Features Irish Rallying

Irish Rally Legend: John Coyne

This weekend’s Ulster Rally will feature the best Irish Tarmac and British Rally Championship drivers from all over the UK & Ireland. But one man will sit at the Holly Hill start-line on Friday morning having travelled over 5000 miles to savour the Irish stages.

John Coyne will tackle the North-West stages in a 360-bhp Porsche 997 R-GT run by England’s Tuthill Porsche team. The Ulster Rally will be his second outing in the state-of-the-art Porsche. 

Coyne’s 997 caught my eye when it left Donegal Rally’s Milford service area back in June. Intrigued by the Stars and Stripes emblazoned on its side window, I watched it pass by with its rasping six-cylinder soundtrack.

As I found out when I interviewed Coyne via a cross-Atlantic call a few weeks ago, the 67-year-old is not just a businessman with a healthy pension pot. The man has serious rallying heritage! 

Starting off in a Volkswagen Beetle, John Coyne’s life has been as exciting as the 22 different rally cars he has driven, on 750 events through the past 50 years. The Irish American, who resides in California, is in his 49th year of rallying and certainly isn’t slowing down after retiring from an extremely successful business career in 2013.

Brought up in Dublin, the 1982 Irish Tarmac Rally Champion had his Father to thank for welcoming him to the world of motorsport.

“When I was a nipper my father was an avid spectator at motorsport events,” said Coyne.

“He never competed but when I was growing up, every weekend we would be off watching a test trial, a rally, a race, an autocross or something!”

Coyne started rallying when he was 18 years old in the family run-around, a Volkswagen Beetle. With his parents’ approval he was allowed their car from Friday evening under the condition that it would return parked on the driveway, ready for family use, come eight o’clock on Monday morning.

In that period between 1968 and ‘70 Coyne admitted he could have done as many as three events a weekend. Navigation rallies, stage rallies and even autocrosses. Of course, there was no trailer involved as the Beetle was driven to and from every event across the country.

A series of Hillman Imps and an ex-Derek McMahon Sunbeam Stiletto followed before Coyne moved to a 1.6 litre Gp1 Chrysler Avenger, winning his class in the Dunlop Irish National Rally Championship in 1976.

That car was bought from the UK following a trip to the final round of the previous year’s Autosport Championship.

“I saw that the guy in second place had a quicker car but was driving it much more gently,” Coyne said.

So I bought that car off the finish line and took it home.”

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Following his success in 1976, Chrysler offered Coyne some help from Dublin and he was able to buy a new car for the first time going into the ‘77 season. A 1300 Super Avenger was bought from Chrysler and converted straightaway into one of the first 2 litre Super Avengers to compete anywhere in the world.

“The Thursday afternoon I bought that car I drove it to Hugo Cowan‘s place up in Bessbrook and by two o’clock in the morning it was a bare shell,” Coyne explained.

“Over the next two weeks we built it up as a 2 litre Gp1 rally car.”

After homologation on April 1 1977, three of them were at the Circuit of Ireland a week later. Robin Eyre-Maunsell in the UK Works car, Gavin Waugh in the Irish White Whisky car and Coyne in the Chrysler Ireland car.

Coyne went on to take the overall honours in that year’s Irish National Rally Championship, marking the first time a Group 1 car took the title. Coyne obviously impressed in 1977 and his ties with Chrysler took a further step in ‘78. The Chrysler Ireland Rally Team signed him up along with Dessie McCartney and Rosemary Smith, in a partnership that lasted until ‘82.

chrysler_team_ireland_S12-B3-Chrysler Team Ireland

The team ran 2 litre Talbot Sunbeams across Ireland and by 1981 the team had developed the car into a full works spec Sunbeam Lotus. This is the car that went on to give Coyne and co-driver Christy Farrell the Irish Tarmac Rally Championship in ‘82.

But that year’s title was far from a fully backed works.

“The fact was that by then Chrysler had shut down its factory in Dublin and they weren’t manufacturing anymore, explained Coyne.

“At the beginning of the year they had given me the car and some spares and I had committed to run it for the year, myself.”

“With Chrysler’s marketing, it still ran as Talbot Ireland but I was actually funding it myself and spent about a third of what we believed the Team Opel Ireland budget was.”

So we were pretty pleased to take the championship on a shoestring.”

Out of all the events in his ITRC winning year there was one event that stood out in Coyne’s memory,

“I think the highlight of that year was the Circuit of Ireland, back when it was a real rally!”

“You know five days and 600 miles of stages with a total route of 1500 miles.”

“We finished fourth on that, top Irish driver, behind Jimmy McRae in the works [Opel] Ascona, Russell Brookes in a [Vauxhall] Chevette, Henri Toivonen was third in the other Ascona, we were fourth, Billy Coleman was fifth in a [Ford] Escort, Hannu Mikkola was sixth in an [Audi] Quattro and Ari Vatanen was seventh in an Escort.”

So I was pretty chuffed with that result, right, due to the company we were keeping.”

“That would have been the highlight of the year even though that was probably the worst result.”

There’s no denying that was a big top seven to be stuck in the middle of. After all Vatanen was the reigning World Rally champion, taking his only World Rally Championship title in a similar Ford Escort the previous year.

Circuit of Ireland_1982_NB-S1-F1-2-Ari Vatanen

Coyne had to face reality in 1983, though. After spending twice his annual salary in his ’82 title efforts, the Mechanical Engineer started a new job for Western Digital (hard drive manufacturers) the next year and he decided to suspend his rallying activities for a few years.

Who knows where Coyne’s rallying career would have taken him but the fact is had he not pursued a career with the American company the 67-year-old would probably not be driving a R-GT Porsche at this year’s Ulster Rally.

The Dubliner worked for Western Digital from 1983-91, starting a factory in Cork before moving to the USA with the company. He came back home in ’91 before returning to the hard drive manufacturers in ’96 to run some of its factories in Asia.

His hard work paid off and in 2006 he became CEO of Western Digital, in his own simple words, “Running the show.” It’s a great case of how far anyone can go, considering he studied Mechanical Engineering at University College Dublin more due to his motorsport aspirations than any pursuit of a manufacturing career.

Between his job changes Coyne has driven some spectacular rally cars, an Opel Manta 400, a Group N Lancia Delta Integrale and a historic Porsche 911 to name but a few. But none have left an impression on the well-experienced rally driver as much as the Group B Nissan 240RS.

“In 1985 and ‘86 I rented a 240RS Nissan for several events and I really loved that car,” said Coyne.

“It had a ball-and-roller steering box rather than a rack-and-pinion, only in its final year of homologation did it get a rack, so the steering used to wander a little bit.”

“It was a bitch to brake on bumpy roads because it would move around as the wheels weren’t necessarily pointing straight ahead.”

“That was a nice car, long wheelbase, lots of suspension travel and an engine that would pull out tree stumps.”

“That was Group B.”

His latest investment, the Tuthill-Porsche 997 R-GT, also impresses Coyne.

“I have driven all sorts of things but I’d have to say this R-GT thing is just fantastic.”

“It’s just amazing, the suspension is really good, the brakes, it’s a reasonably heavy car but the brakes are really good.”

“The most outstanding thing about it is the range of torque, it doesn’t matter what gear you are in, it will still pull away.”

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When I asked John what it was like rallying against some of the legends of world rallying, his response somewhat surprised me. He focused instead on names that would be less well known beyond our own shores. But that is what made rallying so special in that era, everyone was a respected challenger when it came to an Irish event.

“Back in the day Bertie [Fisher], God rest him, was a real protagonist,” started Coyne.

“I remember the Ulster [Rally] in ’82, I didn’t finish it as we had rolled the thing into a ball about two thirds the way through.”

“But there was a bunch of stages around Bertie’s country and the first time we had pacenotes, legally, in the Tarmac Championship was in the Ulster that year.”

“I remember spending the bulk of my time on the stages that were going to be run in the early hours of the morning around Fermanagh.”

“I was the only one to stay within an ass’s roar of Bertie through the night, we were lying second overall when we went out.”

“But I was kind of pleased that my little strategy of spending that extra time on those few stages worked really well.”

“He was a great competitor and Austin McHale was a real up and comer around that time too.”

Ulster_1982_NB-S1-C1-2-John Coyne.jpg

Coyne went on to share another rallying memory from before his Sunbeam exploits.

“Ronnie McCartney ran a very similar car to mine and I remember doing one event.”

“I can’t remember what event it was now, it was a National Championship event and it was fairly short, I think there were only eight stages.”

“We had identical times on six of them and he beat me by one second on one and I beat him by two or three seconds on another so I mean that was a fantastic day’s sport.”

“It doesn’t get better than that. Even though you are highly competitive out on the stages everybody is helping and prepared to help.”

“When something breaks and you don’t have a part, even if you are trading time with a guy on the stages, he’ll help you out knowing that in doing so you might beat him. But nobody holds back, it is a great sport from that perspective.”

Coyne has been rallying in both America and Ireland since his post-retirement comeback in 2014. His American rounds have been focused on the Californian Championship which he won last year in a Subaru Impreza.

He admits rallying in America is still a minority sport and the sheer size of the country makes it too awkward to even compete in the country’s national championship. With many of the rounds on the east coast of America, it is cheaper for Coyne to rally in Ireland than to compete in Rally America’s events.

Coyne described how he ended up rallying back in Ireland following his retirement in 2013,

“I retired from Western Digital in 2013 and then we found the Sunbeam Lotus that I had used in 1982 to win the [Irish] Tarmac Championship,” said Coyne.

“I got the old team back together, myself, Chris Farrell, who used to co-drive for me back in the day, and Martin Johnston who used to prepare the car back in those days. We rebuilt the Lotus and started doing the Historics in the Tarmac Championship in 2014.”

“We had an issue with the engine in the Sunbeam this year in Galway, we actually broke the crankshaft and getting a new crankshaft made as well as getting that engine back together took longer than anticipated so I decided to rent a [Citroen DS3] R5 for West Cork and I enjoyed that. It was great fun, they are amazingly competent motor cars and good fun to drive.”

“I decided to retire the Lotus and only use it for a few demonstration events.”

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“Then it was a toss-up between the R5 and the R-GT,” explained Coyne.

“I ran a Porsche 911, but a historic one, back in 1995 and ’96 and I really enjoyed that so I thought I’d give the R-GT thing a whirl.”

“They are just a blast to drive and they are good fun for the spectators, I think, from a noise and spectacle perspective.”

“I decided that’s what to do for the foreseeable future, to give this thing a run and try and get used to the car over the next couple of events.”

“I’m going to do the Ulster and the Cork 20 and then if that all works out and I’m feeling reasonably happy with myself in the car then we’ll go and try to do the R-GT championship next year, which is a mix of WRC and European tarmac events.”

“So you’d think at 67-years-old it would be time to get a bit of sense.”

“But my old Chrysler team-mate Rosemary Smith was driving an F1 car the other weekend, so you know there is hope for us yet. I’m still enjoying it!”

Enjoying it he certainly is. And Coyne has no desire to ease off from his rallying commitments. Ahead of the Ulster Rally he has only had one event in the R-GT Porsche but it was evident he had found a path to keep on rallying competitively in something he truly enjoys.

“The R5 was the logical choice and the R-GT was the emotional choice and the emotions won,” joked Coyne.

“I mean realistically in an R5 I’m going to be mid-pack at best. You’ve got all the serious youngsters who want to make a name for themselves competing in the R5s and doing a great job of it.”

“Like in West Cork I was probably six seconds a kilometre off the top R5 guys. I can probably see where I can get three of those seconds with familiarity with the car but I can’t see where the other three seconds come from.”

“I decided that the R-GT was a gentleman type car and better suited to the comeback type retiree.”

However, Coyne is not there to make up the numbers and despite the fact that he is too “sensible” to compete at the top level, his knowledge and interest in his rallying shows that he still wants to go as fast as possible.

“It’s pretty much for fun but you still look at your times and you pick a few people you can target,” said Coyne.

“Anytime you beat them you feel good, anytime they beat you, you feel bad.”

“You try and get your head down and go for it but you know as you get older the reaction times slow down a wee bit and you have to compensate that with cumulative experience so I probably don’t take as many chances as I used to when I was younger.”

“But I still enjoy it and to me that’s the main thing. There’s nothing quite like the feeling when you get a stage or a particular sequence of bends just right, it can be very rewarding.”

He was able to achieve podiums in his Sunbeam’s historic class between 2014 and ‘16. This year has perhaps been a year of learning for Coyne but with his eyes set on the FIA’s European R-GT championship next year he will be ready to push himself again in the 997.

Coyne’s first taste of the Tuthill-Porsche was something of a baptism of fire. The Donegal Rally is Ireland’s blue ribbon event with three long days of rallying. The knowledgeable locals mixed with the fastest rally drivers across the rest of Ireland makes it the most competitive rally on the Irish calendar. But Coyne used his experience to drive the rear-wheel drive monster through the weekend’s mixed conditions. Learning was invaluable across the three day event and despite the setback of an early retirement on Sunday, Coyne was happy with the progress made over the weekend.

“The first day at Donegal was great but we were bottoming-out a little bit, the car was maybe set just a bit low,” explained Coyne.

“Then on Saturday we raised it and that made the car a little bit nervous, which made me a little bit nervous!”

“We spent the rest of the Saturday trying to get back to a set-up which I was happy with because we didn’t just want to go straight back to where we were, we wanted to see if we could play about with it a bit and find out how it responded to the different set-up changes.”

“Saturday was really an extended test session and then Sunday we had a small electrical fire on the wiper motor, it did itself in and I decided discretion was the better part of valour in terms of learning to drive the car in the wet.”

“We pulled out and I didn’t go out and do the last three stages under Rally2.”

“But all-in-all it was fantastic, I was pretty much on the same pace in the R-GT on Friday in Donegal that we were on in the R5 in West Cork.”

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My final question for Coyne was how he believed today’s rallying scene compared to that of ‘70s and ‘80s, the golden era of Irish rallying.

“We all tend to be a bit nostalgic about the good old days you know,” said Coyne.

“When I look at the guys running at the top of the field in the ITRC today and look back when I was running in the same top 10 cluster in late ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s exactly the same.”

“Okay they are different cars but you have got a bunch of guys who are very committed and very competitive and good mates with each other.”

“But no quarter asked or given out on the stages. I think it is as competitive now as it ever was. Other than the fact spectating is much better controlled, I don’t see much difference.”

“A Group B Audi Quattro was a sight to behold, mainly because if you go back to the old days it was exciting to watch because the cars were dogs to drive.”

“They were harder to drive and certainly to drive quickly but then again you come to the present day the cars are so good but they are not easy to drive at the absolute limit.”

“It is that half a second per km that separates the men from the boys.”

“There is no question that the early Group B era was more of a spectacle but we’re getting back there again with the 2017 World Rally Cars. However, if the top 10 drivers in the world were driving shopping trolleys they’d still be spectacular.”

“It is unbelievable the pace the guys are running at the top of world rallying. I remember watching Rally Ireland the year Loeb came over and won it.”

“For me as a driver and a knowledgeable spectator, watching Loeb with his inch-perfect lines combined with the speed he was carrying through complex corners was just awesome. For the average Joe Soap it probably wasn’t that spectacular at all, they’d prefer to see the Mk2 Escorts coming around sideways. But if you really appreciate the skills involved, watching the modern stuff is incredible, the pace these guys are going at.”

“I would say they are actually going at more of an eleven tenths speed over a longer period of time than the old guys. You can’t afford to give up seconds in the shorter modern rallies.”

“For me rallying has a continuous golden age, apart from first years of Group A!”

“It’s just mind-blowing at the minute!”

John Coyne has truly lived an international life. Starting off rallying in Ireland, his engineering career took him to places like America and Malaysia but he took rallying with him. Group N honours in the Malaysian Rally Championship is proof of that.

Now in his retirement, Coyne is embarking on his most exciting rallying season yet. The FIA’s RGT Cup will be no Sunday-drive but it is about the only thing that could add even more variety to his all-encompassing rallying story.

Following the Ulster Rally, Coyne already has the Cork 20 pencilled into his diary. Then preparations will start for his assault on the RGT Cup next year.

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Written by Adam Hall

Special Thanks to Rally Retro, Kevin Glendinning and Eamonn O Riordan for providing a great selection of images.

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