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75th anniversary of the Ards TT

The year 2003 marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Ards TT motor.

Article by Brian Willis.

Sport

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The year 2003 marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Ards TT motor car race which was first held on August 18th 1928. It was the culmination of much thought and enthusiasm by two men. One was the legendary Harry Ferguson and the other was Wallace McLeod. Wallace was head of the motor engineering school at the Belfast Tech. The men were helped in their dream by the fact that (unlike the rest of the British Isles) the law in Ulster enabled roads to be closed off for motor racing. In 1927 the two men visited a race at Brooklands and persuaded some of the drivers that, if they could find a suitable Ulster road circuit, then they would participate. The venue was found and the six hour race was organised under the auspices of the Royal Automobile Club.

The circuit

When we came to live in Dundonald in 1962 my father visited us from England and his greatest thrill was to drive around the course, passing the names of the various locations which he could reel off from his reading the papers and hearing them mentioned by commentators on the wireless in the 1930's.

So here are those famous names once more.

The circuit was in the form of a triangle 13.7 miles in total. The race started at the pits on the Newtownards Road Dundonald , and there still is a little commemorative building at that spot to mark the location. The cars then set off towards Newtownards via Quarry Corner then up and over Bradshaw's Brae and into Conway Square, Newtownards .

The last time I looked, there were still marks on the masonry made by the cars as they clipped the corner into that square.

Drawing by Brian Willis
"Eventual winner, Kaye Don 's Lea-Francis negotiating Conway Square in 1928.

Then the cars left Newtownards and roared along the straight road to Comber. That section was the fastest part of the course. Around the notorious "Butcher's Shop" corner in Comber along the Ballystockart Road to the hairpin in Dundonald.

There's a pub at that hairpin now - probably was in those days too. This hairpin was also the end of the tram line from Belfast so it was here that many city folk made their way to watch the racing. Incidentally, after a few years, the Ards TT was attracting nearly half a million spectators.

Then from the hairpin it was back to the pits to start the circuit all over again.

Commentary

Yes it was a neat triangle and many years after the event I came to know a BBC engineer who used to be involved in the race commentaries. Apparently the commentator would see the cars past, then drive swiftly across the middle of the triangle to be in time to set up and watch them pass on the other leg of the race. Then it was into his car to race back again through the country lanes to return to his original commentary position. This "flying" back and forth he kept up for the whole of the six hours of the race.

The cars

Here are some names plucked from the programmes of those years:- Lea-Francis, Frazer Nash, Lagonda, Bugatti, Alfa-Romeo, Bentley, Mercedes Benz, Talbot, MG Midget, Maserati, Singer, and Delahaye

The end of racing

The Ards TT race continued very successfully each year until 1936 when one of the competing cars crashed at Newtownards killing eight spectators and injuring 40 others. The Ards TT was never held again.

Anniversary drive

To mark the anniversary there were a series of events in June 2003, including several of the original cars which took part in the races re-enacting those exciting times with a sedate demonstration drive of three laps of the old course.

Lord Dunleath
Click here to view a clip of Wendy Austin interviewing Lord Dunleath in his Lagonda racing car about his interest and research into this famous race.

 

YOUR RESPONSES

Irvine Jones - Nov '06
This is indeed a nostalgic find. My first memories of " The TT " probably are about age 5, in 1933. Newtownards was where my grandfather lived and regularly visited, by train or bus, from Belfast , along with mother and father, later with sister also. The old Belfast and County Down Railway ( long gone ) was my favourite over the bus. When the TT was on - the place was " electrified " with all those foreign racing cars (not on a track - but on the everyday roads- closed for the event), and the unfamiliar smell of high octane petrol and exhaust.

I believe the TT was possible because Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK. where the Law permitted public roads to be closed for this purpose.

Conway Square in Newtownards is a typical, rectangular Town Square, yet was part of the race course, with 2 Right and 1 Left turn, (all 90 degrees) - - - all close together at racing speed. It looks like an impossible feat, yet it was repeated many times in the 14 mile racecourse over the 6 hour race.

I was at the last race, in 1936, when the crash occurred at the Railway bridge ( now gone ) - - - at the bottom of Bradshaw's Brae - - - just entering Newtownards. Eight spectators were killed and 40 injured. An interesting memory is , that for many many years I thought the name was " Bratchey's Brae", and cycled up and down it many times, sometimes visiting Granda as an early teenager.

After the Blitz on Belfast in April of 1941, I was " evacuated " to Newtownards for some time , and went to school there for a little while.

Thanks .

Donald McLeod - Mar '07
I was so proud to find this website as Wallace McLeod was my father. He died when I was eleven years old: my sister, Fiona Fitzmaurice, was five.

Despite our tender years we grew up knowing of our father's activities: his passion for engineering; his special interest in the Ards TT and his friendship with Harry Ferguson. Apart from a collection of photographs of the event, one of my most treasured possessions is a silver cigarette lighter engraved "To Wallace McLeod from Harry Ferguson." It still works on four star petrol!

During the war years father was involved in lecturing the British Army on the intricacies of tanks and other military vehicles. He loved nothing better than to pore over engine plans.

Although I didn't realise it at the time, I was priveleged to meet so many of the International drivers. The greatest thrill of all was being driven around the circuit (at dawn) with my father and, at the wheel, Sir Malcolm Campbell then the World's Landspeed Record holder. My father was quoted as saying "He might be the fastest man on the straight but he will never make a road racing driver!"
Obviously he was invited to take part purely to draw a crowd.
Business was bujsiness even in those days!

Ken McLeod - Oct '06
Very nostalgic to find this. Wallace McLeod was my uncle who died before my time. He was William Wallace McLeod, son of John McLeod a seaman of Nova Scotian origin who died of illness after being sunk three times in WW1. He is buried in Cathay's cemetary in Cardiff. He died in 1917. Wallace died in 1942 and went to school at Ballyvicknakelly, as did Harry Ferguson, near Dromore Co Down - as far as I know.

My father told me that he last met Harrym after many years, near his showroom at the back of the city hall Belfast in the mid '50s and he asked him how did you do so well when you always came last in the class and he answered, 'I never had the brains but I had a little bit of money to hire them.'

Caroline Fallows - July '06
Does anyone know of Gibson's that took part in the race?

Victor Kidd - July '06
Hi, just researching names for my wifes family tree and the surname Robertson came up. Apparently he was a racing driver and MAY have competed in the Ards TT. There MAY be also some connection with a Russian lady called LOLA. Any info would be appreciated.

Bob - March '06
I luv this site it is very educational thank you for seting up this web site

David Berger - Dec '04
Thank you for a very interesting and informative article. The 1928 race is naturally of particular interest to Lea-Francis owners as the winning car, Kay Don's Lea-Francis S Type Hyper, won in the face of formidable competition from Henry Birkin's more powerful Bentley. Don Kay finished 13 seconds ahead of the Bently, and then Don changed his racing overalls for a suit and drive the car to Belfast for a civic reception! Notably, the Lea-Francis S Type Hyper was the first British production car to feature a supercharger. The Lea-Francis Owner's Club website http://www.lfoc.org has more information on the cars made by this rare British manufacturer.

 


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