Whanganui lost a link to its business heritage and New Zealand motor racing royalty last week, when Roderick (Rod) William Coleman died in his sleep, age 93.

Coleman passed away in Whanganui Hospital last Tuesday, and per his wishes, a private cremation was held on Thursday, with a final quote of "farewell to my local and worldwide friends".

Part of the legendary Coleman family, Rod along with his late father Percy and younger brother Bob were collectively inducted into the Whanganui Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, after being active in motor racing activities and employing hundreds of locals in various companies for over 80 years.

The family came to Whanganui in 1926 when Percy 'Cannonball' Coleman, already known for flying a Hamilton biplane around the district, set up a motorcycle shop on Guyton St, later moving to the other side of the road where he and his sons installed the country's first Supershell oil and petrol blending pump.

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The Coleman's then set up new premises on Victoria St, which opened in 1965, the same year as 'Cannonball' died in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, which is now Harare in modern Zimbabwe.

The brothers Rod and Bob continued to run the business, which later moved to a new location along Victoria Ave to include a marine shop and used car lot, which when combined with the motorcycle business would employ over 60 locals.

There were other Coleman motorcycle stores opened in Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch, which was followed by a car assembly plant on Heads Rd.

South Pacific Suzuki Vehicle Assemblers was opened in 1976 and employed 50 staff, with the Colemans owning a 65 per cent share.

Another Coleman group company – Northern Motor Distributors Ltd – distributed cars and trucks.

But successful businesses aside, it was in motorsports that the family were nationally and internationally renowned.

'Cannonball' Coleman was part of the first New Zealand team to compete at the iconic Isle of Man events in 1930, and then 24 years later, son Rod became the first Kiwi to win there.

Rod, who had infamously broken his jaw on his racing debut at the Isle of Man in 1949, would take his AJS 7R to victory in the 350cc race in 1954, reaching an average speed of 91.51mph (147.27km).

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In major international racing, Coleman would score ten road victories, come runnerup 16 times and third in ten others.

He saluted the chequered flag in England, Sweden, Morocco, Belgium, Switzerland and Australia – winning the national titles of the latter two.

In 1952, Coleman finished fourth in both the 350cc and 500cc world championships, and then in 1954 had a career-high third place finish in 350cc while coming fifth in 500cc.
Nationally, he dominated the scene, claiming 81 victories in New Zealand.

A fixture of Whanganui's Cemetery Circuit events, as the Coleman's along with Maurie Harris set up the first one, Rod Coleman won five national grass-track motorcycle titles and four road hill climb titles.

He also was a prominent jet boat racer, winning NZ marathon titles and setting national records in his Chev V8 Mr Suzuki craft.

Brother Bob Coleman followed in the family footsteps, winning 12 national championships of his own.

The family's links with the influential Suzuki company helped to sponsor many other riders who won New Zealand titles, while enabling top American riders to compete on the national scene.

After the family sold off their business interests, with Bob moving to Tauranga, Rod continued to live in Whanganui while racing and restoring classic motorcycles, from his home workshop on St John's Hill.

He is survived by wife of 65 years Jacqueline (Jackie) Coleman, children Karen and Carl, son-in-law Russell, granddaughter Mia, and his surviving siblings Bob and Audrey, along with the late Marion and parents Percy and Annie.

Information compiled by historian JB Phillips.

Rod Coleman on the 60th anniversary of the Whanganui Cemetery Circuit's debut in 2012.
Rod Coleman on the 60th anniversary of the Whanganui Cemetery Circuit's debut in 2012.