It's been forty-one years since a brigade of private and works Minis first charged through this part of the world, conquering the impossibly grueling Coupe des Alpes Rally and claiming a spot in the hearts and garages of automotive enthusiasts in England and beyond for generations to come. From where we sit, hustling over one-and-a-half-lane country roads and puttering through centuries-old villages, it's hard to imagine anything's changed in those four decades.
We're here to run a quartet of Minis-three new and one vintage-through a small portion of the original Alpine Rally, which abused cars, drivers, and navigators for some 2400 miles in three segments, including two dozen special stages on roads open to the public, eight harrowing hill-climbs over mountain passes, and a brutal seventeen-lap stint on the Monza road-race circuit in Italy. Easily the most picturesque of all international road competitions, the Coupe des Alpes also proved a vengeful beast. Of the eighty-seven cars that departed the rally's start/finish in the seaside town of Marseille on a Thursday evening in June 1963, only twenty-four would make it back on the following Tuesday morning. When the dust settled, the diminutive Mini, a newcomer to such competition, had made a memorable showing, winning the touring-car category, the women's Coupe des Dames category, and the coveted team prize.
Our trio of new Minis includes a standard Cooper with a five-speed manual gearbox, another equipped with a paddle-controlled continuously variable transmission, and a third with the John Cooper Works package, which employs a new cylinder head, exhaust system, and engine-management software to nudge the normally aspirated in-line four's output from 114 to 124 horsepower and its torque from 110 to 114 pound-feet. (The Cooper kit is a Europe-only option, but a version of the dealer-installed package for the Cooper S is available in the States; it bumps the supercharged engine's horsepower from 163 to an even 200.) The old Mini in our group is a magnificent 1991 model, modified to Group N rallying standards with a full roll cage, fire-suppression kit, and racing seats with five-point harnesses. From the outside, however, aside from its flared wheel arches and twelve-inch gold-toned alloys wearing V-rated Yokohama Advan rubber, our little red '91 is a dead ringer for the Mini's inaugural 1959 model.
From the Paris-like hurly-burly of ancient Aix-en-Provence, just to the north of Marseille, we launch out into the countryside for a two-day excursion up and over the French Alps, meandering 500 miles through the mountains before nosing south and rolling into the glam capital of the Riviera, Nice. The highlights of the trip are, unquestionably, the conquest of two of the passes employed for the original Coupe des Alpes's preuves, or high-speed hill-climbs: the 4962-foot Col d'Allos and the 5129-foot Col de la Cayolle.
The whole of France is exquisite, but no place in the country captures the imagination quite like the incomparable French Alps, a region that stretches from the Mediterranean coast north to Lake Geneva in Switzerland. From an enthusiast driver's standpoint, this is nothing short of heaven on earth. The asphalt is smooth and tenacious, and one gets the impression that the road's creators determined its course by chasing a butterfly. Turns, twists, and dips are incessant and unpredictable. A distant cacophony of copper bells on a herd of Alpine cattle, far up over the ridge, beckons through the thin air like a siren call. Switch-backs squiggle up the mountainside with a playfulness that belies the grave consequences of a misplaced tire. It's a free-form roller coaster, and the Mini was born to ride it.