjected his driving ability, at the wheel of his beloved daily transport modern MINI, to the analytical appraisal of a driving assessor on two recent occasions? What did he hope to learn after a lifetime of exceptional driving skills?

Paddy Hopkirk with driving certificate

“Whether there’s anything I’m doing that I ought to be aware of. Because I think it’s important to get reassessed and know that you are still doing it right when you get to my age,” says Paddy, now a sprightly 85, though still with the same twinkly flirtatiousness he had as a Monte-winning 30-year-old.

Doing it right? Oh yes he is. I can vouch for that, on the basis of a passenger seat ride beside Paddy at the wheel, on a spirited drive through the lanes of Buckinghamshire. It comes 54 years after his historic win driving a red Mini Cooper S into the history books on the 1964 Monte. The precision and flair that made him a hero back then is still very much evident, albeit at a more measured pace.

Now retired from competition, but still very active in motorsport as president of the British Racing Drivers Club, Belfast-born Paddy still drives with zesty enthusiasm in his thoroughly modern MINI. It’s a 4×4 Countryman Cooper S plug-in hybrid electric. Paddy and the car brand that sealed his fame remain inseparable.

Reflecting back on a distinguished career behind the wheel, Paddy surprisingly says that for him the Monte wasn’t his proudest moment. “It wasn’t the peak, but it was very much the one to win back then. There were other more difficult rallies, such as the Acropolis. I was very proud of winning that in 1967.” Le Mans looms large in his pride bank too. “I did Le Mans five times, it’s a very important race and I still enjoy going to reunions.”

Why does he now drive a hybrid electric MINI? “It makes me drive better than in something sportier. At my age I don’t want to go vroom-vroom all over the place. That’s for young men, who get a thrill out of a noisy exhaust. I’m more interested in technology and driving as well and as safely as possible.”

That has led to Paddy becoming an ambassador for good driving standards. As a famous local resident, he was invited to undergo a driving appraisal to publicise a course introduced by Buckinghamshire County Council. It devised an older driver assessment in response to concerns about their safety on the county’s roads, triggered by 60 per cent rise over four years in the number of fatal car crashes involving drivers aged over 65.

That was shocking news to rally legend Paddy, whose wife is a former deputy Lord Lieutenant of the county. He declared himself “horrified” by the statistics, and agreed to be the figurehead for the scheme to encourage older motorists to voluntarily have their driving checked.

“I think we older drivers need to refresh everything we do. Road crashes cost lives and it’s not just young kids who are killing people on the roads. It’s always good to brush up on your skills. When did people my age, who have been driving a very long time, last read the Highway Code? Is there room for improvement?”

He has also spearheaded a national campaign to encourage his contemporaries to have their driving skills checked. Paddy is the Mature Driver Ambassador of IAM RoadSmart, the renamed Institute of Advanced Motorists. He set an example by undergoing the IAM’s Mature Driver Assessment, an hour-long session with a qualified assessor alongside.

The man best known for winning the Monte half a century ago says he was relieved to be told that his driving, under scrutiny as an octogenarian for a second time within months, was still judged as ‘excellent’. Phew.