"It's like a loose rollerskate or a flying Toastmaster," said Denise McCluggage, with a girlish giggle, as she threw her head back in delight and apexed a blind corner. The septuagenarian was referring to the Cooper S she was commandeering around hairpin turns, at a velocity designed for a race course.
That was the rub! We were not on a race course, although McCluggage had driven this route on a number of rallys over the course of her legendary racing career. We were motoring through the French Alps, on snaking tarmac that spanned the width of one and a half European-sized cars, on the good stretches (there are few), and hadn't seen the likes of a paving crew in over a decade. We shared this track with packs of bicyclists bedecked with aerodynamic helmets and spandex, traveling at death-defying downhill speeds; hikers with craggy walking staffs and backpacks; and cows that looked like they had come straight from their Swiss Miss photo shoot-all dotting the roadside.
I was pretending to be Rosemary Sears, McCluggage's co-driver in the 1963 Alpine Rally, aka the Coupe des Alpes. "Caution: No Barrier for next few Km. Road narrows. EXPECT TRAFFIC," I called out over the sweet sound of the 163-bhp supercharged engine.
In truth, I was McCluggage's co-driver in an event called "Coupe des Alps Revisited" and organized by BMW's North American MINI PR staff, Michael McHale and Andrew Cutler. And, I quickly learned, it really didn't matter much what I called out. Polite and charming, McCluggage always appeared to listen but clearly wore an attitude of feigned interest in guidance from the route book, save the direction at turns. "Just say 'my side' for right turns," she instructed, "and 'your side' for left." My seatmate, who had traveled the world with car, camera and notebook, seldom lifted her right foot, no matter the call from our "tulip" instruction manual.
It wasn't that I mistrusted the searingly blue-eyed woman at the wheel, who I had partnered with on a number of press drives in America. "Lady Leadfoot," as she was known in her day, was a world-ranked driver and at one time considered the top female driver in the world. She was clearly back in rally-mode driving this hotted-up MINI, and my fear of heights kicked in as we took corner after corner around exposed drops of hundreds to thousands of feet. McCluggage was also busy trying to remember the '63 rally, during which she and Sears had an "incident" or two, one of which involved a telephone pole.
Rosemary tells the story different from Denise in her published rally report, where she described being pinned against the pole, but for Denise, who clearly has a glass-is-half-full personality, the years of racing against and with the best-of-the-best have all been sheer fun, and "events" like a high-speed rollover take on a glow and get recalled as "a bit of a tumble." At lunch on day two, McCluggage read the story that Sears wrote, which was brought along by the MINI support crew. "I'll find out what I did," she said, with a raised eyebrow. "That's quite flattering," she offered, when finished. "I didn't remember it," she said unabashedly.
At one point during the day, McCluggage told tales. "The snow was very high on both sides...one car and its driver showed up on the road that had gone off two days before," she reminisced, slapping the steering wheel with a laugh. "Well, anyway, my driving partner and I went off just before the Gap (one of the highest passes in the Alpes), when we hit ice and tipped over the edge," she began, her words strung together by giggles. "Fighting our way down to a farm, I had to keep standing on it, but with downhill gravity on our side, we were finally in the barnyard and the farmer waved us on pointing directions, and we used it as a shortcut," she finished with a hearty laugh.
Our two-day-long event was designed to give a small group of motoring press a taste of the Alpine "40 years on," said McHale in his Irish brogue, running significant portions of the spectacular original route taking turns driving a classic Mini Cooper S, new MINIs and a "Works" version, with 200 bhp and 177 lb-ft of torque.
The idea was to revisit the rally where Mini first made its mark and morphed from the little car that was launched to a bemused public reception, in 1959, to the Alpine, where Mini won its first major title in '63. It took first overall and in the Touring Category (Aaltonen, Ambrose); the Coupes des Dames (P. Mayman, V. Domleo); Team Prize and second G.T. (Sir P. Moon, Calceth).
After John Cooper, of Formula One fame, put his talent and name to the souped-up Mini, it won the Alpine and went on to win Monte Carlo four times in a row (1964-67), which secured a place in the public's hearts because it was not only a city car but a serious racer that could beat the big boys. The 1963 victory was the springboard that not only propelled Mini into a rally legend but a 40-plus-year sales success. (Whether it ever made any money is another matter.)