ALBERT POON – LUNCH WITH CHAMPIONS

An entertaining raconteur, smooth, and evergreen, Sir Albert Poon OSJ is still a Hong Kong racing icon. Let’s see how much can we glean in our Lunch With Champions.

By Eli Solomon

Albert Poon, 85 this year, is one of Asia’s motor racing legends. He has an easy-going demeanour about him that has not changed over the years, on or off the circuit.

A prolific winner on the track, he won the Malaysia Grand Prix in Singapore twice (1963 and 1965)1, the Johore Grand Prix once (1963)2, the Macau Grand Prix in 19643, the Malaysian Grand Prix at Shah Alam (1974) 4 and again in 19785.

This doesn’t include racing in the 1977 Peter Stuyvesant Atlantic Series in New Zealand in 1977 6and the countless wins in saloon and touring cars races throughout the region, even the Macau Historic Grand Prix single-marque Mini race in 2003. Aptly described by a local fellow competitor, Poon made racing his Alfa Romeo GTA around the tricky street circuits look like a walk in the park.

A TASTE OF RACING

Albert Poon watched his first Macau Grand Prix in 1958. He enjoyed it so much that the following year, he entered the event with a stock Triumph TR3. He started 13th and finished seventh in the gruelling 60-lap race, and was hooked.

AP: Nothing to be proud of because there were guys like Chan Lye Choon with the Aston Martin DB3S [see FOR THE PRICE OF A HOUSE], Peter Heath with a Lotus Eleven [see THE TALL LOTUSER], and a lot of other nice cars7. After that, I supped up the car a little bit, and the next year I went back with the TR3 with an Iskenderian cam, Koni shocks and polished the head myself. Went a little better…but still not enough8.

MY FIRST REAL RACE CAR

Albert Poon’s first proper race car was a Lotus 23. He raced it for two years in Singapore, Johore and Macau. It gave him three Grand Prix wins, and established his reputation as one of Asia’s best drivers for the following two decades.

AP: I bought the Lotus 23 for work. I got HK$36,000 (around £2,400) as a grant to buy a car to go to work in. It was just enough for the Lotus in 1963. Bob Harper was the agent in Hong Kong, but when I talked to him about the Lotus, he wasn’t confident in importing them. I got a government loan to buy the car. Ah, bet you never heard about that.

I was Harper’s first Lotus customer in Hong Kong. ‘Everywhere you go, I will personally attend to your car,’ Bob Harper offered. The first race I entered was the Singapore Grand Prix9[in 1963] because the car was delivered direct to Universal Cars in Singapore10. I didn’t have any spares. As is, that’s it. It runs, it fires, not even a spare spark plug. Absolutely nothing.

Albert Poon’s Lotus 23 was taken care of by Fred Lidstone of Universal Cars in Singapore for the 1963 Grand Prix.

This one had a push-rod engine with four-speed gearbox. That same year, I raced in Johore in August [31 August-1 September 1963] and won11.

Came back to Macau, but they forgot to put oil in the gearbox after they changed the gearbox [to a five speed]. Thirty laps and the gearbox packed up12.

When I won the Johore race [in 1963], my mechanic said, “Prize money don’t take home, buy a house now!” I should have listened to him.

THE ISSUE OF PROVENANCE

Well-respected historians have squabbled over how many Lotus 23s and 23Bs came to Asia, and establishing provenance of Poon’s first race car is a bone of contention among historians who dispute which Lotus 23 chassis it carried. Poon’s first and second Lotus 23 remain unaccounted for in Graham Capel’s definitive Lotus History: The History of the Lotus Twenty-Three (published by Historic Lotus Books in 2006). Poon’s story remains unchanged over the years.

AP: I know my Lotus. In Singapore, you can request your racing number [in 1963]. I had no number so I put down the chassis number of the car, 234 [officially chassis 23-S-4]. They said the number was too long. ‘How about 23?’ Ok, I didn’t mind. That’s a good number. Freddie Pope [founding member of the Singapore Motor Club and a big supporter of motor sport in Southeast Asia] used to drive with that number. …I don’t mind. So we settled on 23.

Albert Poon’s debut racing his #23 Lotus 23 was at the 1963 Grand Prix in Singapore.

Richard Wong [a Singapore industrialist] only backed me one year [in 1965 with a Lotus 23B]. Back in 1963, the cars were being serviced by Universal Cars. The manager in charge was Fred Lidstone. He introduced me to this guy…they called him “Richard the Wallet”. In 1965, Richard sponsored me with the Mike Beckwith Lotus 23B [said to be chassis 23B-S-48]. Quick car, I won the 1965 Singapore Grand Prix with it.

After the 1965 race, we came back to Macau. Again something went wrong with the car, so we sold it to Singaporean Chong Boon Seng13, the father of Ringo Chong. Ringo…the guy who raced BMWs, the chubby guy. We were fierce competitors years ago when I raced the Ford Mondeo and the young Chong drove for BMW.

My original 23 is gone. In 1965, [Cathay Pacific pilot] Steve Holland talked me into selling him the car. I already had Richard’s 23B from April that year. Holland was driving my original 23 when it caught fire and burnt at Macau in 1965. The whole car disintegrated14. Not one bit left15.

Albert Poon’s Lotus 23 and 23B were featured in a double-page spread in Rewind Magazine’s final edition, Rewind 039, March 2018.

Victory number two for Albert Poon in Singapore, this time in 1965 in a Lotus 23B.

A good haul over an Easter weekend of racing in 1965.

OF TEDDY & PORSCHES

Invariably, the subject turns to the S$42,000 Porsche 906 Carrera Spyder [see BEYOND JUST A SPYDER] that Richard Wong brought into Singapore in 1968, one of the incredibly rare, very expensive, and most powerful cars that raced in Southeast Asia. Wong was having some trouble with the car during practice for the Singapore Grand Prix that year, so Poon was tasked with giving it a shakedown before the race. In the right hands, this was the car to beat, which was not lost upon Poon. The car later became an exhibit in the Macau Grand Prix museum for many years.

Icons of Asian racing – Albert Poon and Teddy Yip in Albert’s Alfa Romeo GTV ahead of the Guia race, Macau 1971.

AP: Beautiful car. Later on Teddy Yip [the Hong Kong tycoon who was the prime mover for the Macao Grand Prix from the late 1960s] bought it because he heard my comments about it to Richard. Terrific car. No other words to describe it. At that time, when you were using all these lousy Lotus, here comes a Porsche. My God. It out-corners the Lotus. It has so much power. Normally you put your foot down….brmmmmm 7-grand, change gear, brmmmmm 7-grand. This car you put your foot down…zip 7-grand, zip 7-grand. Quad-cam engine. Beautiful.

The Porsche 906 Carrera at Batu Tiga in 1969.

VOODOO OR WHAT!?!

As Poon’s reputation as one of Asia’s top racing drivers grew, so did stories surrounding his invincibility on the circuit. Rumour had it that Poon had some sort of magical power. In Singapore, it was said that he had inserted a pin in his arm, and after this, knives could not cut him.

AP: It’s true. I was a police officer with the Hong Kong Police Force. We go out raiding and rescuing people. One time, the constable picked up an opium lamp with thick glass. It broke, the glass cut his hand very badly. The sergeant pulled him over and performed something on him and the bleeding stopped. I thought, ‘What the hell is going on here? What is this, bloody voodoo? Teach me…teach me, I want to know.’

He brought me to a master, a dynamite maker by trade. The first meeting, he brought out a bloody cleaver that you slice pork with. He sliced a piece of paper to show how sharp it was. He then performed this on someone there. Nothing happened. No blood. So I signed up. Forty-nine days. Pray, incense sticks…None of my racing friends believed me. Maybe that explains why I’ve had so many accidents and not even one scratch. I never officially used this power though.

FROM THE POLICE TO ALFA ROMEOS

So entrenched was Poon’s prowess around the Singapore track that the standing joke during the 1960s and early 1970s was that “Poon’s Alfa Romeo GTA could find its own way around the circuit.” Poon debuted the GTA at the Macau Grand Prix Production Car Race in 1966.

AP: I resigned from the police [in June 1965] because China International, which had the Vauxhall and Bedford agencies, asked me to work for them. I was in charge of a new brand they had, Toyoda. I couldn’t sell the damn thing. In the end, I got together with a few friends and formed a new company called Milan Motors [also in 1965]. The Alfa GTV 1600 was the most popular in Hong Kong then. We had the sole agency for Alfa Romeo in Hong Kong and Macau.

The Alfa Romeo GTA in 1969.

Albert Poon’s Alfa Romeo entries in Malaysian and Singapore were backed City Motors, the Malaysia and Singapore Alfa Romeo distributor. This car started life as a 1967 1600 Giulia Sprint GTV. In its early life it has had the doors/perspex windows from Poon’s GTA fitted.

Devils Hairpin in Singapore in 1967…I remember Katayama [Yoshimi Katayama, a Japanese Works racer for Asia Motor Co.] chasing my Alfa GTA into Devils Hairpin. I came out of Devil’s, Katayama didn’t make it in the 1-litre Mazda Rotary. In a formula car, you don’t see that much in the rear. In a saloon, you can watch the action in the rear. I must have won the most number of races in the saloon races in the GTA – nearly 40 races.

BANG BANG IN MACAU

The 1967 Macau Grand Prix is most remembered for two major events. The first was the unfortunate fiery death of well-liked racer Arsenio ‘Dodjie’ Laurel in a Lotus 41. The second was the threat of death from the Maoist Red-May Rebellious Combat Squad of Macau on all Chinese drivers who participated in the Grand Prix. Poon was permitted to carry a 14-shot Browning pistol with him in his Brabham BT21 Alfa Romeo, and had along two Chinese mainland Red Guards as bodyguards for the race! He reckoned he could take out fourteen of the activists before they got him. As it turned out, he did use the Browning…when the fuel pump of the Brabham packed up.

AP: I got out, gave [the fuel pump of the car] a whack with the gun, and then pushed the bloody thing back to the pits and collapsed.

Albert Poon in his Brabham BT21 Alfa Romeo.

SAW KIM THIAT, JOHN MAC AND ALAN JONES

Poon speaks of an acclaimed few whom he raced against: Hong Kong’s John Macdonald, a former colleague in the police force and another fierce competitor; Saw Kim Thiat, Malaysian’s top driver of the 1950s and early 1960s; and 1980 Formula 1 World Champion, Alan Jones.

Macdonald was perhaps Poon’s greatest challenger throughout the 1960s and 1970s in Asia. When Poon first raced in Malaysia, Saw was already at the tail end of a very successful career racing cars.

AP: You heard about him not eating? Old John Mac never used to eat at the police mess. I was an instructor, so one day I went over and asked him why. Said he was saving money. ‘What for?’ I asked. He said it was for a race car. ‘Ah, you want to race.’ ‘Yes, so I can beat you,’ was Mac’s reply.

Saw Kim Thiat. Mad guy. Very good friend of mine. Took me out hunting in Malaysia shooting flying foxes. Chinese people love to eat flying foxes. Supposed to be an aphrodisiac. We used his sports car without the windscreen to go shooting in a plantation…at high speed. Crazy!

Alan Jones…now that’s a good story. Alan came to Macau with Teddy Yip in 1976. ‘Hello Albert,’ he said. ‘You don’t know me,’ he said. I said I knew him, but he still said I didn’t know him. ‘I’m the guy who cleaned your car in 1965 at Sandown Park…your Lotus Cortina.’ I went there to race the Cortina. This kid was Stan Jones’ son, and Stan was my mechanic at Sandown. He was just 14 years only, and was cleaning my car. ‘Oh My God, you are THAT Alan Jones,’ I said. I showed him my lines around the Macau circuit and three laps later…gone…Fastest Time of Day.

BRABHAM, MARCH, RALT…OR CHEVRON

Buying a race car to race in the Far East often amounted to a challenging experience. In the 1960s, most chose to buy used cars from race car dealers such as Frank Williams (before Williams formed his Formula 1 team), or sourced them from advertisements found in Autosport or Motor Sport magazines. Poon’s first Formula cars were purchased in the second-hand market.

AP: I bought the Piers Courage Brabham BT30 [chassis BT30-5] from Frank Williams in 1969. Frank was difficult and drove a hard bargain. I sent it to Macau thinking that they are racing F2s that year. Here comes Kevin Bartlett from Australia…with Alec Mildren [the Sydney Alfa Romeo dealer] in a V8 with Brabham body, almost F1 tyres, what they call the Australian F2. I’m driving a British F2. Oh my Gad. Alfa Tipo 33 V8 engine…while I drove a 4-cylinder with a 2-litre Cosworth FVA. I came second to Kevin. The next year, I came second to the bloody German guy in the BMW…Quester.

Albert Poon in his #66 Brabham BT30, 1972 Macau Grand Prix.

So we changed the BT30 to the Brabham BT40. Then, when John Macdonald changed to Ralt [a Ralt RT-1], I queued for a March at first. Want to buy the 722 March? Can’t even get into the queue. After the British Racing Car Show, we tried…I even had Brian Hart [the engine builder who specialised in the Ford Twin Cam engine] with me. Couldn’t get a Ralt either, so ended up going to Chevron [for a B29, chassis B29-75-05]. Had to buy something, right? We gave up on buying a used car after dealing with Frank Williams.

I’M A MARKED MAN

It was fair game to distract and intimidate fellow competitors, and Poon was not exempted from this. In one instance, 1967 Singapore Grand Prix winner Rodney Seow worked his wits on Poon at the inaugural Selangor race at Batu Tiga in September 1967. Poon, already regarded as a formidable competitor, had come to Seow’s pit garage with his competitor pass strung around his neck. Seow saw the number and exclaimed, “Eh, you are damn lucky. You got tomorrow’s results written on your pass. Your pass number says 27 – 08 – 6616. Me, Han Seng, You!” That’s exactly how that race finished with Seow ahead of Lee Han Seng and Poon. Poon chuckles.

AP: I was earmarked, everyone wanted to kill me.

MY FAVOURITE CIRCUITS

Poon raced in all the circuits of Asia – from the streets of Macau, Penang, Ipoh, Johore, Singapore and Manila to all the permanent circuits of the region and even in Australia. A couple stand out.

AP: Singapore, I tell you, [it] is the best-organised race meeting in all my life. On arrival at the airport, there’s always somebody there to meet you. The organisation was superb; the conditions were appalling. We knew exactly what was going on; the races started exactly on time. The paddock was muddy, no shade whatsoever. Hot. But well-organised. No hassles from the customs.

The first time I had the Lotus 23…they let me test the car on the road…drove it around town with trade plates taped to the body. They said, ‘Why don’t you just drive the car back to the hotel?’ Come August…I drove the car from the [work]shop, across the causeway to Johore [for the Grand Prix].

And this time [1972], the Government says that if somebody gets killed, no more Grand Prix. Everybody’s been briefed not to kill ourselves.

Every year, somebody got killed in the Singapore Grand Prix. Every year, without fail. Absolutely unbelievable. Anywhere on the circuit. One time on the straight, one time at the chicane, one time up on the hill. And this time [1972], the Government says that if somebody gets killed, no more Grand Prix. Everybody’s been briefed not to kill ourselves. And then this guy, a Singapore champion, not Rodney…he lost it up the Snakes and went into the ditch in the Grand Prix. The Marshal, on the other side, sees his best friend going into the ditch. Too eager to help, he runs across, and another car killed him. This was the last race. The name will come to me.

Macau…I’m the only guy who can claim I drove 100 laps in Macau in one day [in 1964]. In the morning, I did 40 laps in the Lotus Cortina…I won and lapped everybody. The second guy only did 39. In the GP, I lapped everybody again, in the Lotus 23. 60 laps. Anybody who’s never been to Macau, forget it. It takes two years to get used to Macau. It’s hard to get a good [lap] time. You make a mistake in one, it compounds the next two kilometres. You got to have one smooth line all the way.

In the Chevron B29 for the Selangor Grand Prix Rothmans Trophy Championship race on 15 August 1976. He finished third. 

Winning against much fancied international opposition in Shah Alam with his #66 Chevron B39/4017 in May 1978.

The Chevron B39/40 was maintained by Albert Poon’s chief mechanic Michael Jackson.

Revised paint scheme and B45 nosecone for Albert Poon’s Chevron B39/40 for the 22-23 September 1979 Selangor Grand Prix.

Racing in Macau - 2013 60th anniversary support race with Albert Poon in a Lotus Elise

“For me it’s easy…I do it closing my eyes. Forty-something years.” Albert Poon in a Lotus Elise, 60th anniversary of the Macau Grand Prix, 2013.

Footnotes

  1. See CASE BOOK OF LOTUS 23s
  2. See also JOHORE GRAND PRIX – Part 2: 1960-1963
  3. Poon started the race in his Lotus 23 from second place on the gird, with Bill Wyllie on pole in a Lotus 23B and Dr Tony Goodwin in third in his Lola Mk2 [see TROPICAL LOLAS]. He also set FTD and a new course record in the process.
  4. The Malaysian Grand Prix was held 6-7 April 1974. Albert Poon’s Brabham BT40-32 was purchased by L.C. Kwan in 1973. Both his and John Macdonald’s BT40 were delivered configured with larger fuel tanks for the Asian races.
  5. The Malaysia Grand Prix was held 27-28 May 1978, rescheduled to coincide with the move of the State Capital to Shah Alam. Improvements to the circuit were also made to comply with FIA standards. And there was a new manager of the circuit – Shah Alam Motor Racing Association (SAMRA) with six firms – Rothmans, F&N, Shell, Nippon (associate member), Wearnes and Goodyear as founding partners. The Grand Prix itself was run over two heats. Albert Poon won Heat 1, setting a 1:21.1 FTD. Steve Millen won Heat 2 with Poon second and Malcolm Ramsay third. Overall winner was Albert Poon.
  6. Albert Poon raced his Chevron B34 in the New Zealand series in January 1977.
  7. The front row of the 1959 Macau Grand Prix grid consisted of Bill Wyllie in his Walte Sulke-entered Audi 1000RS, Peter Heath in his Lotus Eleven Climax and Ron Hardwick in his Jaguar XKSS. On Poon row were Freddy Pope in his Jaguar Special and Jan Bussell in his Fribus Riley Special. The race was won by Hardwick in the Jaguar XKSS
  8. Poon started in 10th and finished fifth. The front row of the 1960 Macau Grand Prix grid consisted of Grant Wolfkill in his Porsche Spyder RS, Martin Redfern in the Jaguar XKSS and Jan Bussell in his Ferrari Monza. The race was won by Redfern in the Jaguar XKSS.
  9. Officially the race in Singapore was called the Malaysia Grand Prix from 1962 until 1965. The inaugural Grand Prix in 1961 was oddly enough referred to as the Singapore Grand Prix. Following independence, it was called the Singapore Grand Prix from 1966 until the last event in 1973.
  10. This was Albert Poon’s first race outside of Hong Kong and Macau. Ford agents Universal Cars handled the car for Albert in Singapore with two mechanics assigned to work in it – Lee Tai Mong and Isnan Tul.
  11. The Lotus 23 was garaged at Universal Cars in Singapore between the Singapore race and the Johore Grand Prix. On 18 August 1963, Borneo Shipping executive Richard ‘Dicky’ Barrett and Tan Tai Hong ran the Lotus 23 at the Seletar Auto Club Sprints. It remained in Singapore and was on display as part of the the Malaysia Day Show at Paya Lebar Airport in Singapore 15-17 September 1963. Next up was the Tunku Abdul Rahman race in Kuala Lumpur in November 1963, but Albert’s full-time occupation as a police officer in Hong Kong prevented him from participating in this still minor event. The car was then shipped back to Hong Kong for the 1963 Macau Grand Prix in November.
  12. Poon started in third place, alongside pole-sitter ‘Dodjie’ Laurel in a Lotus 22 Formula Junior and Ted Carter in a Brabham BT2/6 Formula Junior. Laurel went on to win the race.
  13. See CASE BOOK OF 23s
  14. See CASE BOOK OF 23s
  15. The writer counts a minimum of seven Lotus 23s that raced in Asia. One thing is certain, Steve Holland’s 23, the Albert Poon 1963 Malaysia [Singapore] and Johore Grand Prix-winning car, became a pile of incandescent magnesium at Melco Hairpin in November 1965.
  16. Rodney Seow had his Merlyn Mk10, Lee Han Seng had his Brabham BT18 and Albert Poon had his Lotus 23B (L.C. Kwan car) for the main event.
  17. The Chevron was a B39 Atlantic but with a second fuel tank added to the left side of the car, hence the B39/40 tag on the car imported by L.C. Kwan. This car may also have been Chevron owner Derek Bennett’s test car. It was first run by Kevin Bartlett in Macau before Albert took over and raced it in Selangor and Penang.

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2 thoughts on “ALBERT POON – LUNCH WITH CHAMPIONS

  1. There is another lotus 23b in Asia,own by Lee Hong Sing,later sell to Teddy Yip,he hit a lamp post in Macau Gp,Thursday test run,Teddy hurt both leg,and miss the GP that year.The 23b sent and park inside a garage in hongkong, never repair,until 1971 sell to a unknown guy.

    1. Yes Sir. Lee Han Seng sold the 23 to Teddy Yip in late 1965 (I don’t think it was a 23 B, but a 23). Teddy crashed it at Solitude in Thursday practice before the Macau Grand Prix that year. Lee later imported a 23B which he raced from 1966 till 1968, when it was sold to Steven Kam (in Singapore). There’s a photo of Lee’s first Lotus 23 in action in Singapore in 1965 which I included in the article TROPICAL LOLAS.

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