1984 Donegal

Photo: Derek Smyth
Billy Coleman and Ronan Morgan took the win in the Sydney Meeke Motorsport Manta 400.


This report is reproduced from AUTOSPORT Magazine June 28, 1984

Coleman heads STP Series – Fisher leads but slips off – pace notes a success

Report by Brian Patterson.

Billy Coleman proved yet again his mastery of Irish tarmac rallying by taking a narrow but calculated victory over Austin McHale’s similar NDT Opel Manta 400 in Donegal last weekend. Rally leader for well over the first half of the event was Bertie Fisher in the Shell Gold Card Manta, but a simple off-road excursion pushed the Ulster driver back into third place.

Coleman and co-driver Ronan Morgan, whose Sydney Meeke prepared Manta never missed a beat, now moves into the lead of the STP Irish Tarmac Championship, following their Circuit of Ireland victory. The rally was also on trial, with the introduction of pace notes in the Republic of Ireland for the first time in seven years. The verdict of all concerned was definitely that they must stay.


The rally started at lunchtime on Friday with nine stages around Letterkenny in the afternoon. No-one doubted that the early leader would be one of the three Irish Mantas of Fisher, Coleman, or McHale. The similar car of Phil Collins was reckoned to be there-or-there-abouts. But the Dunlop-shod Audi Quattro of Malcolm Wilson looked a handful on the narrow bumpy stages and the R-E-D Sierra of Roger Clark, co-driven by Ellen Morgan, remained an unknown quantity.

Roger Clark and Ellen Morgan would be an unknown quantity in the orange R-E-D Sierra. In the end it didn’t worry the Mantas.

Quality Group B cars abounded throughout the first 40 seeds and competition was expected to be fierce. Spectators coming into the first Letterkenny service area were stunned by the pace of the leading cars, and last year’s winner Vincent Bonner, driving the ex-Fisher Ascona 400, was back in 18th place after those three stages with no real problems!

Fisher led by 6secs from Coleman, with McHale and Collins holding third and fourth, the leading two cars on Pirelli, their pursuers on Michelins. The weather had turned showery and tyre choice was critical, but not for Roger Clark who was already out, the Sierra dropping a valve in its freshly rebuilt engine. Also out was EARS supremo Mike Pattison, his rear-wheel-drive Mk3 Escort taking the top off a couple of trees in the process of self destructing.

After the second loop of three stages Fisher had increased his lead to 17secs, Coleman working hard on the notes but unable to match the pace of the Shell car. Fisher had fitted a high diff before the rally, fellow competitors considering him mad, the bumpy stages not warranting a 118mph top speed. But Fisher was being proved right. Collins had moved into third, McHale having made a wrong tyre choice and dropping around 30secs.

Bertie Fisher went against the commonly held opinion and fitted the higher ratio gearing. He’d turn out to be right, taking an early lead.

Malcolm Wilson was in fifth place, but not for long. The Cumbria driver was doing as well as he expected but cresting a hump back bridge he felt something let go at the front of the Audi. The crown-wheel had failed and Malcolm was over lateness repairing the damage. Plans to run as a course car were thwarted by officialdom, denying him the chance to further test the Dunlops, and the newly-acquired ex-Demuth tarmac suspension.

After Friday’s last three stages, Fisher’s lead over Coleman was up to half a minute, with Collins and McHale now trailing slightly. The remainder of the top 10 was Brendan Fagan in the Sqeez Chevette, the Escort of Richie Heeey, Mike Dunnion’s Chevette, James McDaid (Ascona 400), Cyril Bolton (Chevette) and Pat Dunnion.

Brendan Fagan and Ronan McNamee were in fine form in their SQEEZ Chevette, taking a commendable fifth place overall.

News of the many retirements filtered back to Letterkenny‘s Mount Errigal Hotel. They included Dan Daly‘s Datsun, which was just moving into the top 10, and the Corry of former Donegal winner Brian Nelson, which blew its turbo.


The meat of the rally was on Saturday with 18 stages planned, mostly around Fanad peninsula. What looked to be a brilliant day’s rallying lost its shine somewhat when the weather deteriorated into heavy rain and various stages were cancelled. However all eyes were on that half minute gap between Fisher and Coleman.

Local Donegal hero, Sammy Fisher, fully justified his high seeding in a Mini with a spirited performance when the weather turned wet. An accident would end his run.

Initially Bertie extended his lead, creeping up towards the minute after the first few stages. Gradually the pendulum started to swing the other way as Coleman hit back. Everyone expected MeHale to charge, but the Dubliner was strangely subdued, taking a quickest time on SS11 by just 1sec from Fisher. Coleman had a high speed spin on the same stage, removing a couple of coats of paint from the corners of the Manta.

The onset of rain marked the turning point of the rally with the leading drivers admitting to lurid slides an heart-stopping moments. Fisher decided to ease off, let others make the mistakes, and his strategy so nearly paid off. Phil Collins didn’t slow and crashed out on stage 12, the front suspension and steering wrecked against a tree.

On Saturday, Austin McHale damaged the Meeke-prepared Manta but managed to avoid major time loss thanks to cancelled stages.

Coleman had already had his narrow squeak, then he slid off again, this time at the end of a long wet yumpy straight. The Corkman went for the handbrake which did not catch, and the Manta sailed on, hitting a spectator. The marshal on the spot sent Billy on his way only a few seconds being lost, and he narrowed the gap on Fisher who refused to be ruffled. Still playing for safety, Fisher decided to go back onto a lower differential as McHale decided on the opposite and changed up a ratio.

On Friday, Mike Dunnion damaged the ex-Airikkala Chevette on the Carn Hill stage but nevertheless brought the heavily taped-up car home in 8th place overall.

But as the weather became worse, Austin changed his mind and then crashed heavily on stage 19, severely damaging the suspension and steering, a large boulder knocking the bulkhead back and making the clutch pedal jam. Somehow McHale struggled to the end of the stage losing a mountain of time, but unaware that the Clerk of the Course had already cancelled the test, as Road Closing Time was running out. It was to be many stages before McHale had a proper handling car, but the cancellation of the Knockalla stage because of spectator problems dealt the Dubliner another kind card.

James Cullen and Cathal McGettigan were in the winning car from last year and would impress against the more modern machinery to take sixth place at the finish.

Fisher watched all these antics with interest, convinced that he was right to let the pursuing pack make the mistakes. Coleman continued to chip the seconds away then the unbelievable happened. On the Kindrum Lake stage, Fisher took a tight bend, first car on the road, (second time over the stage) only to find a loose boulder tucked on the inside. Bertie handbraked round but the Manta put two wheels over the edge and was stuck. Well over 3mins were lost until a few spectators arrived and the Shell Gold Card machine was on its way. A disgusted Fisher was now third, Coleman leading the race despite two accidents.

The last stage on Saturday was the famous test through the streets of Ramelton. Despite the rain, the narrow streets were lined with tens of thousands of people, cars parked on every access roads for up to 2 miles. At the front, Coleman had 2mins over McHale, Fisher was further minutes back. Richie Heeley had moved into fourth, passing Fagan’s Chevette which had side swiped a pillar on Fanad Head, but sustaining little damage.

Richie Heeley and Vincent Meade moved ahead of Brendan Fagan to take fourth place Overall.

Up to sixth was a hard charging James Cullen (a former Donegal Clerk of the Course) driving last year’s winning Bonner Escort and revelling in the slippery stages. Seventh was James McDaid, becoming more accustomed to Ascona driving, while in eighth was Mike Dunnion in all sorts of Chevette suspension problems. Ninth was an improving Vincent Bonner and 10th Cyril Bolton, slowed by a puncture. Just outside the top 10, heading for a good 11th place, was the Chevette of George Robinson and John Billett.


Despite the rally having covered well over two thirds of its 230 stage miles, there were only seconds between many of the top 10. Sunday continued as Saturday left off – heavy rain and huge spectator problems.

Last year’s winners, Vincent Bonner and Seamus McGettigan, couldn’t get their Meeke-Ascona on the Manta pace and seventh was the best he could do this year.

Eyes were this time on McHale who really did charge, aided by being on wet tyres when the skies opened on the third of the day’s stages. At Atlantic Drive – one of Austin‘s favourite stages – Coleman was on slicks, and McHale finished the stage in his now customary manner – backwards through a barbed wire fence. He recorded quickest time, spurred on in the mistaken belief that the King of Donegal, Derek McMahon, was giving a £500 reward for fastest. It was only a rumour!

Despite all McHale’s efforts, Coleman is too-old-a-hand to be pushed into mistakes and there were just not enough stage miles to close the gap, although it was down to 31secs at the end of the run through Letterkenny’s packed streets.

Top visitor would be Cyril Bolton, partnered by Derek Ervine, in 9th place overall.

A puncture earlier in the day had destroyed any chance Fisher had of upsetting the apple cart. He had to settle for third and was left to shake his head at the finish, admitting that he had driven as hard, if not harder, than on last year’s Ulster and the previous year’s Manx. Only Blomqvist, Toivonen and Vatanen had then been significantly quicker, a testament to Coleman‘s skill and courage.

As a rally, the Shell Donegal had some problems, mainly due to spectators and the weather. As a test of pace notes, it was an unqualified success and 97 crews had been on stages the previous weekend making notes with no problems. The unusually high number of finishers, plus few wrecked cars after the event, was testimony to the improved safety angle on the Irish roads. There were accidents and mishaps of course, as on any rally.

Kevin O’Kane and Godfrey Crawford make a rare appearance on tarmac, and it was Kevin’s first time on pace notes. They finished in 13th place overall.

Leading ladies crew, Jenny Birrell and Sharon Wright, went out on the Saturday afternoon when their Group N leading Samba broke its petrol pump. In typical fashion, Jenny borrowed a pushbike from a farmer and pedalled furious miles down the stage for assistance but ran out of time. Bertie Fisher scored 10 fastest times on the rally, Coleman two, McHale nine, and Pat Kirk in a Nissan 240RS took two. Top visitor was Cyril Bolton.

Donegal International – June 22/24 1984
Irish Tarmac Championship 1984, Round 3

  1. Billy Coleman/Ronan Morgan, (Opel Manta 400), 3h 09m 10s;
  2. Austin McHale/Christy Farrell, (Opel Manta 400), 3h O9m 41s;
  3. Bertie Fisher/Austin Frazer, (Opel Manta 400), 3h 12m 23s;
  4. Richie Heeley/Vincent Meade, (Ford Escort RS), 3h 14m 31s;
  5. Brendan Fagan/Ronan McNamee, (Vauxhall Chevette HSR), 3h 15m 56s;
  6. James Cullen/Cathal McGettigan, (Ford Escort RS), 3h 16m 34s;
  7. Vincent Bonner/Seamus McGettigan, (Opel Ascona 400), 3h 19m 32s;
  8. Mike Dunnion/Dave Stone, (Vauxhall Chevette HSR), 3h 21m 29s;
  9. Cyril Bolton/Derek Ervine, (Vauxhall Chevette), 3h 21m 42s
  10. Ian Corkill/Martin Quinne (Ford Escort RS) 3h 22m 02s.