Sir Alan Cathcart remembers Kiwi legend and 1954 Isle of Man Junior TT winner Rod Coleman.
Rod Coleman, a giant of New Zealand motorcycling, passed away in his Whanganui home on August 6, aged 93. His father Percy was 12 times NZ champion and a successful businessman, and the first Kiwi to race at the famed Los Angeles Ascot Speedway, when he finished 6th on an Indian in the 1919 National 200-miler. After he began racing in 1944, aged 18, Rod was funded by his father to compete in the 1949 Isle of Man TT. But he crashed in practice and broke his jaw, so his TT race debut got delayed until 1951 when, as part of the official NZ team, he finished 8th in the Junior TT on an AJS 7R. This impressive debut duly led to his joining the AJS factory team – after turning down an invitation to partner Geoff Duke on works Nortons! – where alongside the 7R, he also raced the final E95 version of the 500cc Porcupine. A perceptive rider, Coleman carried out the gruelling testing of all AJS works bikes at MIRA and Silverstone, and on the Porc he twice finished fourth in the Senior TT in 1952/53, winding up fourth in the 1952 500cc World title hunt.
In 1952 Rod also came third in the Junior TT on a two-valve 7R, although in 1953 his bike broke down while leading the race. But Coleman’s finest moment came in 1954, when he became the first Kiwi to win a TT, with victory in the Junior race on the unique pannier-tank three-valve AJS 7R3A, ending up third in the 350cc World Championship with second place in Assen and third in Germany. He also scored the E95 Porcupine’s only race victory by winning the 1954 500cc Swedish TT at Hedemora, in what would be its final race in factory guise. For soon after AJS retired from racing, and Rod Coleman decided to do the same, despite the offer of a then-massive £5,000 signing-on fee by Moto Guzzi to race the all-conquering 350cc single and forthcoming 500cc V8 the following season.
Back home in NZ Rod teamed up with his brother Bob to run the family’s Whanganui-based car and motorcycle firm which duly became Suzuki’s NZ importer. Through a mixture of astuteness, drive and hard work the Colemans built Suzuki into consistently the No.1 best-selling brand in NZ over the past 40 years, and Rod supported both tarmac and MX teams to promote the make. Many NZ riders to have achieved global prominence over the past five decades were sponsored by Coleman Suzuki, including three-times World champion Hugh Anderson, Geoff Perry, Dave and Neville Hiscock, Andrew Stroud, John Woodley, Robert Holden and Dennis Ireland, as well as non-Kiwis like Pat Hennen and Gaston Rahier. Moreover, in the early ‘70s the Colemans financed the production of a series of 20 Suzuki TR500 replicas built by NZ-based engineer Steve Roberts which ended up faster than the factory originals, on one of which NZ’s Keith Turner finished second in the 1971 500cc World championship behind the inevitable Agostini/MV duo. Coleman Suzuki also funded Roberts’ creation of the GS1000-powered Monocoque-framed Suzuki which Dave Hiscock took to third place in the 1982 TT F1 World Championship, as well as the later ‘Plastic Fantastic’ Kevlar composite-framed versions.
In the 2001 New Year Honours, Coleman was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to motorcycling. It was well-deserved recognition of a successful life dedicated to the sport.