Tom Coughtrie

A passion for the (special) stage…

David Milloy

Tom Coughtrie was born in Dalmellington and educated at Dalmellington High School and Ayr Academy, where his favourite subject was art. His eye for detail and artistic talents led him to study Design at both Carlisle College and Birmingham School of Art, where he was part of a team that won a major competition to design a modern kitchen and appliances of the future. With his share of the prize money, Tom jetted off to North America in 1976, hoping to find work as a designer. The trip did not, however, turn out quite as Tom had hoped it would: “I flew to Canada then boarded a bus for New York. The bus made it as far as Buffalo before being stopped by the US Immigration Service. They checked all of our IDs before interviewing those who weren’t from the USA. The guy who interviewed me asked how much money I had with me. When I told him that I had $1500 dollars, he said it wouldn’t last me very long and amended my visa so that I was only able to stay in the USA for a month instead of a year.”

Tom continued on to New York, where he was interviewed by Columbia Records for a job designing album covers. He might have got it but for the lack of a Green Card. Tom then headed to Philadelphia, only to find the city in a chaotic state, as he explains: “I arrived there just as the city was dealing with an outbreak of what became known as Legionnaire’s Disease. The authorities fumigated the hotel where the outbreak had occurred, after which they allowed it to re-open. Unfortunately, they closed all the other hotels. I had been planning to stay in a motel but ended up having no choice but to stay in the only place that was open. As the price for a room had been hiked up to $200 a night, I didn’t stay there long before making my way home!”

On returning to Ayrshire, Tom set up as a freelance designer, embarking on a highly successful career as a designer, which continues to the present day. Tom is quick to acknowledge the important roles played by his wife, family and employees in creating a pool of businesses which together now employ over 60 people as well as making an important contribution to the local economy.

That’s an impressive achievement but we’re here to talk to Tom about one of his other great passions: rallying. It’s a sport that captured his heart from the time he saw his first rally. “When I was about ten or eleven, my father took me to watch the RAC Rally, a stage of which ran near to Dalmellington.” It was love at first sight, so much so that Tom started to compete in rallying when he was 17. “I started out in a Mini, switched to a Ford Escort, and later rallied both a Mitsubishi Galant and a Subaru Legacy.”

Tom mostly competed in Scotland, with the odd foray south of the border, but with sponsorship from Exxon he competed in the British Rally Championship in 1994 and 1995, the itinerary for which included rounds in Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Isle of Man in addition to events in both England and Scotland. After winning his class in the 1995 Pirelli International Rally, Tom found himself at the head of class N4. He remained in pole position for class honours until the Ulster Rally, the penultimate round of the championship, where an accident put paid to his hopes. Even so, his eventual third place in the standings was a fine result.

Tom then stepped away from rallying for a number of years. “I had a young family to look after,” he says, “and they came first.” He returned to rallying in 2010 at the wheel of a classic Ford Escort RS 1800, a car which propelled him to fourth place overall in the 2013 Scottish Historic Rally. Further success followed in 2021 when, at the wheel of his Mitsubishi Galant, he won his class in both the BTRDA and Welsh Forest rally championships. He also spread his rallying wings a bit further during this period, winning his class at the Rally Lloret de Mar in 2022, and backing it up with tenth place overall in the same year’s Rally Clásico Isla de Mallorca-Puerto Portals.

His appetite for rallying on the continent thoroughly whetted, Tom entered the prestigious FIA European Historic Rally Championship in 2023. As he explains: “The championship is composed of a series of classic, world-renowned rallies, some of which have host rounds of the World Rally Championship. It had long been my ambition to take part in these rallies and drive on the same stages as my rallying heroes, so it was just too good an opportunity to miss.” Tom drove a pair of Ford Escort RS1800s in the championship, one of which was originally built by David Sutton, who ran the Ford rally team back in the early 1980s, with the other being a replica of the Sutton-built Escort with which Ari Vatanen won the 1981 World Rally Championship.

Tom entered every one of the championship’s nine rounds, competing in Spain, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, Finland, Austria, and Greece. With the invaluable help of his long-time friend Jim Carty, himself a successful rally driver, Tom finished all nine rallies and was lying in second place in his class after eight rounds. Unfortunately, a combination of issues on the final rally (including having to drive most of the rally’s longest stage with his car’s throttle jammed open) and a points system that only allowed competitors to count their best seven points scores towards the championship meant that Tom ended up fourth in his class. Had Tom been allowed to count all of the points earned by him during the season then he’d have matched the points total of the driver who won his class. Still, he could at least take some consolation from having helped the Flexifly Rally Team to take second place in their category and also from being the recipient of a special prize from the FIA for finishing every round of the championship.

In spite of the excellence of his first season in the championship, it’s unlikely that Tom will return to it next year. “I was very fortunate to be invited to join the experienced Flexifly Rally Team which allowed my car to be transported to all the European rounds but it is time consuming, especially when you factor in the need for a pre-event recce run as well as the actual rally itself,” he explains. “That said, I’m glad I did it. It was the experience of a lifetime to be able to compete against drivers from all over Europe and be able to rub shoulders with the likes of Ari Vatanen and Fabrizia Pons, who won five rounds of the World Rally Championship as a co-driver.”

Tom won’t be giving up rallying, though. As with his passion for design, Tom’s passion for motorsport runs deep.