"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.)
We began our journey in Marseilles, the capital of the Bouches-du-Rhne region of France, which sits on the Gulf of Lions, an arm of the Mediterranean Sea. The second largest city in France, Marseilles is noted for the sight of it-a gleaming white city rising on a semicircle of bare hills-from the sea. The downtown seaport was used as the staging area for the '63 Alpine Rally.
As quickly as our organizers could have it, we left the motorway behind and began to drive through the narrow roadways of small French villages, to ascend the majestic Alps, the majestic and legendary mountains that stretch form Spain to Italy and form the geological basis for some of the most exciting events in the world, including numerous rally races and, today, the Tour de France.
Millions of years old, these rocks are rich with history. Mont Blanc, the tallest of the peaks, was first scaled in 1786 and continues to taunt the most seasoned climbers with its treacherous passes. Going back further in time, Hannibal, the emperor of Carthage in Africa, floated elephants across the Mediterranean and drove them across the Alps to battle the Romans 2,500 years ago, during the second Punic War. Today, visitors can cross the peaks via cableway, gondola, bicycle, or on foot or, as in our case, in MINIs.
The driving on day one came to a close in the picturesque village of Sisteron, which dates back to before the Romans. Built at a slice in a narrow rocky gap where the Durance and Buech rivers join, cliff walls rise on the west side to a rocky peak topped by the imposing 13- to 17th-century citadel, built to protect the town. From the north, the main road enters the town through a tunnel beneath the citadel, and the town is still protected by parts of the 14th-century walls. While the 11th-century origins of Sisteron's chateau are long gone, but the donjon is from the 12th century, and the current battlements, built in the 16th century, are impressive.
Our Alpine journey came to an end in Nice, the capital of Alpes-Maritimes in southeastern France and the most famous resort on the French Riviera. Tourists flock to this picturesque village, which is next door to Cannes and its glamorous annual film festival, and the old port of Nice handles both commercial fishing and passenger service to the island of Corsica.
Established by Greeks in the 5th century, Nice underwent several tumultuous centuries, politically, and was annexed to France in 1793, restored to Sardinia in 1814 and again ceded to France in 1860. At the beginning of the French Revolution the city was a haven for Royalist migrs, and it was our brief haven before our travel back to the U.S.
On our last night, supping on a six-course meal in a fine restaurant, now with our own reminisces of the Coupe des Alpes, McCluggage regaled us with stories from four decades before. But, now I had my own stories with McCluggage at the wheel, and I was Rosemary Sears. At one point on day two, one of our support crew passed us in the classic Mini. "That car screams like a scalded cat," she said, "and those Irish cats are good drivers." Denise came alive, and off we went through the French countryside, apexing blind corners and with Lady Leadfoot's hearty laugh trailing in the wind.
Post Note: Although the high-speed duo of McCluggage and Sears was in the running for a top spot in the '63 rally, they were forced to "retire" due to mechanical woes. McCluggage was the only competitor from America, signed by the British Motor Corporation to represent its factory team, piloting a factory-prepared Austin Cooper sedan.
Denise McCluggageOnce regarded as "the best woman driver in the U.S. and one of the six best in the world" (Ken W. Purdy, Sept. 1967, PARADE), Denise McCluggage is truly a pioneer. Competitor, journalist and author, she has forged a unique career, covering primarily skiing and motor racing while on staff at the New York Herald Tribune, at a time when female sportswriters were rare. She developed a reputation for participating in everything she covered, which also included jumping out of airplanes.
She raced with the North American Racing Team (NART), Bill Harrah's Racing Team, Rover Motor Co., British Motor Corp., Ford of England, Ford America, General Motors, L'Equipe Renault, Team Volvo, Camoradi and Briggs Cunningham's team, motoring in competition cars that included Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati, Jaguar, MG, Volvo, Mini Cooper, Rover, Triumph, Lotus, Fiat, Ford, Renault, OSCA, Elva, Alfa Romeo, De Tomaso and Corvair.
Her chief successes were in some of the world's most famous races, such as the 1st Gran Turismo, Sebring (1961), Copa de Damas, Grand Prix of Venezuela, Coupe des Dames Trans-Canada Rallye, and the Coupe des Dames American International Rally. She achieved a number of class and overall victories, including a first in class at the famed Monte Carlo Rallye, and at Nassau, Bridgehampton, Daytona Beach, Elkhart Lake, Lime Rock, Watkins Glen and the Nrburgring. Her co-competitors were many of racing's greats, such as Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Curtis Turner.
McCluggage was involved in the start of Competition Press (now AutoWeek) for which she is now a columnist. She also writes a syndicated newspaper column "Drive, She Said" and is International travel editor for American Woman Road and Travel. She is an honorary judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d' Elegance.
She has authored a number of books: "The Centered Skier"; "Are You a Woman Driver?"; "By Brooks Too Broad for Leaping"; and co-authored "American Racing: Road Racing in the '50s and '60s" with Tom Burnside. Among her awards are the Ken W. Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism; Dean Bachelor Lifetime Achievement Award. Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Media Association and the Spirit of Ford Award. She is also the first journalist to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, in Dearborn, Mich.
Rally HistoryIn the early days of the automobile, reliability was as much a concern as it is today. Because cars were so new, most people weren't sure whether to trust claims by makers of these newfangled machines-that the vehicles would start, run, and not fall apart after a couple of miles. Long-distance drives, particularly over difficult terrain, became the benchmark for measuring a vehicle's reliability-and the origins of rally racing as we know it today.
Once carmakers started driving from town to town, then from major city to major city, to prove their inventions' trustworthiness, drivers' competitive spirits emerged and time trials evolved from mere test drives. Legendary turn-of-the-century time trials included a Peking-to-Paris sprint in 1907, and eventually these trials developed into multiple-stage rally races. The first, the Monte Carlo, was held in 1911.
During this time, the International Austrian Alpine Trials (Alpenfahrt) ran annually from 1910-14, establishing itself as the greatest reliability trial. Covering 530 miles through Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia, the first of these events took four days to complete over treacherous Alpine passes and through a high-speed test along a straightaway. Only eight vehicles ever crossed the finish line in this grueling race.
The Alpine course grew to cover 1,200 miles of picturesque European scenery over 12 stages. Automotive legends such as the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost (winner in 1913) were made at the Alpine, and the race is seen by many as the forebear of modern rally racing. Although the Alpine race was dropped as a competitive event by the World Rally Championship (the organization that oversees rally racing globally) in 1973, the sport has grown to include hundreds of events across all continents.
Whereas rally cars of yore were stock cars with skilled drivers, a decent mechanic and a lot of luck, today's vehicles are purpose-built for the events, with four-wheel drive and a team averaging 65 people to drive, navigate, repair and provide support for the vehicle. The sport has spawned several vehicle types throughout its history, including the infamous Group B, which was blamed for numerous fatal crashes in the 1980s. By 1987, Group A, a different type, became the standard until 1997, when a new generation of vehicles took over in the WRC.
The races themselves also have different regulations. Each event must allow three days of reconnaissance, during which navigators and engineers can research the course: one day for technical checks and three days for competition stages (usually numbering between 15 and 25). Cars must be based on showroom models and must seat four, be available to the general public and sold in volumes of at least 25,000 per year.
However, modifications make rally cars truly distinct-to the tune of a million or more dollars. Engines are 2.0 liters and turbocharged, matched to a six-speed manual transmission and producing 300 bhp. Four-wheel drive is required, and a rollcage is just one of the extra safety measures taken to protect occupants in high-speed crashes.
The Alpine/Coupes des Alpes RallyThe Coupe des Alpes Rally, also called the Alpine Rally, was considered one of the most picturesque rally races in the world. Winding some 2,300 miles through the French and Italian Alps, from Marseilles to Chamonix, the three-day-long event included long hours of challenging mountain driving, teeth-grinding downhill stages, comparable to at least a dozen high-speed laps of the Monza road circuit. From high-altitude hairpins to harrowing maneuvers around flocks of mountain sheep, the race was known for its unpredictable terrain and adventurous drivers.
The Alpine Rally began as the International Austrian Alpine Trials (Alpenfahrt), which ran from 1910-14, covering alpine passes through Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia. Back then, only eight out of 26 vehicles made it from start to finish.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, events like the Alpine Trials became known as rally races, when not just speed but vehicle reliability and navigation skills became essential factors in winning an event. Back then, only extra lights and studded tires (for winter events) distinguished the vehicles form stock cars, and the team had no helmets, harnesses or two-way radios-just a mechanic, driver and navigator.
The Coupe D'Or (Gold Cup) was the prize for three consecutive penalty-free Alpines. Winners included Maurice Gastonides and Stirling Moss, with Paddy Hopkirk garnering a Coupe D'Argent (Silver Cup) for three non-consecutive runs.
In the 1963 rally, the overall winner was R Aaltonen/A Ambrose first overall and first in class in 277 EBL, 1071 Cooper S.
MINI's Alpine AchievementsBMW achieved success early in the event's history, securing a win in 1929 in the Dixi model (related to the Austin Seven) and again in 1934 with a larger six-cylinder 315/1. A few decades later, Mini, which would later come under the BMW umbrella, began its championship run, winning a class in the 1960 event with the 850 model.
However, Mini's true domination on the Alpine slopes began with the introduction of the Cooper S in 1963. That year, driver Rauno Aaltonen led the touring car category from starting pistol to finish line; Pauline Mayman won the Coupes des Dames in a Mini, and a privately entered Cooper captured the team prize. The following year, the 1275cc Cooper S won the Tulip Rally, a separate event, and Aaltonen won the Alps event again. The next year, 1965, brought even better results: 27 rally trophies.
By the mid '60s, Mini had established itself as a spitfire force to be reckoned with on the racing circuit. Although 1966 was an unsuccessful year, in 1967 the team used a navigation/communication system that involved intensive note-taking in advance and relaying the information to the driver via intercom. The system, which is still in use today, is less sophisticated than a computer but clearly reliable-it helped Mini win in Monte Carlo throughout the decade.
The Coupes des Alpes was held until 1973, when the World Rally Championship, the organization that oversees rally racing across the globe, took it off the circuit.