Bill Lee

Bill Lee

Billy Lee (or Bill as he was later known) has a unique record. He was the first man to compete with a ‘500’ racing car in Ireland and also the first to run a ‘500’ in New Zealand. On 28th August 1948 he ran his Marwyn at the Craigantlet hillclimb, located near Stormont in Belfast – a hill that was first used in 1913 and is still used today. He was the only competitor in his class. While Raymond Mays took his ERA to Fastest Time of the Day at 75.8 secs averaging 49.5 miles per hour from the standing start the ‘novice’ managed a more modest 96.4 secs to average 37.7 mph. The effort was braver than it appears. “They were lethal!!!” comments Duncan Rabagliati about the early Marwyns. Moreover, it was Lee’s first competitive outing in a 500. Lee soon replaced the Marwyn with a Cooper - the first production long chassis Mk II (T5), after Spike Rhiando's one off,  a car raced by John Cooper in both 500 and 1100 form during 1948. Cooper had sold the car to David Brown in 1949 but David had damaged it in a testing crash. With his new acquisition Lee won his class at the 1949 Craigantlet event and performed strongly at the Ulster Automobile Club’s Knockagh Hillclimb, narrowly beaten to FTD by an 1100 Ford Special, a supercharged MG and winner Harry Kyle’s MG K3 in a field of nearly 50 cars.

In March 1950 Lee and his brother Graham emigrated to New Zealand and took with them the Cooper which had been fitted with new Mk III body panels and entered the First New Zealand Grand Prix over 110 miles which was staged at the 3.6 mile Ohakea aerodrome circuit – interestingly, the first important race in the dominion sealed surfaced race on the North Island. Lee’s Cooper was the first post-war racing car imported to New Zealand and it caused quite a stir amongst racing enthusiasts - but the timing was tight – very tight. “The Lee brothers arrived from Northern Ireland only a week before the race and the Cooper was unloaded from the ship only three days before the race and it took the best part of a day to travel from Wellington to Ohakea in those times” recalls Dick O’Brien who was working at a Wellington garage where the car was cleaned up after its sea voyage.

The first post war racing import into New Zealand at Wellington - On the truck and ready to leave on the long road trip to the grand prix. Billy and Graham Lee pose with Dick O’Brien and John Galbraith. An Austin 7 Special is loaded behind the Cooper. Photo : Dick O’Brien collection.

The tiny car with its motorcycle engine positioned in the rear caused a stir as it lined up with over twenty other varied cars including a Bugatti T35A and cleverly constructed ‘specials’ ranging from Riley to American muscle power. But there was something of an anti-climax when Lee stalled on the start line and only got underway a minute after the field had departed. The crowd was amazed at the breathtaking speed and cornering ability of Cooper and it was soon dubbed “The most exciting car at Ohakea”. After an hour and three quarters of racing, surely the longest race that a 500 had ever completed, Lee raced home fourth overall, beaten only by two V8 engined specials and Hec Green’s potent Wolseley Special and on the same lap as the leading trio. This result after the delay at the start and three stops for taking on fuel and changing of plugs was considered an outstanding performance.

Unpainted and sporting Mk III body panels the long chassis Cooper Mk II-JAP put up a strong show in its first event in New Zealand. Photo Graham Vercoe.

So in 1950 within two months of arrival the ‘500’ had put a new perspective into New Zealand motor sport. Lee had achieved 4th place in the grand prix, a class win in the NZ sprint championships and hillclimb wins at Summit Road and at Gebbies Pass. Lee disposed of the car together with a 1100 cc JAP engine to Hec McLean.

For the 1954 season Lee equipped himself with a Cooper Mk VI (T18) with a 500 JAP engine. In the 200 mile grand prix at Ardmore a steady drive saw him finish a creditable 9th overall, only a place behind Arnold Stafford’s Norton powered Mk VII. The 500s were beaten only by the visiting band of international drivers and cars of much larger capacity in a race of attrition where many of the field some 25 starters made it to the finish. But for Lee there was little else in the way of cheer in the other big events.

Bill and his ‘new’ Mk VI Cooper-JAP. Note the distinctive roll over bar. At one time Lee was the Cooper representative for New Zealand. Photo – Roger Herrick.

At the Houghton Bay Hillclimb near Wellington the air cooled cars dominated. Hillclimb specialist Bob Gibbons (1100 Cooper-JAP) was an easy winner from Allen Freeman’s ex-Peter Collins Mk IV and Bill tied for third with the legendary Ron Roycroft in his Bugatti-Jaguar. At the Ohakea Trophy in March, where Bob Gibbons stormed to an easy win on handicap in his vee-twin from the 500s of Ron Frost (Cooper) and Peter Ward (JBS) Billy lost time early on with a huge spin and a subsequent pit-stop and then retired after completing 18 of the 25 laps. For the 1955 summer season a 500 Norton replaced the JAP but Lee’s spell of misfortune continued. On the second lap of the New Zealand Grand Prix he was involved in a collision, on the oily College Corner, with the big 4-litre Mercury engine special of George Palmer and John Horton’s HWM-Alta after Horton had drifted wide. The small car did not come away unscathed. Although Bill Lee soldiered on to complete 30 laps he was forced to withdraw due to the damage. Bill’s last major event was the 1955 Ohakea Trophy and a huge field of nearly 50 cars lined up in three rows some 15 abreast on the runway of the Manawatu airbase!

1955 – the amazingly wide grid on the Ohakea airport runway. #9 is Paul Simpson’s interesting Lestone-JAP Special that did so well at hillclimbs , #14 Arnold Stafford (Cooper Mk VIII), #25 is the fearsome ‘Cropduster’ – a 6.1 litre aero engine affair – on the far left is Bill Lee’s Mk VI. Photo courtesy Roger Herrick.

Bill Lee retired from racing in 1955 and sold his Mk VI to Len Gilbert. Gilbert recorded in his memoirs that when he acquired the car it was sans engine and had a broken steering box ‘suffered in the Ohakea shunt’. Bill Lee faded quietly from the motor sporting scene but remains very much of a ‘500’ trendsetter.


The business end of the Mk. VI. (Photo: Roger Herrick)


Our thanks to Rob Young, Roger Herrick, Dick O’Brien, Scott Thomson, Graham Vercoe, Stuart Buchanan and David McKinney for help with research.