What does the period from the 28th April till the 2nd May 1996 mean to most people?
Probably a Sunday at home or even a day out somewhere, the rest of the time a week at
work. Well for 50 plus enthusiastic Mini owners it meant the Mini Monte.
I had better explain a little more about the Mini Monte.
The Mini Monte was organised by the Classic Rally Association, it was to take entrants from the ofﬁcial start in Calais along the roads, through the towns and over the passes used by the Monte Carlo Rally in the years when the Mini Coopers won (or didn’t) the event. A number of the passes used are still used on the Monte Carlo Rally today. Peter Browning (former Competitions Director with BMC) of the Classic Rally Association had got together with Paul Easter (navigator for Timo Makinen) to devise a route which took in roads steeped in Mini history. The route from Calais took us down to Reims for the ﬁrst night, then onto Aix les Bains, on into Gap, and ﬁnally Monte Carlo.
The unusual thing about this event was it was open to cars of all ages (although they had to be a Mini or derivative), most events like this put an age restriction on the car i.e. it must be more than 10 or 20 years old to be eligible. So, this let our Mini in and considerably reduced our bank balance, it was not a cheap event! No preference was given to ex-works cars, journalists or personalities - if they wanted to take part they had to enter.
Most of you will be aware that our Mini is a current Rover Cooper, which we brought from John Cooper Garages and had the engine and suspension modiﬁed by them to bring its power output up to around 80 bhp which means in performance terms it's very similar to an original 1275 Cooper S. More recently, I have upgraded the brakes, it is now equipped with four pot callipers and vented discs. We did an event with CAR magazine last year that required a certain amount of accuracy with measuring distances and the Mini does not have a trip meter, so distances were worked out using pencil and paper! To overcome all this an electronic trip meter was ﬁtted accurate to 1/100th of a mile.
A wide range of Minis were entered, current Rover Coopers, standard Minis of varying ages, Mini Clubman, Clubman estates, original Coopers and S’s, a pickup, works replicas and ex-works cars. Indeed. a number of cars had been specially purchased for the event. One of the ex-works cars was GRX 5D the car that Paddy Hopkirk drove on the 1966 Monte when all the three leading Minis (and several other British Cars) where disqualiﬁed for “lighting infringements”, this car also won the ‘67 Circuit of Ireland again with Paddy Hopkirk at the wheel. Incidentally, this car has the dubious honour of having been disqualiﬁed in its ﬁrst and last event! Among the works replicas, the majority aspiring to look like the works cars from 64 to 67, was a 94 car which was a very good copy of the car, that again, Paddy Hopkirk used on the 94 Monte. Of the standard Minis, there was a Sprite version crewed by two gentlemen - the navigator Anthony Bennett had taken part in the Monte in the late 50’s and early sixties in both a Mini and a Sunbeam Rapier. He told us that despite having a triple heart bypass operation he was doing an event later this year which involved driving from the North Cape in Norway down to the southern tip of Spain and that he was doing this on his own! The pickup was crewed by a father and son, and for them it was their ﬁrst trip to France, and indeed for several entrants. The pickup was ﬁnished in a bright shade of green and came with ﬂashing neon lights. Among the entrants was Phil Short, known for navigating with Hannu Mikkola and currently master minding the Mitsubishi challenge in the World Rally Championship in his immaculate (and concours winning) 1966 Cooper.
The vast majority of entrants came from the UK, but on arrival at Calais we were joined by crews from Holland, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and Norway. The car from Luxembourg was a silver Mini Mayfair which had been tuned in the UK by Bill Richards, and it was one of 13 Minis owned Juliette Tenconi and her husband Jim. Juliette was club racing champion in France in 1992 and was driving the car in the event.
Since paying our deposit in November, we were kept up to date with regular bulletins from the Classic Rally Association, till about six weeks from the start of the event when the ﬁnal payment was requested, at that time we were given the option of booking an extra night in Monte Carlo after the event, as we were staying in the Hotel Mirabeau and the room rate was discounted if we decided to stay the extra night. There was also the option of staying in Dover on Saturday night prior to catching the 9.00am ferry to Calais next morning for the formal start. Then about three weeks before the event all the route instructions came, and it was down to plotting them on the recommended maps. Apart from containing the route the route book incorporated a narrative about each day's run with points of interest also some notes from Paul Easter about how that part of the route related to the Monte Carlo Rally. In this parcel, besides the route, came the rally plates, stickers, town maps and an entry list, we had a start number of 4. Finally, about a week before the event the ferry tickets and yet more stickers, this time from Rover Sport who sponsored the awards luncheon in the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo.
Each day was of a similar format, we were given our start time and an arrival time, if we arrived before, or up to two hours after that time then we would not incur any penalties. Had there been severe delays on the road and everyone was running late then we could have booked up to two hours after the arrival of the ﬁrst car. There was always a small test each day just after the start in the morning, and again that counted for points. On the reverse of the route card each day there were ten questions on Mini Trivia, this too attracted points. But on the front of the route card was space for answering the route checks, the number of route checks depended on the length of the days drive. The route checks were questions like – “what type of petrol is sold here”, “what is the name of the green hotel” and “how many miles is it to”... The location of the route checks was shown in the route instructions. If you missed a route check it was expensive in terms of points, 50 to be precise.
Accompanying us on the run were Peter Browning and his wife Sharon, Paul Easter, Mike Wood (long time navigator for Tony Fall, with plenty of tales to tell!), Bill Price and Den Green. Bill and Den, both ex BMC Competitions Staff were driving the service vehicle a Land Rover Discovery full of spares from Mini-Sport, they followed round at the end of the ﬁeld.
The Event: -
The cars starting from the UK arrived from 8am at the docks in Dover to catch the 9am Stena ferry to Calais. We were all assembled one deck on the ferry, some 40 minis! Once we had arrived in Calais and had disembarked from the ferry, we went in convoy to the arrivals car park for the start. Here we were joined by the entrants from Europe. A short brieﬁng was held and we were on our way, starting at roughly minute intervals. We joined the autoroute for about 25 miles, just after the toll booths we needed to stop for our ﬁrst test. Reverse up to a pole and stop as close as you can, and also answer a simple question about your car — What speed would you be doing if your speedo needle was pointing vertically up, of course that had to be answered out of sight of the speedo. Then it was on with the rest of the 190 mile journey, to Reims. Many of the roads were across country and went through many sleepy villages, when a village was awake we were greeted with cheery waves. In one village where there was a route check, half a dozen or so minis were being driven slowly through not to miss the check we saw a villager nonchalantly plucking a freshly killed pigeon whilst staring at all of us driving along! In another village we had to take a diversion as there was a giant car boot cum bric—a—brac sale going on in the main street. The end of the day saw us arriving at Reims having now completed the "mandatory" lap of the old grand prix circuit and the stop at the pits to take photographs.
Once we had checked in at the hotel, we were able to watch the re-run of the European Grand Prix on Eurosport and in English! For this evening we were treated to a buffet dinner in the hotel.
This was the longest day in terms of mileage, 330 miles to Aix les Bains. After leaving Reims the test for today was 23 miles after the start, here we had one of our front tyres marked and we had to drive forward what we thought was two revolutions of the wheel. We were marked according to our accuracy. The major part of our run was over fast main roads with a smattering of autoroute thrown in for good measure. The latter part of the drive certainly became more interesting as we entered the Jura. From Clairvaux-les-Lacs we headed south to St Claude. St Claude was well known on the Monte and Tulip rallies. For the 1965 Monte it was the converging point for all the various starting points. It was here in 1965 the snow started leading to the famous blizzard that affected the Monte that year. It was then over the Col de la Croix de la Serra and down into Belleydoux, at one point on the descent we passed a corner where in 1964 20 cars came off! After this came more twisty minor roads until about 20 miles from Aix we joined a main road which eventually ran along-side the lake on which Aix lies. Having parked in the hotel's underground car park we handed in our route card and checked into our room. This evening we went out for a meal, and the heavens opened.
We had been given earlier on in the event what was described as "Paul Easter's Extra Route". In drawing up the route a balance had to be struck between the less adventurous and those who wanted to take in the maximum number of Monte stages. The ﬁrst section was at the end of the route today and at the beginning of the route on Wednesday. We decided that we would take in the extra section depending on the time we had. On leaving Aix, it was ﬁll the car up with petrol time, oh how we yearned for twin tanks! After leaving Chambery it was to climb the Col du Granier, it was covered in mist. On reaching the summit we had to undertake today's test. A regularity section on the descent. For those who don't know, a regularity section is one where you are given an average speed to cover a particular distance and you are marked on how close or not you are for the time to cover the said section at the average speed. It was then over the Col du Cocheron and the Col de Porte before dropping down into Grenoble. On leaving Grenoble it was to climb to Chamrousse, today it is fast wide road to the ski resort, not so in 1965. A story relating to this stage is that once Lancia organised a "pit stop" mid stage to change onto studded tyres and still managed to set the fastest time. We had to turn off the descent from Chamrousse to go over the Col Luitel. The descent here was over a very narrow and twisting road, despite being shrouded in mist it was very spectacular with the rich fresh green of the trees. Having descended, we naturally started to climb again, the weather brightened up, not exactly sunny, but the mist had gone and it was onto La Mure.
It was at this point we could take the optional route and as we were making good progress, we decided to give it a go. The route from La Mure took us to St Disdier which was the start of this particular stage over the Col du Festre to Montmaur. The road again has improved since it was used in 1964 all the wooden surfaced bridges, which caused so many accidents have now gone. The next section took us over 4 Col's the Espreaux, de la Beaume, Foureyssasse and Villar a distance of some 34-kms from La Madeleine to Pellautier. The majority of this was single track and the early part was unfenced, or with very rusty iron railings which looked as though they would collapse with the slightest touch! The time for this stage in 1964- was some 33 mins 53secs. The end of the stage was very near to Gap, yet again being low on petrol we opted to continue into Gap and ﬁll up with petrol and head for our hotel. The car park at the hotel was on a tennis court, and yes, you can get 50 plus Minis onto a tennis court!
Another early start, with over 230 miles to go before reaching Monte Carlo. Having completed the morning's test, drive down a slope (actually out of the car park) and stop as near as you can to a pole in front ofyou. We left Gap in glorious sunshine. Almost as soon as we had left we went over the Col de la Sentinelle. We then followed the River Durance, until it became the Lac de Serre-Poncon. Driving along the edge of the Lac for some while, before turning off to take a short cut over the Col des Fillys which is some 1300 metres high. Joining the main road again we continue to head south via Digne and Barreme to Castellane. just south of Castellane we turn off the main road onto a narrow road with rock tunnels alongside the Barrage de Chaudanne. From here we start to climb the views back over the lake and the mountains beyond are spectacular. It’s on to St Auban, from here the road follows the river Esteron, but the road is almost part of the rock face, it's almost like a tunnel but with one third open. just before we approach Collonges we descend along a fast, almost straight piece of road known as the "Shute". When used in the Monte the works Minis would be coming down this stretch of road at 100mph on sheet ice! We carried on through the mountains and sleepy villages to descend and cross the Var river. On the other side it was ﬁll the car up with petrol again and turn along the Gorges de la Vesubie. By this time the weather had clouded over and it had started to rain. It was on to climb the Col de Turini. The Turini is over 1600 metres high, the road up twists and turns for what seems like an eternity. The summit is nothing to write home about — but it’s easy to imagine what it’s like in the middle of winter. The sign at the top has not surprisingly been stolen! Some of the crews who came over the Turini after us actually had snow to contend with as well! Having dropped down to the town of Sospel, we start to climb again over the last of the great Monte climbs the Col de Braus. Several miles are spent descending the many hairpins we come into a valley devastated by huge quarries, like a like a luna landscape - supplying building material to the Riveria. We seem to circle the entire quarry. The ﬁnal climb of the day, and of the event is into the village of Pielle, again its one heck of a climb. Higher up is Mont Agel with the radio masts of Radio Monte Carlo perched on the top. We head down towards La Turbie. We should be able to see the Mediterranean from here, the mist or it may be low cloud prevents us from seeing the image of the sea bathed in sunshine.
From here it was a simple drive down into Monaco and Monte Carlo. We had been booked into the Hotel Mirabeau, and parking had been arranged at the underground park at the Portier. Having unloaded the car and walked up to the Mirabeau to hand in our ﬁnal route card. We are given our ﬁnisher awards, two small prints and a copy of the latest edition of The Works Minis. Everyone opted to eat in the Hotel tonight when the ﬁnal results are announced. We had ﬁnished 36th. But our real reason for doing the event was for the experience.
This was a non-driving day. The awards presentation was held at the Cafe de Paris, opposite the Casino in Monte Carlo and was sponsored by Rover Sport. Here we had an excellent lunch and Chris Belton from Rover Sport had flown down to present the awards. Awards were for ﬁrst, second and third overall and then for example the highest husband and wife crew, spirit of the event, most senior crew etc. The winners were Tim Grayer and Adrian Elkin in V registered 1150 Mini their ﬁrst event. The proceedings wound up at about 3pm and everybody headed off, to stay in Monte another night (our choice), to drive back home or put their car on the train back to Calais.
We had opted to stay the extra night in Monte Carlo and had arranged to take the train back. It does not run to Calais on Fridays, but to Paris and we would drive up to Calais. We spent the day in Nice before joining the train. Leaving at 7pm it arrived in Paris at 7am., and we were driving out of Paris by 7.30. We made it back to Calais to catch the 11.15 sailing back to Dover.
A thoroughly enjoyable event, and truly memorable experience.