FOR the vast majority of rally competitors the choice is relatively simple, driver or navigator/co-driver.
However, for Banteer’s Vincent Meade it was a case of having the best of both worlds. He is one of the few competitors who made the transition and he succeeded in both.
In the 1970s rallying was part of the north Cork fabric especially with Banteer’s Ger Buckley, a well-known, popular and successful driver — notwithstanding Buckley’s cousin was none other than one Billy Coleman from Millstreet.
Making his mark as navigator with Dubliner Richie Heeley, Vincent’s first outing was as navigator to Kanturk’s Dan Jones in the mid 1970s. That was an era when it was the norm to actually drive rally cars to events.
That was the plan for the Wexford Rally, but things turned out a little different than anticipated as Vincent explains: “Dan was driving the Ford Escort RS to Wexford but it dropped a valve on the way down. Richie was there (in Wexford) but he had no navigator and that is how we started out.”
A few months earlier Meade had probably his first sighting of Heeley. “Dan and I were doing the Circuit of Munster and I saw Richie after his car, a sparkling Ford Escort RS2000, had gone off the road.”
That Wexford encounter led to a lifetime friendship and some notable rally wins along the way. It was a partnership that continued for well over a decade and having switched from Group 1 to Group 4 — both Ford Escorts — outright wins followed in the 1983 Tipperary Stonethrowers Rally and the West Cork Rally, the Wexford Rally in 1984, another West Cork victory in 1985 and an Aer Lingus Rally win in 1987.
But it wasn’t straightforward, Richie Heeley had honed his motorsport skills on racing tracks, but he was no ordinary racer, his driving style brought great success, winning the prestigious Sexton Trophy on three occasions in 1966, 1967 and 1971. Such form and style was unprecedented, but from a rallying perspective it had a few kinks and it took Meade a few rallies to rid the Malahide driver’s propensity to fine line and cut corners.
“We had to wean him away from that as cutting corners wasn’t on as there could be a stone in the grass, it wasn’t racing lines for sure, but he learned quickly,” said Vincent.
From those early days in the Group 1 Escort, the move to the “big time” came when Richie acquired an ex-Malcolm Wilson Escort RS1800. Vincent said: “Winning West Cork was huge at the time.”
Ironically after he switched to driving himself, Vincent actually led the Clonakilty event on two occasions but never managed to finish.
Heeley acquired another Malcolm Wilson car — an Escort G3 that replaced the Group 4 car and was subsequently followed by a Group N Sierra Cosworth, however, by that time, Vincent was already behind the wheel.
The switch to driving (in 1983) happened almost by accident. Vincent explains: “Richie was selling his car, I had a Fiesta I was planning to repair as I had bought a shell, so Richie took both and I got his Group 1 Ford Escort.”
Vincent’s younger brother Neil was the navigator initially but Dromtarriffe’s James O’Brien sat for most of the events with Pat Cashman also fulfilling the role. One of the cars was an ex-Bill Connolly Ford Escort that Vincent drove to victory in the Killarney Summer Rally in 1987. After a few events, it received a BDX engine transplant.
“Really, that was the best car I ever had.” Of course there were others, an ex-James McDaid Opel Manta. “I found that cumbersome, you needed to be very aggressive with it.”
Then, an ex-James Cullen Opel Ascona that was already in the hands of another Banteer man, Hugh Twomey became Vincent’s next acquisition before a few more outings with a Ford Escort and finally a Group N Sierra Cosworth and just as it was in the beginning, an ex-Richie Heeley car.
The comparison between driver and navigator drew a subtle reaction. “When I started driving I realised it was more of a seat of the pants job than I thought it was.”
There is no delay in answering his favourite event: “Donegal, the stages are beautiful and they are smashing people, they embrace the rally.”
On other occasions, Vincent navigated with Austin MacHale (Vauxhall Chevette) on the Cork 20 International Rally but retired when the wishbone broke. After the Heeley RS1800 was sold to the late Frank Meagher, Vincent sat with the Cloneen driver on his debut with the car on the Rally of the Lakes but it was short-lived as the throttle linkage snapped on the second stage.
Meade enjoyed his rallying days.
“I have made great friends through rallying, I still meet Bill Connolly once a month for a round of golf. There was great camaraderie if someone was stuck for something you gave it to them (well, most people did) everybody helped everybody even though we were competing against each other.
“When you won, the celebrations went on for a few days and then you would have another celebration the following weekend. But life is very different now.
“When you look at the likes of Billy Coleman, Ger Buckley, Austin MacHale, Bill Connolly and Bertie Fisher, they were special. Rallying was never cheap but it was great fun and I made great friends and yes I would do it all over again.”
In ideal circumstances and asked to choose between being a driver or a navigator/co-driver, Vincent replied: “I would co-drive.” But quickly added, “With a good driver. But I wouldn’t be interested nowadays as I haven’t been in one of the modern cars.”
Certainly, it seems the old ones were the best.