This profile is reproduced from Carsport Magazine – February 1985
Words by Sammy Hamill, photos by Harold Moffett and others as noted.
Bertie Law likes his rallying the way Lee Trevino likes his golf. To both men it is, by necessity, “a bit of crack”; but like the joke-cracking Mexican golfer, the likeable Lisburn driver’s ready smile hides an ultra-competitive and genuinely sporting spirit.
It was a coalman — spelt with an A and not an E — who inspired Bertie Law to take up rallying. Or to hear Ulster’s two-time Shellsport Irish national champion tell it: “Trevor Fleming talked me into it when we were having a drink in the Wayside pub at Lisburn”.
He will admit, of course. that the legendary Fleming, Moira’s quickest coalman, didn’t have too much persuading to do. The idea of driving a rally car already had a strong appeal but it was that fateful drink which set the ball rolling and launched the career of one of the most universally popular drivers in the country.
It was commentator Plum Tyndall who dubbed him “the Swell Guy”, a nickname which originally had as much to do with a turn of phrase as anything else. But it also characterised perfectly the big-hearted, bearded Bertie. Rallying for him is “a bit of crack” but he does it so well and the ready smile hides an ultra competitive spirit.
It was that “I’ll show them” spirit which took Bertie back to crush the opposition on last year’s Irish national stage championship after the debacle of 1983. He won the title then too, but much of the shine was taken off the success by the court wrangle involving Demi Fitzgerald which kept the outcome of the series dragging on until near Christmas.
Indeed Law was already back in the lead in the 1984 championship before he ever received the 1983 trophy. “That whole episode didn’t do the championship – or Irish rallying – any good” he says carefully. “I think any rally or championship should be settled on the road. I’ve no time for politics or people who drag the sport into the courts”.
Bertie, of course, was an innocent by-stander in the whole Fitzgerald affair, champion in most people’s eyes but not officially confirmed while the RIAC and Fitzgerald were locked in dispute over the Cork baker’s disqualification from the Carlow Rally.
But he was angered by the attitudes of some officials and returned to the Shellsport championship again last year determined to dispel any doubts there might have been over his right to the title. To say he proved his point is an understatement.
In the eight rounds of the series he won twice (Boreen and Tipperary); was second three times (Munster, Glenside and Galway); third in Carlow and sixth in West Cork. His only non-finish was on the Sligo Rally where a farmer was killed in a freak accident involving Bertie’s Chevette.
He amassed a total of 81 points over the eight rounds, 30 more than his nearest rival. When added to his results from the 1983 championship – two firsts (Carlow and Galway); two seconds (Boreen and Tipperary) and three thirds (Minister, Sligo and Glenside) they reveal the hallmark of the Law success – consistency.
The ability to produce results, allied to the reliability of his 2.6 litre ex-Jimmy McRae single-cam Chevette — in 16 rounds he retired only once (West Cork] with mechanical failure — are potent attributes in the chase for any championship. Law exploited them to the full to bring the top southern championship north for the first time in 1983 and against last season.
Don’t imagine, however, that it is a tortoise and hare situation. Law is an exceptionally quick driver, a fact he displayed superbly on Ulster’s most prestigious sprint event. the Burmah Rally.
The round-Lurgan Park event is all about speed and precision, with Law out-pacing a quality field to beat off the likes of Bertie Fisher, Fred Crawford and 1983 winner Ken McKinstry.
It was incidentally the first time anything other than an Escort had won at Lurgan Park so perhaps it was appropriate that the first Vauxhall victory should belong to Law. There has not been a stauncher supporter of GM’s Luton products than the Lisburn plant contractor.
Since that chat with Trevor Fleming which resulted in Bertie buying a Magnum which Lee Lucas had been using in autotests he has with the exception of two brief spells, driven Vauxhalls year after year.
But it is still something of a joke that he had to resort to a Ford Escort to win his first rally — the Antrim Festival Stages in 1978.
That group one Escort was bought to replace the Magnum in which Bertie set a group one lap record at Kirkistown, a record which still stands for shortly afterwards the track was altered.
The Escort move was short-lived, however, and Bertie was soon driving Vauxhall again, this time Jimmy M’Rae’s single-cam Chevette, the clubman’s car which was being developed in Scotland by SMT. In it he took second place in the Shellsport championship; was top rally driver, third in the Chevette Cup, and in typical Law style put the car to good use week in, week out on events up and down the country from rallies to sprints to hillclimbs.
It was, of course, ineligible for international events and the desire to get out on the big international events saw Bertie turn again to Ford. He bought the ex-Curley Shawson Supply Escort which had originally been built for Ernest Kidney by David Sutton.
It was not a totally happy partnership for although Bertie showed he could go quickly in Fords as well as Vauxhalls, the Escort’s reliability was somewhat suspect. “The most expensive car I’ve ever owned” is how he remembers it although, ironically, it took Billy Coleman all the way around the 1982 Circuit of Ireland when he hired it in a deal with Sydney Meeke.
By the end of 1982 Bertie had had enough of the Escort and was back on the trail of a suitable Vauxhall. He found it in another ex-McRae car, the last Chevette driven by the Scot. It had been built for the 1980 RAC Rally but Jimmy crashed it in Kielder and soon afterwards moved over to Opel.
The Chevette was bought by Donie Keating and it was in it he had won the Shellsport Championship in 1982. Later Donie had taken it to the Reno Rally in America and on its return to Britain had stayed unused in the Safety Devices workshops.
But whether he sticks to rallying at a national level or steps up again to internationals, it will be with the attitude Bertie Law has always adopted. “It’s only a sport to me — a bit of crack. If I stopped feeling that way about it I would give it up”.
Hopefully, the crack will remain good.