The Donegal Motor Club is honoured to welcome back one of the most competitive rally drivers that has ever taken part in club events in Donegal as he will do the honours of waving off the drivers for the forthcoming Harvest Rally which this year is based in Dunfanaghy on the 7th of October.
In 1981 the blockbusting film on the big screen was Chariots of Fire. As a teenager I loved the film but didn’t totally understand the story it was based on. I just admired the heights the two competitors reached through commitment and perfecting their style.
The film, Chariots of Fire traced the story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, both of whom won gold medals at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. The music from that film made it to number one in the music charts in 1981 and the sound always said more than a thousand words about what could be achieved if someone really focused on the sport that they took part in.
That was the same year that John Lyons won his first Donegal International Rally.
Long before John Lyons ever started to rally he had achieved the highest honour for Auto Tests becoming The Northern Ireland Autotest Champion, The Republic of Ireland Champion and British and R.A.C. Champion when he was still in his 20s driving his Mini 1275GT. John was also to earn the title of Motorsport Personality of the year in 1974.
Autotests are one of the oldest disciplines in competitive motorsport in Ireland and are a real test of a wide range of driving skills. It is also one of the least expensive branches of motorsport.
Each event consists of a number of tests (usually 10 or 12), that involve competitors carrying out a sequence of vehicular manoeuvres, as instructed in the test diagrams issued by the organisers. These manoeuvres include circling of pylons, “throwing” the car on the handbrake, crossing of lines and driving through slaloms, both forwards and reverse, in either first or reverse gears.
Each driver is timed on each test and times are totalled to give results in each event. Whoever is quickest through the tests of the day is the winner.
John Lyons spent his life working for the Ulster Bank looking out through the hatch on the counter as a bank clerk and later a bank manager chatting to customers during the week and then spent his weekends looking out through the window of his Mini as he became the best Autotest pilot in the British Isles.
In the early seventies, John decided to give up autotesting at the top of his career. And thought he never would go behind the competitive wheel of a sports car again. As John stood on the ditches in Donegal in the early seventies watching the likes of Cathal Curley and Brian Nelson and Billy Coleman he found the motorsport bug came calling again.
John got a chance to buy a very old Triumph 2.5 P.I. that the McCartney’s won the Galway Rally in. The car had been through the mill and £400 was the price paid for it. John describes the car as slow but a great handling car. John first outing was in Donegal in the Harvest Rally.
First Big Rally Impression
John made his first major impression on an International Rally not in Donegal but in Galway in 1978 and again it was a car that was well through the mill by the time he got it. The car was built originally by Ford for the Tour of Britain for Tony Pond. The car was a group 1 Ford RS2000.
We were lucky enough to track down in photographic form this week that blue RS2000 for our report thanks to Fergus from Retrorally.com
When John Lyons headed to Galway in his Ex Works Ford with his neighbour and friend from Castlederg, panel beater Trevor Semple they also decided to purchase an ex Mannion Mk 2 Ford Cortina to service on the event.
John bought it as a makeshift service car for the rally not that he had that many that spares to put in it. For those wondering who was this Mannion man and why did they never hear his name coming up in rally circles before, that’s because he was a priest, the Parish Priest in Castlederg!
John bought the local priest’s Cortina which was for sale and came with a set of aftermarket wide wheels.
When John arrived in Galway the place was covered in snow and crews were at odds to get tyres for the event. John decided to put the brand new set of Dunlop Sp Sport road tyres from Fr. Mannion’s Cortina on his RS2000 in an attempt to get a bit of grip.
John at one stage of the Galway Rally recalls leading the event and was just trying to get that car to the finish when the throttle cable broke on the RS2000 three stages from the end. John gave himself a bad cut in an attempt to locate the cable attached to the standard downdraught weber carburettor which was located in a cramped engine bay under the massive standard blue frying pan shaped air filter box.
John did manage to get the throttle jammed opened and got the car home using the ignition key switching it off and on to still manage to finish 7th overall.
On a roll
When it came to the Donegal Rally of 1978 John Lyons was without a rally car, and Fred Patterson offered John a loan of an ex-Bertie Fisher Ford Escort Mk2 RS2000 for the Donegal International Rally, for anyone that thought the performance of John Lyons in Galway was a fluke the 1978 would become one of the best ever Donegal rallies because of two Ford Escorts, one driven by Ari Vatenan in his RS1800 on his way to becoming a world champion and the other John Lyons in a Group I RS2000.
There was never anyone who took as much out of an Escort as John Lyons did in that summer of ’78.
Ari Vatenan was even in his fan club that year, checking away at his times at the end of the stages and encouraging John to push. When John Lyons came off the Horn Head stage in the 1978 Donegal Rally he recorded a stage time faster than the Flying Finn Ari Vatenan. John recalls getting as high as second overall before he rolled the escort on a stage near Milford.
When the car settled John turned the key and the pinto engine fired up again and he drove to the end of the stage and into service. John knew by the feel of the car on the way in on the road that it seemed better to drive than it looked.
At Milford Mart they fell to the car with a sledgehammer to get the roof battered back out again. Mechanically John believed the car was ok and just got the steering relined and clawed back 38 seconds to regain the group 1 honours that year.
John Lyons and Trevor Semple were the Irish Tarmac Champions in Group 1 for 1978 and 1979 including finishing 3rd overall in Donegal in a Group 1 RS2000 in 1979.
Group 2 days
John now moved to group two and now was in an ex-Dealer Opel Team car built for their works driver Brian Culcheth. The car had all the bits but just didn’t handle that well, it was a phone call to Jimmy McRea that sorted the problem.
Jimmy was driving a works Chevette DTV and Jimmy suggested changing the anti-roll bar on the front to a lighter one. John had to get a man in Belfast to make the new specified part by hand. It changed the handling of the Kadette.
As always with John, the group 2 car was down on power to the cars he was competing in at the head of the field in Group 4 but John now had the backing of Goodyear who were supplying tyres which let him take some giant killing performances.
That “wee Kadette” as John put it was a great wee car. One of the best when we got everything sorted on it. He even beat Stig Blomqvist, a World Rally champion when he competed in Ireland in the Saab. John also won the Burmah Rally in Lurgan Park in 1980 with Bertie Fisher in second and Billy Colman in third.
John finally got behind the wheel of a full house group four in 1981 in the form of a RS1800 now with Bill Moffett on the notes and Sidney Meeke preparing the car. Ford supplied John with a proper works short motor for the Donegal Rally. And no one could catch him not even the British Tarmac champion Jimmy McRea driving the new works Opel Ascona.
In 1981 John Lyons won his first ever International rally when he drove his “Chariot of Fire,” a white and red Downtown /Primark sponsored RS1800 over the finish ramp on the Donegal Rally.
John won the rally back to back the first to do so since Cathal Curley did when the event was in its infancy nearly a decade before. Even his first service provider, Fr. Mannion mentioned John, “that young Lyons man” in his Sunday Mass sermon in 1981. Fr Mannion referred to John saying “ye young fellows will be looking to get down to Donegal today as John Lyons is leading the Donegal Rally so I’ll keep my sermon short!
LSD and a couple of bits and bobs
John was back to his normal David and Goliath days in 1986 in a Honda Civic. On the run up to Donegal John was invited over to Japan by Honda to their test centre. The Honda legend was out new and John was invited to test it around their test track which he did putting in better times than Honda’s resident test drivers.
When John was leaving Japan Honda were developing the traction and the suspension for their Honda Civic and wanted John to test a new Limited Slip Differential (LSD) and suspension system. John agreed to test them but thinking on his favourite test track the Donegal Rally which was fast approaching so he convinced the development team to give him the new products who took them back for the Donegal as hand luggage wrapped up in his clothes in his suitcase.
John brought his Honda Civic home in Donegal and finished an amazing 8th overall.
A true gentleman and sportsman
Throughout this interview, John always talked about a car’s behaviour on the road saying you don’t have to drive hard to get the feeling of a car.
And the road that you are travelling on and the condition of it through weather, everything needs to be considered. John finished his rally career with a very standard Lancia Intergrade 4 wheel drive which he notched up more giant killing performances in Galway finishing 3rd and of course on his beloved Donegal International Rally.
I think what sums up the gentleman that John Lyons is, is the way he made a point of finding a phone number for a new winner of the Donegal Rally and congratulating him on his win, Declan Boyle described this so well when he first won the Donegal International, his home event.
On the Monday after the rally, Declan still was on a high and didn’t really think he had actually won the rally that he tried so hard to win for years. But the surprise phone call from double winner John Lyons really brought it home and made him realised it did really happen.
Happy motoring folksTags: