It was an unlikely turn of events: A tiny, unconventional automobile, designed as a thrify response to the Suez Oil Crisis affecting Britain in the 1950s, would become a ferocious racecar competitor in the following decade. In the '60s a small group of sure-handed drivers drove the MINI to beat out larger, faster cars on some of the most challenging rally tracks on Earth, like the world-famous four-stage Monte Carlo Rally, and this cemented the brand's image in the minds of European auto enthusiasts. (Fans could spot the car from afar, by design; the roof was painted in contrasting white.)
One of those drivers was Rally Hall of Famer Rauno Aaltonen, a bloke from southern Finland who had speed in his bones. Aaltonen started off racing speedboats as a boy, then motorcycles, and eventually cars. We caught up with MINI Ambassador Aaltonen for a too-brief interview in Finland—while relatively unknown in America, he was in high demand by European journalists at the press event—and before we get to an awesome time-warp rally vid further down in this entry, we'll show you the two questions we got to squeeze in:
By 1965, Aaltonen already had a host of rally championship wins under his belt, but it is perhaps what happened in 1966 that made the most news. Timo Makinen, Rauno Aaltonen and Paddy Hopkirk, all driving MINIs, won first, second and third place at Monte Carlo. To the French, this was an outrage; it was the third year in a row that a MINI crossed the finish line first—three of them, no less—and a French car hadn't won since 1959. The organizers insisted the English must be cheating and ordered the MINIs immediately be disassembled for inspection.
The French judges were determined to find some magic mechanical element that would disqualify the cars. But after eight hours, with the cars in pieces, they could find nothing. So they pulled something underhanded, by finding one mechanical element a MINI possessed that the leading French car—a Citroën ID that came in fifth—didn't have: "Iodine vapour, single filament bulbs in their standard headlamps instead of double-filament dipping bulbs." They ruled that this type of bulb filament was illegal.
Obviously this was total BS, and it prompted an outcry in the press. But the officials paid no mind, and all three MINIs were wiped off of the books. So was the fourth-place car, a Ford, and hence the fifth-place car—the Citroën—was crowned the victor. The problem was, plenty of cars had the single-filament bulbs, so ten cars in total were unjustly disqualified by this broad stroke. One of them was Rosemary Smith, an Irish woman, a former dress designer who discovered she liked piloting rally cars more than sewing machines. (Smith threatened to quit racing unless the decision was reversed, but thankfully changed her mind and continued winning races throughout the '60s.)
In this awesome video, Aaltonen and fellow team driver Paddy Hopkirk reunite at Monte Carlo, some 43 years after the event, to re-experience the track behind the wheel of a MINI Cabrio. It's intercut with the '60s footage:
At the end of the video, Aaltonen makes a brief comment about how you know when your victory is certain; it's perhaps an oblique comment on the controversial 1966 ruling. But if he doesn't sound bitter, it's no surprise—Aaltonen and co-driver Henry Liddon came back to win Monte Carlo in 1967, uncontested, behind the wheel of a MINI.