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The Mini Cooper and Surbiton

On January 21st 1964 the Mini Cooper, designed in Hollyfield Road, Surbiton, won the Monte Carlo Rally. The ‘David v Goliath’ victory catapulted the car and its driver into international recognition, and was a triumph of creativity and reengineering.

It was the first of three victories for the car, with successes in 1965 and 1967 following. (In 1966, a scandal arose when the three first-place Minis were disqualified along with others for allegedly non-compliant auxiliary headlights.)


From a tiny suburban garage came a car that became one of the international design and engineering symbols of the swinging 60’s. And one that remains an iconic design today.

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The Mini Cooper was born in Surbiton in July 1961, two years after the release of Alec Issigonis’s Mark I Mini. It was the result of Issigonis’s friend, John Cooper, realising the car’s potential for racing due to its lightweight, short wheelbase, and agile handling. 

Cooper had been modifying and building cars with his father, Charles, since childhood – he was given his first single seater, built from garage scraps, aged 9! By 1938, he had left school and joined his father at Cooper’s Garage on Hollyfield Road. His talent for speed became quickly apparent, and by 1960 the Cooper Car Company had two Formula 1 world championships to its name, having teamed up with driver Jack Brabham.


The Mini meanwhile had its origins in a fuel crisis in the late 1950s – with economic family cars in demand, Sir Leonard Lord of the British Motor Corporation (BMC) tasked Issigonis with delivering a small car that could enter production as quickly as possible. “Once you sat in the car,” Cooper said. “You immediately became part of it.”

Cooper however had ideas of his own and transformed a model in two weeks in the Surbiton garage, notably improving its brakes and installing a 1000cc engine. The newly created Mini Cooper was soon tested in a race competition between it and an Aston Martin DB4: driven by Roy Salvadori, the Mini triumphed by over an hour. Cooper and BMC now set their sights on competitive rally driving. 

In 1962 the Mini Cooper had its first competitive triumph at the Tulip Rally in the Netherlands, driven by Pat Moss, younger sister of Stirling and an early trailblazer for women in motorsport. However it was in 1964 that the Mini Cooper secured its biggest prize, the Monte Carlo Rally, driven by Paddy Hopkirk. 

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Pat Moss

Paddy Hopkirk drives through the snow in his Mini Cooper on the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally

In defeating much more powerful American Fords, the 1964 success was seen as a ‘David v Goliath’ story and turned the Mini Cooper into a celebrity almost overnight. Hopkirk’s car appeared on ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ with Bruce Forsyth, and the Beatles were quick to send Hopkirk a congratulatory note reading, ‘You’re one of us now Paddy!’ 

The Mini soon became an icon of UK pop culture in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, driven by a glittering array of stars of screen and stage, culminating in its iconic role in The Italian Job (1969). Its racing successes continued as well, dominating the rally circuit and securing further Monte Carlo wins in 1965 and 1967 (it was disqualified in 1966 in controversial circumstances).

However by the end of the 1960s Mini’s racing dominance had waned and BMC disbanded their competitions department. Cooper meanwhile moved his operation away from Surbiton after his father’s death in October 1964, only a few months after Hopkirk’s triumph, selling the racing side of Cooper’s Garage, leasing the building to the Met Police, and moving his family to the south coast.

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Mini Day

Saturday 18 May 2024, 11am - 5pm

Hollyfield Rd, Surbiton

The Community Brain invites you to a spectacular day of family friendly activity this spring. Celebrate the ingenuity of John Cooper, the triumph of the Mini Cooper at the Monte Carlo Rally of ‘64, and wider stories of innovation and cutting edge design in Surbiton.

Made possible by

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