Memories of an evening with Paddy Hopkirk

Paddy Hopkirk portrait

Legendary rally driver and charismatic brand ambassador Paddy Hopkirk has died at the age of 89

Curious, generous and self-effacing – Hopkirk was a hero you had to meet

He was that sort of man; cheeky smile, fast wit, charm in abundance and a surfeit of stories to make even the most nervous comfortable.

Of course, he had the substance to back up the swagger, too; not just for wowing The Beatles (and others) by winning the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, but through a lifetime of success behind the wheel, on rallies and in racing.

But the beauty of Hopkirk was that he didn’t feel the need to tell you about any of this… so much so that the first time we met, I was compelled to double-check my luck as I sat down. “You’re Paddy Hopkirk,” I blurted out as he went to introduce himself.

It was the Autosport Awards, somewhere around 2005, and I was editing Motorsport News, my invite coming courtesy of the two titles being owned by the same publisher (Haymarket, owners of Autocar), my back-of-the room table coming courtesy of the rabidly competitive nature between the two weeklies despite that family tie. No way was I getting a story off a leading Formula 1 driver at their event…

Quite what poor Hopkirk had done to deserve a table in the shadows I’ve no idea, but what followed lives up there among my top 10 nights out ever. “Now then young man,” he grinned as he grasped my arm and gestured towards the centre of the table, “I always find these evenings run much more smoothly with a nice glass of red wine…”

The wine flowed, but thankfully not as fast as the stories. Monte, yes, but many more. It’s telling that my abiding memories are of his deep respect for friends and rivals, wonderment at his good fortune and a seemingly insatiable appetite for asking questions as much as answering them, despite my (somewhat lacking in comparison) life history being done long before the first bread roll was buttered.  He never stopped smiling, and seemingly only another sip of wine or mouthful of food stopped him talking.

And then, towards the end of the evening, came the customary collection for charity, recommended at £20. Suddenly, Paddy went silent. “Good Lord, I’ve left my wallet behind. I can’t eat their dinner and leave nothing.” He was genuinely mortified.

Now, journalists are not known for parting with their money, nor having much of it, but on that night, possibly for the first and only time, I had extra. “You’ve had a telegram from John Lennon, and now you can have £20 from me,” I laughed. “If it ever gets out I’ve had to borrow £20 from a journalist, it’ll be the end of me!” he chuckled.

At the end of the evening, we proceeded to swap business cards, and much to my amusement on the back of his, he’d scribbled “IOU £20” and signed it. Somewhere, I still have it – although it’s unlikely to be found until I clear my loft.

Naturally, I thought that was the end of it. Who wouldn’t pay £20 to spend an evening sat next to Paddy Hopkirk? I went home and drank some water, trying to be ready for another legendary MN press day, which demanded being at your desk hammering a keyboard by 6am on pain of death.

But here’s a mark of the man. Just after lunch, as I stared once again into the final proof tray, a mountain of race and rally reports building before my eyes, despair familiarly setting in with the knowledge they all needed reading, the phone rang.

“Young man, it’s Paddy Hopkirk! I’ve settled my debt. Now I know you said you have a busy day ahead of you today, but let’s catch up when it’s convenient.”

Paddy Hopkirk: the last British driver to win the Monte Carlo Rally, and possibly the only rally driver in history to put £20 in the post to a journalist. Fast, fun and honourable, he came from another era and earned a place as a giant of a man just as much as he was his sport.

Source: Autocar

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