The Leeside legends series: Brilliant Billy Coleman had oil in his veins

The Leeside legends series: Brilliant Billy Coleman had oil in his veins
Billy Coleman remains the king of Cork motorsport, despite retiring in 1987.

MENTION rallying in this country and Billy Coleman automatically springs to mind and he is without doubt the greatest rally driver this country has produced.

Born in Millstreet in 1947, some said Coleman had motor oil in his veins as his interest in cars and driving started at a very young age as his parents were in the garage business.

In 1968 Billy, at 21 years of age, won the Circuit of Munster in Limerick a Ford Cortina GT, he took part in his first Circuit of Ireland Rally but retired the Ford Cortina GT with engine trouble. “My co-driver was Dan O’Sullivan from Ballyvourney and we were determined to eventually win this great rally,” said Billy.

Like the roads he raced on, his career had many twists and turns. In 1970 in a Ford Escort, he won the Cork “20” Rally in a Renault Alpine with Noel Davin as his navigator. In the Circuit of Ireland, Coleman/O’Sullivan in a Ford Escort that had No. 25 on the doors, finished an incredible third overall.

Billy won the Circuit of Munster again in 1973 but his greatest moment was when he became the first Irish driver to win the British Rally Championship in 1974.

Success continued with victories in the Circuit of Ireland in 1975 and 1976 “The Circuit of Ireland is one tough race and after coming so close in previous years the actual feeling when I did win it was hard to describe and make no mistake, this race is a very hard one to conquer.” In 1977 Billy switched his car to the Lancia Stratos and later went on to drive a Fiat Abarth in which he secured fourth place in the Scottish Rally.

In 1979 Coleman decided that he wanted to compete at the very top level and he joined the European Rally Championship.

Driving a Ford Escort, Billy was up against the best drivers and almost snatched victory.

The pressure of the sport saw Billy take a five-year break but such was his love for it he couldn’t resist a return.

Coleman returned in 1984 to drive an Opel Manta to victory in the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. He joined the Rothmans Rally team the following year winning the Donegal International Rally in a Porsche 911 works car. In his career, he won eleven rounds of the Tarmac series including the Cork 20 International Rally in ’84 in a Opel Manta 400 and in 1986 in a Metro 6R4.

Billy with his father, Paddy (RIP) and his brother John, in 1984.
Billy with his father, Paddy (RIP) and his brother John, in 1984.

It was always an ambition of Coleman’s to compete against the best in the world and his determination ensured his dream was realised.

At the end of the 1985 season he travelled to Corsica and this time his driving skills were pitted against the very best on the world tour.

Billy finished in fourth position in the Tour de Corse after a gruelling rally and that was a major achievement for the Cork driver.

The final two years of Coleman’s rallying career were rather low key with successes limited in this period.

In 1987 he drove a BMW M3 albeit with little reward.

It was after this period that Coleman decided to call it a day, and after a career that spanned 20 years the Millstreet man had only one regret.

“I always wanted to be crowned World champion and although I came close on a number of occasions it wasn’t to be.

“I think everyone involved in sport at the top level has certain goals because that’s what keeps you motivated however when I look back on my career I can honestly say that I enjoyed every minute of it.” 

Coleman now works on his farm at Castlemagner with his wife Carmel and they were blessed with five children.

Since his retirement the pressure of farm work has replaced the pressure of rally driving but Coleman will never be forgotten by the people lucky enough to have witnessed his skill behind the wheel.

FACTFILE:

Billy Coleman won the Circuit of Munster in 1968.

Coleman won the British Rally Championship in 1974 and the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship in 1984.

Billy Coleman won his first Circuit of Ireland in 1975.

Driving a Porsche 911 works car, he finished fourth in the 1985 World Championship round, the Tour de Corse.

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