This article is reproduced from Carsport Magazine July 1987
Written by Derek Black with photos by Harold Ford and from the McMillen collection.
Ernest McMillen talks about his new car with the enthusiasm of a 17-year-old about to take to the road for the first time. It’s hard to believe that this bright-eyed rally fan will be 58 on the 9th of July 1987.
The car in question is a shiny red Suzuki Swift GTi, with a 16-valve, twin cam 1300cc engine, which is to be prepared by Tom Lawther of Comber and entered for Group N.
But the man who will drive it is no beginner in motorsport. The Swift will convey Ernest McMillen on his 41st season, and he has held an International licence for 40 years, which must be some kind of record. Ernest is renowned as a gentleman of rallying, and he is also noted as a smart dresser, almost invariably sporting a navy and white spotted bow tie. It’s the emblem of a man who has more memories than the rest of us put together.
This colourful and cheerful character is also managing director of the family insurance firm, Sumner and McMillen, one of the province’s largest brokers with a staff of 100, and principal owner of the Strangford Arms Hotel in Newtownards, which is run by his sister-in-law and family.
He went to Campbell College in Belfast where he says he had a dismal academic record, leaving at age 16 to serve his time with the Knock Motor Company, under the wing of John Patterson, one of the best-known car dealers in the Belfast of the 1940s. Ernest’s zest to get behind the wheel saw him on the road on the day of his 17th birthday in a Railton, a huge American car studs down its long bonnet. But his first motorised journey came to an abrupt end when he got the car wedged between a tram and a lamp post in Cromac Street.
John Patterson was not amused, but his young recruit came out of another incident with more to his favour. As Ernest recalls: “I was delivering an Alvis to a customer I was to meet in Mooney’s pub in Cornmarket when the engine burst into flames. I rushed into the old Classic cinema and got a fire extinguisher to put it out.”
Ernest’s other passion at the time was also hazardous. Helped by his father, he competed in motorcycle trials and scrambles. He still has friends today that he made then in the Knock Motorcycle Club. “I spent a couple of seasons scrambling in the North of England whilst working in that lovely part of the world. Then I came home and into the family insurance business. My elder brother bribed me out of bikes and into cars,” he says.
He took part in the first Circuit of Ulster just after the War in 1946 — a 100-mile event which preceded the Circuit of Ireland — with Norman Robb in a ‘blown’ Alfa Romeo Zagato. Ernest says he came under the ‘spell’ of the Robb family of Dundonald, and this was his baptism in rallying.
The spotted bow tie, which has been his trademark over the years, owes its origin to his dedication to fast cars. He had an uncle Aubrey, who was a manager of a savings bank. He always wore a bow and wanted the tradition carried on in the family. So he approached his 16-year-old nephew with a proposition. “Ernest,” he said, “If you will undertake to wear a bow tie, I will leave you my house.”
Ernest, then a bachelor, had no desire to own a house. But he could see it as a way towards owning something more desirable. When he eventually inherited the house, he sold it to buy an MG TC, which started him as a motorsport competitor in his own right.
Ernest says he has simply no idea of how many rallies he has done, but the total of International events alone must come to more than 100. This includes 24 Circuits of Ireland, 11 or 12 Monte Carlo Rallies, and four Alpine Rallies as well as the Manx, RAC, Tulip and Donegal. He can happily reminisce for hours, and could probably write a very entertaining book about his experiences. (What about it, Ernest?)
Though he has never been a fully professional driver, in the sense of being paid, calling Ernest an amateur is less than adequate. “I have got to say that I have always driven for fun, and I enjoy it rather more today if that is possible. The excitement of rushing down a road, taking each corner as it comes is the biggest thrill possible and, of course, I much prefer blind stages without pace notes,” he says.
The highlights of a career that has taken him all over the world to compete are almost too numerous to recall. But they cover all the great events, as well as many of the smaller ones. He was there when Paddy Hopkirk won the Monte Carlo Rally that started at Minsk in Russia and says that would take an article of its own. “I have had the privilege of co-driving, particularly in the early years, with Ronnie Adams and Raymond Baxter and with that great character Raymond, Flower of Egypt, who provided me with many of my best fun expeditions,” he says.
And, particularly with Raymond Baxter, he did quite a lot of broadcasting, evoking the excitement of the Monte Carlo Rally and Le Mans for the listeners back home. He also did some television work with UTV. During the 1950s he went racing and won at Phoenix Park the first time out in his own special, called a Nufor. He held the 125Occ class record at every hill in Ireland. And for bigger racing, Ernest won his class in the 1954 TT in a Porsche provided by Raymond Flower.
”Racing in the 1950s was quite fantastic. It was proper road racing, particularly in the South, and I suppose that this is really where l learned to drive on tarmac,” he says. But rallying has been his most enduring passion. He says he has a ‘thing’ about the Circuit of Ireland and has won quite a number of class prizes. While he admits that this year’s mini-event had lost some of the glamour of the past, he still found it great fun.
From his own experience, he rates the West Cork as his favourite rally today and the Alpine as the best in the golden era. But his best trip ever was the unforgettable London to Sydney Marathon, and his best race was when he finished second in the TR2 in the Ulster Trophy Race. Stories of his exploits would fill this entire magazine, but a couple have stuck in his memory, and one was revived quite recently.
As he puts it, he and Ronnie Adams had a bash at the Mille Miglia in 1956 and came unstuck outside Rome. And earlier this year he had ‘the privilege’ of taking part in the Italian classic again with Michael Johnston in his beautiful 1931 8c Alfa Romeo. But the biggest excitement of an exciting career was the London to Sydney Marathon. Ernest drove a Mark 11 Lotus Cortina jointly with his close friend, the late John L’Amie, with Ian Drysdale on board to keep screwing the car together.
This was a trip of a lifetime but one problem was that the powerful Cortina developed an appetite for hub bearings and other parts. Within reach of the finish, a hub bearing collapsed yet again in the Australian outback. This time they did not have the tools to remove it and thought their rally was at a bitter end. ”Then this guy came driving across the vast wilderness and stopped to see if he could help. We explained the problem and he went to his car, opened the boot, and pulled out a hub drawer! We could not believe it,” recalls Ernest.
With all these thrills came the inevitable spills from time to time, none of which seemed to deter him. He had a major shunt when driving a Zephyr in the 1958 Alpine. He was driving flat-out along a straight road in Italy which suddenly turned right across a railway line. Ernest ended up hitting a huge water tank. “It was my first rally car with seat belts, and I have been wearing them ever since,” he says.
On another occasion, on the Circuit he met a minibus full of jolly Irishmen in the middle of the road and wrote off a Triumph TR3. And his more current Fiat has been inverted on two occasions. His dedication to racing and rallying goes beyond the normal call.
The day he married his wife, Alma, 32 years ago, he was handed a telegram at the church which said his entry for the Coppa D’Oro Dolomiti rally had been accepted. He whispered the news that they were going to Italy for their honeymoon as they stood at the altar. Alma was the navigator for Ernest in many rallies. The most memorable occasion was probably the 1956 Circuit when they tussled with Robin McKinney, both of them in Triumph TR2s, only to miss victory by a fifth of a second. This is still in the records as the smallest margin by which the rally has been won.
The couple now live on a farm near Comber. They have three grown-up children. Rose is a biochemist and lives in Dublin. Patrick drives an ex-Ken Irwin Group B Samba in sprints and obviously has the same infection of the blood as his father. His older brother, Connor, who works at the Strangford, shares his father’s other interest in different kinds of horsepower. The four-legged variety are also a McMillen tradition, which Ernest also relished until a bad accident blunted his enthusiasm.
“When I was 35, particularly in self-defence because of my family’s great interest, I entered the horse world and had 20 years of enormous fun and for a period was Master of the local hunt. ”Arising out of all that, and due to Alma’s involvement in the Pony Club, I took an interest in this great youth organisation. Because of all sorts of circumstances I became chairman of the Pony Club of Great Britain two years ago and, whilst demanding, it is a great challenge,” he says.
Ernest keeps a motorhome in England which he uses to cover the country to various Pony Club meetings. But his own days in the saddle ended three years ago. ”As a result of endlessly falling off horses, I got a brand new shiny hip joint. I firmly closed the stable door and said thank you for the twenty years,” he says.
But there was no question of opting for the quiet life. It was back to the rally circus. “Then I got more actively involved in Group N rallying in a Fiat Strada 105s, with young Dessie McGlade as my co-driver. ”What a pal this young genius has turned out to be. As you can well imagine, I tend to slow up after six or eight miles and Dessie really does his best to keep me going to the end of the stage,” says Ernest.
Forever courteous, he then adds that it is the preparation work of Tom Lawther, and the boys in Kerbside Motors, who provide service up and down the country, who make it all possible. “I am very mindful of just how lucky I have been, with support from Alma, my many friends and business colleagues, to have had such a long run. ’Just think of it, I’ve seen five decades of rallying, the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. And I can see no good reason why it should stop, I’m still not finishing last,” he says with a typical chuckle.