William Mei: At 16 in 1960 I was sent for boarding at an English Public School. Not Eton or Harrow, but the idea is the same. The journey from Singapore to Tilbury took weeks as I travelled in a ship with a cruise speed of 25mph — quite fast at the time, but it stopped at every port along the way.
If nothing else, one good trait I picked up from the English, was after you had plastered the other guy, or vice versa in an altercation, you shook hands like gentlemen, and moved on. In Malaysia, it doesn’t end there. Normally the guy who took the worse of the exchanges, would come back with his friends the next day to even the score. And it goes back and forth. But I digress.
Anyway, after four years, I returned home with no degree and no driving licence. I was left facing a dilemma – secure a degree, or get a driving licence. I had to decide quickly, I needed to prioritise. I looked around in my circle of friends. Not all had degrees, but all had driving licences. So, I enrolled in a driving school.
The lessons and the actual tests then were all done in Morris Minors, a time when the unreliable British cars were still No.1. The Datsun 1200, Toyota Corolla and the full Japanese invasion were still some years away.
I passed at first go, but I honestly do not know until now, whether everything was above board. Now armed with a licence to kill, I waited patiently every evening for my mother to return from work, so that could I sneak off in her white MGB convertible which had a 1800 cc engine producing 95 bhp with a top speed of 103mph.
It was considered fast in those days. I had no experience and zero skills, but that didn’t stop me from trying to drive beyond my meagre limits. I was soon racing with other cars on the road taking on Mini Coopers, Volvo 122s and Triumph TR4s and the likes every night. Fortunately, the other drivers were not that good either.
I was crashing about once every month. I think both my mother, but mainly China Insurance Company were losing their patience faster than the car could go.
One night I overheard my parents discussing the situation. My father, who loved cars and fast driving, said to my mother that the problem was that I was “trying to run before I could walk.”
In the end they decided to get me a second hand car, so that at least I wouldn’t deprive my mother of daily transport with my crashes.
So given a RM3,000 budget I acquired a used Morris Mini Cooper and my father said to me “Isn’t a Coopers better?” Didn’t I tell you he loved and knew his cars? At that time he drove a BMW 1800 and I didn’t think he would let me near it. I never asked. I was not stupid, and neither was he.
My British racing green Mini Cooper had a 997cc engine, and only produced 55 bhp with a top speed of 85mph. Today the 1.3 Myvi has 90 horses. But the Mini Cooper’s low weight and brilliant handling made it the greatest giant killer of all time.
The 1275 Cooper S version won the Monte Carlo three times beating cars like Porsche, Lancia and Saab. I watched Brian Foley in the Singapore GP leaving bigger cars for dead in the saloons event.
In the Open event, he overtook single seaters around corners eventually finishing fourth outright. I was sold. The Mini was the car to choose.
Anyway I continued on my journey on the fast lane, where I meet with famous names like Harvey Yap, and Simon Velu. We became good buddies, and they became my mentors.
Harvey especially, pushed me into proper racing despite my protests that I would look stupid and embarrass myself. He gave me confidence. So I started at the autocross events in Perak organised by the Royal Perak Motor Club, and met top drivers like Eddy Choong in a Cooper S, and Tony Maw in his Lotus Elan.
Simon Velu taught me things like double declutching and heel & toe. However I stopped short of following his example of wearing Japanese slippers to drive in the race track.
Not surprisingly, I also became friends with an Inspector in High Street Traffic Police who told me my Cooper was in the top 10 of the KL Traffic Police watch list. Oh! The price of fame! Or is it infamy?
In 1967 the Batu Tiga Circuit ran its first event. I am told that the track affectionately known as 3 Rocks was largely due the efforts of one Tunku Abdul Rahman who often rode around the circuit on a big Honda motorcycle.
Although the circuit doesn’t exist anymore, it is still fondly remembered by those who knew it. It is loved even presently because it is a circuit from the old days unlike the new technical tracks today like Sepang tailored for F1 cars with so much downforce and power.
Driving around Sepang in Standard saloon cars is like going outstation as it takes so long to do a lap. Albert Poon the renowned HK driver says he loves the circuit especially the frightening double apex Lucas Loop which reminds him of a corner in Macau. Then sadly they took Lucas away to make the track longer to meet FIA requirements for international events like the World Sports Cars.
I was privileged to be in that first Batu Tiga event which was named by someone with little creativity. It was called Batu Tiga Speed Event 1967.This event was probably the first Time Attack event which has become so popular today. We had to go two laps by ourselves and the time was used to decide the winner.
I was entered in Saloons under 1000cc in my Cooper which didn’t come with a rev counter. You knew it was time to change up to the next gear when the gear shifter shook like on a serious overdose of ecstasy and the engine sounded like it was going to explode.
It was my first time in a circuit and guess what? I won! Holy Molly! Did I arrive? Hell no, but it was a small start and it did provide me with some confidence to carry on exploring motorsport.
That was in 1967 and I struggled on with shoe string budgets in various Minis and it was really only in 1975, that I did not have to dig into my own pockets anymore. I was taken in by Team Asia Motors and drove my Code 10 Mazda Rx2. This would not have happened without the help of my mentor Harvey, who negotiated deals and arranged for the sponsorship.
My motorsport adventures continued until my last drive with Team Isuzu in 2009. I started in 1966 in Autocross and it spanned 43 years during which time I had the honour to have driven for Dealer Teams like Mazda, Ford, Toyota, BMW, Datsun, Perodua and Isuzu. I was in Circuit Racing and Rallying simultaneously.
Motorsport sport is really where you learn about teamwork to prepare you for the other parts of your less exciting life like the office. You are driving well. You have a competitive car.
But all this will mean nothing if the entire service team is not fully into it. The car must always be meticulously prepared. Each and every service crew member must want the car, their car, to win as badly as you do. In rallies things get even more complicated because the car can come out with crash damage. The body needs repairs, the windscreen needs changing, the bent suspension parts need replacement, the misfiring must be found and fixed, and God knows what else. And all rectifications must be done within minutes. In short we need really special guys in a team. I am lucky to have very special guys most of the time and a lot of them are still my good friends.
Motorsport has been a very large part of my life and it is so satisfying when someone you don’t know comes up today and says something like “ didn’t you drive minis?” or “were you the Code 10 man?”
Finally a true story in the KL High Court where I was a witness in an Insurance matter.
High Court Judge: By the way Mr. Mei allow me to digress a bit. Did you use to drive Alfas in Batu Tiga?
Me: No my Lord but I used to have them for breakfast.