Kenelm Lee Guinness

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Kenelm Edward "Bill" Lee Guinness
Kenelm Lee Guinness at the 1914 French Grand Prix (cropped).jpg
Born(1887-08-14)14 August 1887
Died10 April 1937(1937-04-10) (aged 49)
at home, Kingston Hill, London
Cause of deathSuicide, by domestic gas[1]
Resting placePutney Vale Cemetery, London [1]
ResidencePutney, London
EducationCambridge University
OccupationRacing motorist,
spark plug manufacturer
Spouse(s)Josephine Strangman "Posey" on 26 January 1928, divorced in 1936
ChildrenSir Kenelm Ernest Lee Guinness, 4th Bt. b. 13 Dec 1928, d. 6 May 2011, Geraldine St. Lawrence Lee Guinness b. 24 Sep 1930
Parent(s)Father: Benjamin Lee Guinness, 3rd son of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, 1st Baronet, Lady Henrietta Eliza St. Lawence
RelativesGuinness brewing family

Kenelm Edward Lee Guinness MBE (14 August 1887 – 10 April 1937) was an Irish-born racing driver of the 1910s and 1920s mostly associated with Sunbeam racing cars. He set a new Land Speed Record in 1922. Also an automotive engineer, he invented and manufactured the KLG spark plug. A member of the Guinness brewing family, and a director of the company, he lived and died in Putney Vale, and was buried at the nearby cemetery, bordering Putney Heath.

Beginnings in motor racing[edit]

Guinness's interest in motor racing began whilst at Cambridge University, as riding mechanic to his elder brother Sir Algernon Guinness.[2]

His first major race as a driver was the 1907 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. His Darracq retired early, owing to axle failure. This involvement with the closely related Sunbeam, Talbot and Darracq marques continued throughout his career. In the same year he also took part in the Belgian Grand Prix at the Circuit des Ardennes.

Around this time he acquired space in a disused pub, 'The Bald Faced Stag' in Putney, London as a base for his motor-racing exploits.

From 1913 he was an official driver for Sunbeam, along with Henry Segrave. Sunbeam's engine designer, Louis Coatalen, became a friend and assisted his motor-racing career, driving Sunbeam or Talbot cars.[3] This continued in 1914, 1921, 1922, 1923 and 1924 alongside such famous drivers as Jean Chassagne.

KLG spark plugs[edit]

As for many racing motorists of this era, he had commercial interests in automotive engineering; in this case being the inventor of the KLG spark plug, a brand name surviving today.

His experience in the 1912 Manx Tourist Trophy led him 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 particular reputation for reliability in aircraft use and were in great demand during the First World War. At the outbreak of war he 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.[2]

In 1919 he sold world distribution rights to Smiths, then sold up completely in 1927. He remained as a consultant.[2]

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 mis-fire amongst which could be very difficult to detect and replace on a windswept beach.[3]

Robinhood Engineering Works[edit]

The KLG organisation now Robinhood Engineering Works outgrew its pub and moved into a purpose-built Art Deco building, where at one time 1,500 people were employed. The building was eventually demolished and an Asda store now stands on the site.


He invented the first hydro-pulsator for the treatment of gums by water-jet massage.

Motor racing[edit]



  • Winner and fastest lap, Isle of Man Tourist Trophy, 10–11 June 1914, Sunbeam TT 3.2 litre
  • 1914 French Grand Prix (retired)



  • Winner, Grand Prix de Suisse Voiturettes, Geneva, 15 June 1924, Talbot 70
  • Winner, JCC 200 Brooklands, Voiturettes, 20 September 1924, Talbot 70
  • Guinness crashed on 27 September 1924 in the San Sebastian Grand Prix and his riding mechanic, Tom Barrett was killed. Barrett had substituted for Guinness's regular mechanic Bill Perkins, who was recovering in hospital from injuries received three weeks earlier in a crash at Brooklands in a car driven by Dario Resta, who was killed in the accident.[4] Guinness never raced again after San Sebastian. The accident led to the discontinuation of the practice of mechanics riding as passengers in races.

Land Speed Record[edit]

Sunbeam driven to Land Speed Records by Guinness and as Blue Bird Malcolm Campbell

After the First World War, Louis Coatalen built the Sunbeam 350HP, which was powered by a V12 Manitou engine.

On 18 May 1922, Guinness used the car to set new Land Speed Records at Brooklands: the Brooklands lap record at 121.54 mph, then the flying-start land speed records over a half-mile, kilometre, mile and two miles. The fastest record being 136.05 mph for the half-mile.[3] These were the last land speed records to be set on a racetrack rather than a beach or salt flat.

The car was later sold to Malcolm Campbell, who named it "Blue Bird" and also used it to set land speed records.

After his 1924 accident, Guinness withdrew from record-breaking as well as track competition. However, when his Sunbeam co-driver Segrave took the 1,000HP car to Daytona in 1927, Guinness accompanied him.


Guinness' First World War Naval aspirations were assuaged a little in 1919, when he purchased a surplus minesweeper, the 'Samuel Green' that had been converted to a fishing trawler. He renamed her the 'Ocean Rover' [5] and had her refitted as a gentleman's yacht. Guest accommodation was provided, together with a hold equipped to transport racing cars to foreign events.

In 1926, after Guinness's retirement from motor racing, he and his friend Malcolm Campbell used the yacht for a treasure-hunting trip to the Cocos Islands.[2]


After the 1924 crash, Guinness suffered head and other injuries. These other injuries may have been enough to end his racing career on their own, but the head injuries and the trauma of Barrett's death also changed his personality.[1][2][6]

In his final months towards 1937, he was described as suffering delusions and was admitted to a nursing home. On 10 April 1937 he was found dead in a bedroom at his home near the KLG factory, having apparently gassed himself.

At the coroner's inquest, his brother Sir Algernon Guinness produced a letter that indicated the likelihood of suicide. The coroner's verdict was, "Suicide, while of unsound mind".[2]

He was buried on 14 April at Putney Vale Cemetery, adjacent to the KLG factory.


  1. ^ a b c d "Kenelm Lee Guinness, MBE". Findagrave.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Top 100 racing drivers". Archived from the original on 30 January 2008.
  3. ^ a b c Brew, Alec (1998). Sunbeam Aero-engines. Airlife. ISBN 1-84037-023-8.
  4. ^ "Sunbeam, Talbot, Darracq". Wolverhampton Museum of Industry. Archived from the original on 2008.
  5. ^ Kenny, Paul (2009). The Man Who Supercharged Bond: The extraordinary story of Charles Amherst Villiers. Haynes Publishing. p. 91.
  6. ^ "Tom Barrett". Wolverhampton Museum of Industry. Archived from the original on 2008.

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