John Rhodes made one F1 appearance at the British Grand Prix in 1965 but is best know as the legendary tyre-smoking Mini racer who is still revered to this day for his giant-killing achievements of the mid-1960s.
John Rhodes was born in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England, and became hooked on motor racing after being taken to the British Grand Prix at Donington by his parents in 1938. When he was old enough he started competing on a motorcyle in grass track events. He began racing cars in speed events in 1958, with a Turner belonging to John Handley, taking a class win at the Lydstep Hillclimb.
In 1959 he switched to single seaters with one of John Cooper's Formula Juniors fitted with an 1100cc BMC engine. He aquired the car in partnership with a friend intending to share. However after just one race his friend quit leaving John to race the car on his own.
In 1960 he took wins at Linton-on-Ouse and Mallory Park, and three other podium finishes. This led to sponsored from the Midlands Racing Partnership in a latest spec car in 1961, winning the Irish Formula Junior title with wins at Phoenix Park, Kirkistown and Dunboyne. He also took four wins in Britain at Snetterton, Mallory Park twice, and at Silverstone. In 1961 he took a win at Mallory Park and four other top-three results in Formula Libre.
John was involved with the building of the cars at Coopers garage in Surbiton and this ed to his introduction to the Mini Cooper in which he would later achieve legendary fame.
In 1962 he switched to an Ausper Ford in Formula Junior, winning at Brands Hatch. He also took two Libre victories at Mallory in Bob Gerard's Cooper T59.
For 1963 he went back to Cooper in Formula Junior with Ken Tyrrell. He also raced a Mini for the first time in the British Saloon Car Championship. it was a dissapointing year. In Formula Junior his best finish was a pair of 6th places at Oulton Park and Goodwood. It wasn't much better in saloon cars with a 3rd and two 4ths in class.
Then in 1964 John Cooper fitted a F.J engine in a Mini. Rhodes was testing Bob Gerards ex F1 Cooper at Silverstone at the same time as Ginger Devlin, team manager of the Mini Cooper race team, was testing with John Love and Tony Maggs.
Being friends with Devlin, Rhodes was asked to have a go. Having just junped out of an F1 car, the Mini Cooper speed did not impress neither did the brakes. He deceided to throw the car into the corners sideways, tyres smoking and wailing. Lifting the throttle caused the car to oversteer, flooring it, he could power into a superb drift in clouds of tyre smoke. Thus 'Smokey' Rhodes became a works Mini Cooper driver. He finished 9th overall in the British Saloon Car Championship, winning the Motor 3 Hours at Mallory Park with Warwick Banks. He also came 3rd at Brands Hatch, and drove in a few long-distance events with Slotemaker, including the Coppa Europa at Monza, taking a number of class wins along the way. He also continued to race in F3 with his Cooper BMC, recording a best finish of 4th at Zandvoort.
Between 1965 to 1968 in the Mini he took 4 Consecutive Class Championship Titles 1300cc class, 1965 - 1968, 3 Overall Race Victories, 16 Class Race Victories and became European Champion in 1968.
In 1965 he made his Le Mans 24hrs debut, driving an Austin Healey Sprite with Paul Hawkins, finishing a respectable 12th and also made his one and only World Championship Grand Prix start at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone with his Cooper T60 with a Climax 1.5 litre V8 engine installed. He qualified 21st and retired after 38 laps with ignition problems.
John then gave up single seaters to concentrated on his saloon car racing. Continuing in the Mini in 1966, Rhodes once again won the 1300cc class of the British Saloon Car Championship. He also finished 9th outright and 1st in the 1600cc class in the Targa Florio with Timo Mäkinen in an MGB.
1967 saw Rhodes win his class in British Saloons yet again, for the third successive year. He made his last sports car outing in an MGB with Mäkinen in the Sebring 12hrs, finishing a creditable 12th.
In 1968 he won the 1300cc class of the British Saloon championship for the fourth time. He won the World of Sport Rallycross event at Croft, and the 1600cc class (in a 1300cc car) in the European Touring Car Championship, with class wins at Zolder, Zandvoort, Snetterton and Jarama and 29.5 points in total. The power and handling of the Mini coupled with John's agressive driving style was a spectacular combination even if it did place huge demands on his tyres. Dunlop technicians once recorded a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit (120ºC).
In 1969 Rhodes lost his works drive. He did finish 4th in the Anerley Trophy at Crystal Palace and at Mallory Park, plus one 2nd and three 4ths in class. In the Guards 6 Hour race he finished 7th overall and 2nd in class with Paddy Hopkirk. In rallycross, he won at Cadwell Park but onle came second at the World of Sport race at Croft.
By 1970 the Mini was no longer competitive however John continued to campaign one in rallycross events. In saloon cars he raced a Steinmetz Opel Commodore.In 1972 he drove a works Group 1 Opel Ascona and in 1973 raced once more for John Handley driving his production sports Triumph TR6 in a few events.