Featured: Spending A Weekend With Four Vintage Minis, A Few Flying Finns, And An Icy Lake In Sweden

Spending A Weekend With Four Vintage Minis, A Few Flying Finns, And An Icy Lake In Sweden

By Laura Kukuk
March 28, 2019

Photography by Laura Kukuk

When you get a midweek phone call from somebody asking if you’d like to take a spontaneous trip to Sweden to go ice driving with some classic rally-prepped Minis, a national rally champion, and some other friendly faces, you don’t turn it down.

Of course, spontaneous often leads to a few complications, but nothing more than a few more miles to drive and a few extra hours at yet another airport… the downsides don’t really add up to much in this case though, given the destination.

The rough plan: head to Stockholm from the airport with a bunch of Mini fans, get behind the  wheel of two new Mini Cooper Ses, and drive the roughly 5-6 hours to Torsby. Upon arrival, we’d have some dinner and an early night in the woodsy cabins before our early start on Saturday morning. Four vintage Minis, one rally champion, a big frozen lake, plenty of nature encasing us, and a whole day to spend in this wonderful scenario. Better yet, Rauno Aaltonen, the “rally professor” was going to be our coach for the day, teaching us all the basic tips and tricks like left-foot braking and how to properly flick like a Scandinavian.

We put it all into practice with four excellent little vessels: two rally homage Minis, a Mini 850, and a 1275 GT. Each would prove to be great fun to get to know, sliding around the track, or should I say piste? Driving on a frozen lake can be challenging, but luckily we had the right gear in the form of our agile and agreeable little Minis.

Sir Alec Issigonis’s design broke the mould in period, with its transverse-engine, front-wheel drive layout and the incredibly compact dimensions afforded by this design. It revolutionized the small car market and became the best-selling British car in history, with a production run of 5.3 million units. More than few of which were set up for competition.

Rauno explains his love for the Mini, as well as why he’s become convinced that it’s the perfect rally car: “One can see from the outside whether a car is sporty and capable of being quick for rallying. A short overhang in front and a mild to nonexistent overhang at the rear, with the wheels standing as far outside as they can is a good place to start. Moreover, the vehicle must be very light and small. A Mini was at that time the only production vehicle with a transversely-mounted engine which created the possibility to construct a car with very short overhangs in the front.”

And what are the resulting advantages of this concept? Rauno adds: “The advantage is that while all others need a long time to steer, the Mini acts immediately. Therefore, it has a strong advantage over the higher-performance vehicles, as the Mini can bring the power quicker to the gravel and drive off before the others are gaining grip again.”

Anyone not familiar with the Mini concept might have doubts about a front-engined vehicle with such a short wheelbase and such a scant reading on the scales being the a perfect machine for ice driving. While a rear-wheel drive car can be persuaded to slide using just the throttle, a front-wheel drive, with its natural tendency to understeer, requires a different approach that relies more heavily on weight transfer and momentum (both in terms of the cars speed and the motor’s). Given such hardware, the Scandinavians and co. had to develop a new set of driving techniques. They probably didn’t even realize how useful this style of cornering would become in the future—the introduction of all-wheel drive and turbochargers was still a ways off—but keeping the engine high in its rev range would prove to be crucial to keeping the turbochargers spooling in their effective ranges.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Mini, which began in August of 1959. The British Motor Corporation (BMC) was excited to reveal a car that could revolutionize the compact segment, and over its many iterations and decades of production, the car lived up to the potential in those early sketches. It’s hard to believe that 60 years have passed since the original Mini entered production.

I assume that if you’re a Mini fan you’ve heard of the “Rally Professor” already, but just in case, here is a little background on Rauno Aaltonen.

The man, who is 81 years old today, lives up to his statement that “You can do anything you want, if you believe in yourself.” It’s a bit of a cliche, but if you’ve lived his life then how could it ring with any more truth? He is filled with passion, love, and possesses a level of dedication to his driving that hasn’t seemed to ebb as he’s aged. Rauno has many stories to tell, and somewhere in between them you’ll always find that you’re getting a few tips on how to drive and how to live your life in general. Conversations quickly dart from vehicle dynamics to philosophy.

One of the original “Flying Finns,” and the first driver ever inducted into the Rallying Hall of Fame, Rauno famously demonstrated to the world that the Mini had massive sporting potential. In his native Finland today, he runs a family rally school, focused on snow driving and techniques that “the Professor” has honed to perfection over decades of practice.

You certainly can’t accuse the 1967 Rallye Monte Carlo-winner of lacking any talent, or as he would say “It is not about talent, it is about skills and technical understanding in a combination.”

A Mini Cooper S was rebuilt to the original specs that Rauno raced with in 1967 for this day on the ice, and it was raced in the heritage edition of the rally back in 2017 for the 50th anniversary of his original victory in the Rallye Monte Carlo.

That car is here for us today, a 1968 Mini built to the rally-winning 1967 spec, built and prepped by Hans-Åke Söderqvist’s outfit, Söderqvist Racing. The incredible work achieved by these specialists should be noted: in less than three months, the vehicle was prepared for Monte Carlo.

Hans’s team from Söderqvist took the car completely apart and rebuilt it to the original rallying spec, with renewed mechanical components and a few modern pieces for compliance, like the latest safety cage, seats, and on-board computer.

As we arrive late in the evening on the first day in Torsby, no driving is on the schedule, but a warm Swedish welcome and some fresh salmon await us as a welcome break from a day of traveling. After getting to know one another a little bit more, exchanging our excitement and listening to a few stories from Rauno and Hans-Åke, we head to our cabins to get ready for the early start the next morning.

I started off in the Morris 850 with Hans-Åke. It was the least powerful of the four, and with 1.5mm spikes it was the right entry point to the day, a good way to get a feel for the track. Out of our group, I was the first to do some laps, accompanied by Hans Sylvan, my co-driver for the weekend.

After returning from my first few stints on the ice, I must have had the biggest smile on my face as everyone started laughing. I had already begun falling in love with the Mini and how it liked to be tossed around. As soon as the car starts drifting you just continue accelerating and the thing just magically returns to the center, giving you more grip and confidence than you’d expect from such a little machine.

I was more than ready to step up the power a bit with the next in line: the 1275 GT. This car had 7mm spikes, which translated to a feeling more akin to driving on gravel than ice. With the extra power on hand (or would it be “on foot”?), it was a noticeably faster car than the first. From that one, I then got to experience the fully rally-spec Minis. The sound, the feeling of the tiny box wrapped around you, and the incredible control you can keep while sliding from corner to corner is just mind-blowing. I knew these things had earned their reputation, but to experience it firsthand is enough to make a true believer. The rest of the day was basically spent on track, battling one another’s stopwatches, improving our techniques and skills while having the time of our lives. Rauno and Hans-Åke were there to oversee our progress throughout, jumping in from time to time as passengers and switching seats every so often to show us how much room was still left for improvement!

During the weekend I talked often with Benny Voss from BMW Classic about Rauno’s infectious attitude. A class act, a natural raconteur, and a man who still has a deep well of talent to deploy behind the wheel. We just couldn’t get enough of his anecdotes and were amazed at the level of dedication to the sport he’s maintained for so long. Benny reflects on the Monte-Carlo preparation Rauno did back in 2017: before the race, he surveyed the entire route in a new MINI Cooper S Clubman to write a complete road book for his race in the vintage Mini. The memories of the winning drive in 1967 came flooding back with every curve and on each ascent, but nonetheless he meticulously recorded all the details again.

A warm and energetic personality, a deep passion for rallying, and immense talent combine to make both Rauno and Hans-Åke a very inspiring duo of coaches. It was a dream come true to learn how to properly ice skate in an automobile, and if you want to experience something similar, you can check out Rauno’s school in Finland, or if Sweden is your preferred destination there is also Hans-Åke’s equally compelling option.

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Paul Bilek
Paul Bilek
4 years ago

This looks like a lot of fun. Wonderful photos as well.

Laura Kukuk
Laura Kukuk
4 years ago
Reply to  Paul Bilek

Thank you, it was indeed a very special experience! 🙂