When all goes well in the Monte Carlo, Europe's most famous automobile rally, almost nobody finishes. Last year went beautifully, and rally organizers rubbed their hands in glee. Snowbanks 16 feet deep blocked everyone unfortunate enough to have started in Athens. Of 296 starters, only 98 made it to the Mediterranean principality.
This year, striving for even better things—perhaps with nobody finishing—officials changed the date of the competition to insure the worst possible weather and then added Minsk to the list of starting places. The latter move was a stroke of good fortune. While starters from Oslo and Glasgow and five other cities were running into depressingly balmy weather, a fast-talking, faster-driving little Irishman from Belfast named Paddy Hopkirk was having a colorful time—and colorful troubles—in Minsk.
Hopkirk's trip actually started in 1912 in the days of the czars when a mad fellow named Nagel negotiated the 2,000 miles between St. Petersburg and Monte Carlo in eight days, in an open car. "Now, could I do anything less than Nagel?" asked Paddy. So with 21 other Westerners he drove to Brest-Litovsk and then to Minsk. On hand to greet him with caviar and vodka were five Soviet rally teams and Leonid Afnassiev, president of the Soviet Automobile Federation. "We never imagined," said he, "that there would be more than two Soviet vehicles and five foreign cars wanting to start here."
Right from the outset Paddy was a great success with the Russians. "They had never seen a Republic of Ireland passport before," he explained modestly. "I'm from Belfast, but I was educated in southern Ireland in a church school and later studied engineering at Trinity College in Dublin. That's when I acquired my passport, and I've never changed to a British one. Some silly Englishman told the Russians I had worked with the Irish Republican Army and that made me more popular."
Crowds gathered early in the morning to look at the Western rally cars. "Humiliating it was, too," remarked Paddy, who was driving a little Morris-made Mini Cooper, "because it was so bloody cold that we could never get our motors going. They said it was only 20� below zero but it felt more like 50�. Anyway, we pushed our cars or had them towed to the main square. The Russians asked us seriously whether that was the way we normally started an automobile in the winter in England."
While Paddy and his navigator, Henry Liddon, a Morris car salesman from Bristol, were fighting to survive in Minsk, Monte Carlo rally connoisseurs were freely predicting a smashing victory for a newcomer to European rallies, Ford of Detroit. Last year these same experts snickered and chortled when, for the first time, the American firm started three Falcon Sprints in the Monte Carlo. But they were "laughing yellow," as the French say, when big Bo Ljungfeldt of Sweden in an "oversize, unwieldy" Falcon swept all five speed stages, establishing an alltime record. Had it not been for an early rally penalty, "Le Grand Bo" would have won, and it was only his first "Monte."
This year Ford decided to enter six factory Falcons and hire the finest crew of rally drivers of any manufacturer. Besides Ljungfeldt, there was the 1962 world racing champion, Graham Hill; the top French drivers, Jo Schlesser and Henri Greder; and Peter Harper of Britain. Ford also bid for the women's cup by entering a seasoned English rally driver, Anne Hall, with the 1964 rally's only American girl, Denise McCluggage of New York.
But Ford had no monopoly on American participation. Chrysler made its European rally debut with three Plymouth Valiants powered by new V-8 engines. Unlike Ford, Chrysler spent little time reconnoitering the five dangerous speed stages between the Alps and Monaco. They also counted on Americans to drive and navigate. One of them was the U.S. rally champion, Scott Harvey of Detroit but, as old Monte hands saw it, Chrysler was "un bon outsider."
Many European car people, who resented the "big push" from Detroit, confidently predicted a third consecutive victory for the towering, potbellied, pleasant-mannered SAAB engineer from Sweden, Erik Carlsson. Interest in Carlsson was greatly increased, at least sentimentally, by the fact that his wife, Pat Moss (Stirling's sister), would also drive a factory SAAB from Oslo.
With 91 of the 299 competitors beginning there, the Norwegian capital was the favorite starting spot. This is explained by the Scandinavian drivers' passion for driving on ice and snow, the Nordic authorities' competence in clearing snowbound roads (in Yugoslavia or Spain or southern France it is quite another story), and the relaxing ferryboat rides to Denmark. The drivers' confidence was not misplaced, for nine of the first 11 finishers started from Norway.