Ernest McMillen, racing and rally driver from golden age of sport
Ernest McMillen, who has died at the age of 88, was most famously a racing and rally driver for over six decades, but in an extraordinary life he was also a farmer, insurance broker, hotelier and much more.
From the 1950s right past the Millennium he was a constant presence in competition cars, a colourful and charismatic character who was the archetypical gentleman driver. And although gentleman is the word most often used to describe him there was a strong competitive instinct behind the old world charm.
Ernest was an integral part of a golden era of Ulster drivers in the ‘50s and’60s, a contemporary of Monte Carlo winners Ronnie Adams and Paddy Hopkirk, often a team-mate as well as a rival.
He partnered Adams to sixth place in 1954 in what was essentially a reconnaissance run ahead of his victory for Jaguar the following year and he was part of the BMC Mini team when Hopkirk won in 1964, co-driving for legendary BBC commentator Raymond Baxter.
Like Hopkirk, they left from sub-zero Minsk in the old Soviet Union and Baxter related in his book how McMillen bought a huge tub of caviar which they transported all the way to Monte Carlo where, Ernest assured him, they could sell for twice the price. They didn’t and they ended up eating it themselves, washed down with champagne to celebrate Paddy’s victory.
Ernest began his career in the early ‘50s in racing cars, competing in major events like the Tourist Trophy races at Dundrod where he lined up against the likes of Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Mike Hawthorne and Stirling Moss. One of his proudest possessions was a painting of his Austin Healey leading the Mercedes of Moss into the Dundrod hairpin in 1955.
I remember him telling me how, on his wedding day he was carrying a letter asking him if he could stand in at short notice for an injured driver in the Coppa d' Oro delle Dolomiti race in Italy. As he walked back down the aisle with his wife Alma he told her: “I have good news darling, we are going to Italy for our honeymoon.”
No mention that he was going there to race.
But rallying was his real passion and he competed all over the world, both for factory teams and as an independent driver with notable success.
And when the first great adventure rally of the modern era, the London to Sydney Marathon in 1967, was announced, McMillen had to be part of it. After persuading the Belfast Telegraph to sponsor him, he teamed up with fellow Ulster driver John L’Amie to enter a Lotus Cortina and they were joined by riding mechanic Ian Drysdale who had prepared the car for the epic journey.
He proved invaluable, even cutting bars from a railway crossing gate to repair the windscreen pillars which had been broken by the rough terrain.
From London, all through Europe and Asia, across the Australian outback, they made it to Sydney in 29th place while Ernest’s great pal Hopkirk finished second for the BMC team.
He competed on the Circuit of Ireland more times than any other driver and although he never won it, Ernest is recorded as having lost it on one occasion by the tiniest margin possible, one second.
Always immaculate, with his trademark bow tie peeping over his racing suit collar, he carried on competing into his late seventies, accompanied for much of the latter period by his stalwart co-drivers Derek Wallace and Desi McGlade.
But Ernest McMillen was much more than motorsport enthusiast. He farmed at Comber, ran the Sumner and McMillan insurance brokerage, owned the Strangford Hotel in Newtownards and was life vice-president of the Pony Club, being awarded an MBE for his services to horse riding in 2004.
He was even for a time, his son Patrick disclosed at his cremation on Saturday, a pigeon racing enthusiast. There were so many sides to a remarkable man who is survived by Conor, Rose, Patrick and their families.