Billy Coleman: Irish rally legend who could have been an international superstar. By John Davenport
Just a short while ago I was sitting in the passenger seat of an ex-Rothmans Porsche 911 SCRS, about to do some ‘demonstrating’ on the Killarney Rally of the Lakes. The name on the car’s livery was that of Henri Toivonen, but the instant the commentator’s eyes lit on where Billy Coleman had autographed the paintwork last year all else was forgotten. From then on, despite all evidence to the contrary, this was Billy Coleman’s car.
I rallied with Billy for most of my last season as a professional co-driver, first in his own ex-works Escort RS1800 and then in the Thomas Motors Mk2. First event was the Galway Rally, where we retired with a broken halfshaft within a few stages from the finish while leading. It was not a pacenote event and my role was basically that of timekeeper as Coleman showed his complete command of Irish lanes. But one memory stands out: I once broke the silence in a special stage by looking ahead, locating a sharp left-hander some way off and passing this nugget of information to Billy. We almost went off the road and he was evidently upset. At the end of the stage he explained that nothing should break his concentration. “If you see something like that,” he told me gently, “tell me at the end of the stage.” I did not interrupt the flow again.
No matter what part of Ireland you happen to be in, if you mention the name of Billy Coleman, chances are that someone within earshot will show interest and ask if you are a fan of rallying. His exploits at home and abroad have endeared him to almost three generations of Irish rally fans. Best known for winning in Ford Escorts, his CV also numbers Alpine-Renaults, Lancia Stratos, Fiat-Abarth 131, Opel Manta 400, Porsche 911 SCRS and 959, MG Metro 6R4 and BMW M3.
The eldest son of the Ford dealer in Millstreet, Billy Coleman was dispatched in his late teens to University College Cork to study for a degree in commerce: “To tell the truth I had no interest in the business. I wanted to take up farming but no one would listen, so I wasted four years of my young life.”
Then one night in 1966 he saw a notice advertising a film show at the Munster Car and Motorcycle Club. On his way there he saw “a tall thin bloke in a long black leather coat” hitching a lift. He stopped to pick him up and thus met Dan O’Sullivan. Two more different gentlemen one could not imagine, as O’Sullivan would become known as one of the hard-living, hedonistic engineers who were always having adventures, whereas Billy was — and remains — a quiet and sober chap.
Watching an evening of old rally films was enough for the pair to decide that they should go rallying. The chosen vehicle was a Ford Anglia and the first events were local night rallies, very similar to those in England and Wales, with the exception that the Irish OS maps were not quite perfect: “It could be a very frustrating business. There were roads that were on the map and were there, roads that were on the map and were not there and even roads that were not on the map but were there. Some guys knew all these things but we spent a lot of time investigating farmyards.”
For 1967 a Ford Cortina GT was acquired. “We did the Circuit of Ireland in that car. It had all the go-faster bits like an uprated second gear and 5in steel wheels. We had no proper service, only my father and some friends following us round in the south. When we got to Limerick they said, ‘Goodbye lads, you’re on your own now.’ I remember changing the brake pads on a forecourt in Sligo with the standard jack. And then we went all through Donegal with a howling diff. It was a miracle we finished.”
With a twin-cam engine, what was now effectively a Lotus-Cortina did not distinguish itself on the ’68 Circuit, burning out its valves on the last day. With his summer vacation from university looming, Coleman decided that racing was a better prospect and booked a full course with Jim Russell, but farming commitments kept him at home. Meanwhile, his brother had found a standard Escort and it was decided that the twin-cam engine would come out of the Cortina and into the Escort — and Billy’s rally career would continue: “The Escort was a crashed car from a housing estate up in Limerick that we bought for £250. Arthur O’Keefe from my dad’s garage did a lovely job of straightening it out and it looked just fine. Then I did the Thomond Rally that autumn and fell asleep on the way home, hit a wall and extensively damaged the front end. There was another rally a week later so we did a quick repair job with chicken wire.”
This incredible machine started the 1969 Circuit of Ireland at number 115, but was soon lying a little higher than that. In fact, after a string of fastest times it was giving the leaders — Roger Clark in his Escort and Paddy Hopkirk in a Mini Cooper — something to think about until on the last night in Donegal it slipped off into a bog on the Fanad Head stage. But the combination of the ‘Tatty Escort’ and its softly-spoken driver had captured the imagination of both press and public. For the Irish it was an adulation that lasts even to this day. As a result of this performance, Ford’s Bill Barnett wrote a very positive letter to Billy and indicated that he would discuss his future during a trip to Ireland that summer, but “I had to go to America to complete my studies. It was planned I should be there a few months but it was more like a year. Missing that meeting put my rally career back at least five years.”
With a new shell and engine, Coleman took the Escort to victory on the Cork 20 in 1970, but with the factory moving on to RS1600s the old T-C proved uncompetitive. Billy purchased an Alpine-Renault from the factory in Dieppe and in ’71 won four asphalt stage events on the trot. On the ’72 Swedish Rally he finished third in the GT class: “The race on the frozen trotting track was superb. I got away first and was on such a high that I stayed there. But I realised that it was the other cars being there that wound me up. I have often regretted that I didn’t become a racing driver. And I realised later that on a normal rally stage I needed a co-driver insulting me to get me warmed up to drive really fast.”
With the Alpine lacking on reliability, he bought an ex-Hannu Mikkola RS1600 with which he took third on the 1974 Circuit. Another ex-works Escort replaced it in May and he finished second on the Welsh behind Markku Alén. With second in Donegal, a string of top-five finishes in British national events and eighth on the RAC Rally, he was confirmed as a worthy British Rally Champion.
The following year Coleman won the Mintex Rally and was second in Spain on the Firestone, both of which encouraged Ford to lend him a car for the Circuit. Ford’s rally manager at the time, Tony Mason, recalls: “It was a bit difficult to persuade Stuart (Turner) that it was worth giving him a car. Like Roger (Clark) and Hannu, he wasn’t a Turner discovery. For me, Billy was an amazing driver but he was rather disorganised. On that Circuit I remember he disappeared into church on the Sunday morning before the restart and no one could find him. But once behind the wheel he had this amazing ability which frankly I don’t think many of us realised at the time.” He was second in the RAC championship to a fully works-supported Clark and, with continuing support from Ford Ireland in a Thomas Motors-run car, 1976 looked as if it was going to continue the same way, with wins in Galway and the Circuit.
But Coleman was unhappy with the Thomas Motors package of preparation and support. He had a call from Graham Warner of The Chequered Flag, who was running a Lancia Stratos in the UK. Billy agreed to drive and won the 1977 Donegal, but then “it proved to be not the most reliable car.”
The deal brought a partnership with David Richards, who co-drove to fourth on the Scottish Rally. Throughout 1978 the Coleman/Stratos partnership soldiered on, and in ’79 there was a Ford Ireland deal which netted him third in the European championship, giving him FIA ‘A’ status. A similar campaign was planned in ’80, but while on a trip to the USA Coleman started to feel ill: he had caught a bacterial infection that is prevalent in farm animals but rarely attacks humans.
With the infection finally in recession, Billy got a chance to drive the Rally of the Lakes in December ’83 with a Sidney Meeke Opel Ascona 400. He won, and for ’84 he swept to the STP Irish championship aboard a DOT Ireland Manta 400. Then Richards offered him a Rothmans Porsche. He could only make fourth in the 1985 STP series, but he did go with Prodrive to Corsica where, on seeing the island roads for the first time, he took fourth place. He started ’86 in the 911, winning in Galway, but on the Circuit the Porsches were bested by the new breed of four-wheel-drive supercars. Fortunately Prodrive and Rothmans had an MG Metro 6R4 and Billy got to win the Donegal and Cork 20 rallies — and took second in the STP points.
The following year he drove a BMW M3 for Prodrive on the Circuit but, when the engine failed after just two stages, Coleman decided that from then on his family and farming were going to take his time. If only things had gone a little more smoothly after that ’69 Circuit, then Billy Coleman could have become an international star. It was not to be, but he will always be a legend in Ireland.