Kenelm Lee Guinness (1887 - 1937) - Founder of the KLG Spark Plug

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Kenelm Lee Guinness (1887 - 1937) - Founder of the KLG Spark Plug
Kenelm Lee Guinness

Baptism of Fire

Kenelm Lee Guinness was a driver who seldom made the headlines, but always did a job well. That was only part of the story, however, as this modest, retiring man, who drove so unspectacularly, could always be relied upon to finish well to the fore in any race in which he took part. He had received his baptism of fire - literally - as riding mechanic to his elder brother Algy (Sir Algernon Lee 'Bart' Guinness) in the notorious V8 200 bhp Darracq, whose 22.5-litre engine boasted only the most minimal of exhaust stubs, and which threw great spurts of flame back over the occupants of the car's two tiny bucket seats causing many anxious, and probably heated, moments.

The KLG Spark Plug

Kenelm - more familiarly known as Bill - took over where his brother had left off, first coming to the public notice with his victory in the 1914 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, in which he drove a Sunbeam. He also achieved fame as the creator of the KLG spark plug, which he originally developed for his racing cars. He subsequently founded the KLG spark plug factory, Robinhood Works, on Putney Hill, where Segrave's 1929 land-speed-record car, Golden Arrow, was built.

It was from his experience in the 1912 Manx Tourist Trophy that would prompt Guinness to develop a more reliable spark plug. The innovation of the KLG spark plug was its use of mica as an insulator. This mica was stacked in sheets and compressed by the centre electrode being tightened on a thread. These insulators gave more reliable performance than the porcelain ceramics used by others. Production of these plugs began in a small way at 'The Bald Faced Stag', supplying other racers including Segrave and Campbell.

KLG plugs developed a very good reputation for reliability in aircraft use and were in great demand during the First World War. At the outbreak of war Guinness joined the Royal Navy, but his work on spark plugs was considered to be more valuable to the war effort and he was asked to resign. In 1919 he sold world distribution rights to Smiths, then sold up completely in 1927. He remained as a consultant. KLG's reliability was particularly attractive to the land speed record contenders and their many-cylindered aero-engines, often with dual ignition systems. Segrave's 1,000HP Sunbeam required 48 spark plugs, a misfire amongst which could be very difficult to detect and replace on a windswept beach.

While his spark plugs were revolutionary, Guinness was still very much interested in auto racing. After World War 1 Kenelm ‘Bill’ Guinness rejoined the Sunbeam works team as leading driver. He was reported as lacking the fire that had distinguished his brother's driving, but he compensated for this with the regularity with which he could be relied upon at consistent high speed. 'It has been said of many people,' wrote Sammy Davis, 'that if you were to place a half-penny on a corner during a race, and one front wheel ran over it on the first lap, the same wheel would pass over the coin again on every other lap. But of very few people is this as true as it was with Bill'. Coming from a journalist of Davis's calibre, this was high praise.

The 1921 Grand Prix des Voiturettes

Guinness enjoyed his greatest successes with Louis Coatalen's 1.5-litre Talbot-Darracq voiturettes, which on their very first outing, the 1921 Grand Prix des Voiturettes, at Le Mans, scored a one-two-three victory over the Bugattis which had previously dominated this capacity class. Guinness came in second in this event, as he did in that year's Junior Car Club 200-Miles Race at Brooklands, his team-mates being Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell.

In the 1922 '200', however, the Talbot-Darracqs were up against stiff opposition, especially from the new Gremillon-designed twin-over head-camshaft Aston Martins, as well as the Brescia Bugattis. However, although it was Kensington Moir's Aston and the Bugattis which made the initial running, Segrave's Talbot-Darracq soon took over the lead. Guinness, who had lost a tyre on the sixth lap, was a lap behind. The third member of the team, Jean Chassagne, was eliminated when a burst tyre sent his differential-less car over the top of the Brooklands banking (he and his mechanic were unhurt, but by some freak, Chassagne's shoes were deposited neatly in the centre of the track).

Kenelm Guinness
Kenelm Lee Guinness, who developed the K.L.G. spark plug,
at the wheel of his Sunbeam at Brooklands.

The Lucky Penny

Then a burnt-out valve slowed Segrave, and it was up to Guinness, the Aston menace having dwindled to Stead's side-valve car, the famous Bunny, which was lapping at 88 mph. Guinness's car was faster, though, and could average 94.5 mph for the Brooklands circuit: so the finishing order was Kenelm Lee Guinness, who had averaged 88.06 mph for the entire distance, G. C. Stead and H. O. D. Segrave.

Guinness took the next two races for which, with the Talbot-Darracq, he was entered, in his stride. These were the GP des Voiturettes at Le Mans and the Penya Rhin 1.5-litre Grand Prix and he carried his lucky penny, which had saved a soldier's life by stopping a bullet, had belonged to a man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and then had gone to the winner of an international motor-boat race.

Guinness' good fortune was not confined to voiturette events, as he also took the land-speed record, with the 350hp V12 Sunbeam, at Brooklands; his speed was 133.75 mph, it being the last time the world record was ever broken on a proper, established race circuit. The Talbot-Darracqs were not entered for the 1923 200 miles, but brand-new cars, copies in miniature of the successful GP Sunbeam, appeared for 1924. They dominated the event, lapping neatly in line abreast at record-breaking speed, 10 mph faster than their rivals-over 100 mph on the first lap, 106 mph on the second, 108 mph on the third-a performance which was maintained to the end.

Guinness was first at 102.27 mph, then came George Duller, then Henry Segrave. However, Kenelm ‘Bill’ Guinness's luck ran out in the 1924 Spanish Grand Prix at San Sebastian. Momentarily distracted, he crashed severely, wrecking his Sunbeam and killing his mechanic. The accident affected him greatly, and he increasingly became prey to bouts of depression, which were, it seems, the direct cause of his death in 1937.
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