In the history of rallying in Ireland, one name stands out above all others for the respect in which he is held and the ability he demonstrated behind the wheel of the cars — predominantly Fords — that he drove.
That person is the remarkable Billy Coleman, the man from Millstreet in County Cork who even today, long after he hung up his driving gloves, remains the stuff of legend.
Billy started driving competitively in 1966 while still a student at University College Cork.
“It was with the Munster Motorcycle and Car Club. I was a student there and would go up to the club at night,” he recalled.
His natural talent was apparent from the start and it wasn’t long before he scored his first major success, winning the prestigious three day Circuit of Munster Rally, driving a Ford Lotus Cortina.
At the time he should have been studying for his college exams and in beating Rosemary Smith, a professional driver at the time, his huge success attracted much attention nationally.
Asked how the college exams went after such a high profile victory, he replied with a smile: “I passed.”
But it was on the Circuit of Ireland Rally at Easter, 1969, that Billy really established his name. In those days, it was a gruelling five day event that included two 24-hour stints behind the wheel.
Billy was driving a Ford Escort TIU 250 that he was to make famous in that event, and for five days he kept the county enthralled as he harried the ‘Works’ cars of Roger Clark and Paddy Hopkirk for the lead — a genuine David versus Goliath feat that only came to an end when he went off the road while challenging for a top three finish near the climax of the event.
Despite that loss, Billy had made his mark and, after qualifying from college and spending a year working in America, he returned to make a serious attempt at the sport.
Once again driving a Ford Escort, his efforts culminated in him winning the British Rally Championship in 1974.
The scale of that success is hard to comprehend today. At a time when few Irish sportsmen competed abroad, this shy Corkman was blazing a trail in his modest, non-superstar way.
As Ronan Morgan, who navigated him between 1984 and 1987, said of him: “Not seeking the limelight, Billy just went out, did the business, and came home.”
At the time, the British Rally Championship was probably the most closely contested in the world and many of those taking part were supported by large manufacturers.
Billy’s success was achieved as a ‘privateer’, something that has not been achieved in the many years since then.
His success propelled him to international fame, yet the man from Millstreet was torn between his two loves, motorsport and farming — a theme that was to continue throughout his rally career.
Back home, success finally came on the Circuit of Ireland, with Billy taking the first of three wins in 1975. He won it again in 1976, — on both occasions driving a Ford of Cork Escort. He won his third crown in 1984.
In addition to these events, Billy made forays onto the world stage by competing in rounds of the World Rally Championship, especially in the RAC Rally of Great Britain. Several top six results ensued and in 1975 he was also runner-up in the British Rally Championship.
One of the most impressive aspects of Billy’s talent was his ability to be gentle on a car in the most demanding of motor sports.
In the early 1980s, he took a break from the sport and returned to drive for Dealer Opel Team Ireland. I was General Manager of that team and Billy proceeded to win each of the home international rallies in which he competed. In all those events, the car never received a scratch and never suffered any mechanical failures.
Billy simply did just enough to win at the slowest possible speed and with least strain on the car — a characteristic of all the greatest drivers in motorsport.
And if you think that perhaps he had no competition, the opposite was true. Put simply, Billy was head and shoulders above them all.
His rally career continued until 1987 when he finally retired to devote himself to his beloved farming.
Today, his name lives on to a new generation of rally drivers through the prestigious Motorsport Ireland Billy Coleman Award that is presented each year to the most promising up-and-coming young driver.
For many, this is the key stepping stone to a career in rallying.
To drivers like Craig Breen, now competing in the World Rally Championship, Billy is a legendary figure of Irish motorsport and without the support of the Billy Coleman Award, their progress to the world stage of rallying would have been difficult.
Nowadays, Billy is devoted to farming near Mallow and makes occasional appearances at motorsport events.
To witness the respect and regard in which he is held at these events is to know that you are in the presence of that rare thing: a true sporting legend.
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