Guinness, Kenelm Edward Lee (1887–1937), businessman and motor racing driver, was born at 24 Great Cumberland Place, London, on 14 August 1887, the second son of Benjamin Lee Guinness (1842–1900), formerly captain in the Royal Horse Guards, and his wife, Henrietta Eliza St Lawrence (d. 1935), daughter of Thomas St Lawrence, third earl of Howth. The brewer Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, first baronet, was his grandfather. Lee Guinness was educated at home before entering Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1906, but he did not take a degree.

Lee Guinness’s introduction to motor racing came when he rode as a mechanic to his elder brother, Algernon Arthur St Lawrence Lee Guinness (who succeeded as third baronet in 1915), before driving on his own account. His first major race as a driver was the 1907 tourist trophy race on the Isle of Man, but he had to retire early when his Darracq’s rear axle failed. In the same year he drove in the Belgian grand prix at the Circuit des Ardennes. His involvement with the closely related Sunbeam, Talbot, and Darracq marques continued throughout his racing career. By 1913 he had become an official works driver for Sunbeam, while the company’s chief designer, Louis Coatalen, became a friend and his advice assisted Lee Guinness’s racing career. Driving a Sunbeam, he broke world records at Brooklands in October 1913, and won the Isle of Man tourist trophy in June 1914.

As a serious driver, rather than one driving purely as a hobby, Lee Guinness was led to set up the KLG business to make sparking plugs (as they were then known). Experience in racing competitions had revealed weaknesses in the efficacy and efficiency of the spark plugs in use at the time. In 1912 Lee Guinness and his brother, Algernon, formed a company and sought to experiment and so improve the quality of spark plugs. They acquired premises in a disused pub, the Bald Faced Stag, at Putney Lane, Kingston Vale, on the London to Portsmouth road. Until about 1912 existing variants of porcelain-insulated spark plugs had performed reasonably well, but the advent of smaller, higher revving engines demonstrated the deficiencies in their overall performance. Lee Guinness experimented with various materials and eventually discovered that mica-insulated plugs were a distinct improvement on their predecessors. When the mica was stacked in sheets and compressed by the central electrode being tightened on a thread, a more effective performance was achieved. Production began in a small way, but by 1914 the firm was producing 4000 plugs per week.

At the outbreak of war Lee Guinness joined the RNVR, but because of his engineering expertise he was asked by the government to return to civilian life and concentrate his efforts in spark plug production. The firm was incorporated as a limited company, the Robinhood Engineering Works Ltd, in June 1916. Expansion in production meant that by 1917 the pub premises had been replaced by an extended building in Putney Vale, employing some 1200 mainly women workers making plugs for military purposes. A patent had been obtained in 1916 for mica-insulated plugs for use in aero engines and such was their reliability that by the end of the war they were extensively used by the RAF. KLG was registered as a trade mark in 1918 and in 1919 Lee Guinness sold the firm’s distribution rights to S. Smith & Sons (later Smith’s Industries).

KLG spark plugs were used in the majority of motoring, motorcycle or flying achievements in the inter-war years. They were inserted into several hundred special engines and in two cars which broke world speed records: Sir Henry Segrave’s Golden Arrow and Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird, both of which were constructed at the Putney Vale factory.

After the First World War, Lee Guinness resumed motor racing, achieving a 120 m.p.h. lap at Brooklands in a Sunbeam in 1921. In that year, with Segrave and Campbell, he drove a Talbot-Darracq in the 200 mile race at Brooklands, and won it in 1922. In May 1922, in a Sunbeam, he set a new world record over a measured kilometre at Brooklands, with a mean speed after covering the course in both directions, from a standing start, of 133.75 m.p.h. His speed over a mile was 129.17 m.p.h. He also set a new Brooklands lap record of 123.39 m.p.h. On 20 September 1924 he won the Junior Car Club 200 mile race at Brooklands in a Talbot-Darracq. A week later, driving a Sunbeam at the San Sebastian grand prix, he was involved in a crash which left him unconscious with head injuries for several days. His riding mechanic, Tom Barrett, was killed.

The accident left Lee Guinness suffering from serious headaches, and he withdrew from record-breaking attempts and track competitions. In 1927 he sold the remainder of his interests in the Robinhood Engineering Works to Smiths, though he retained an advisory role. He also took up a directorship of the Guinness brewery firm. He married on 26 January 1928 Josephine, the younger daughter of Sir Thomas Joseph Strangman, barrister. They had a son and a daughter. He continued work on inventions, including a hydro-pulsator to treat gums by a pulsating jet of water. His health seriously deteriorated and he was diagnosed as suffering from a neurosis which left him suffering from delusions that he was being followed continuously. His marriage was dissolved in 1936. After spending time in a nursing home he was found dead in his bedroom at his home, Melbury, Kingston Hill, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, on 10 April 1937. The cause of death was asphyxia and carbon monoxide poisoning from coal gas. A coroner’s inquest recorded a verdict of suicide. He was buried at Putney Vale cemetery.


The Times (12 April 1937); (13 April 1937); (15 April 1937) · C. Ellis, ed., KLG: from cars to Concorde (1989) · D. Venables, Brooklands: the official centenary history (2007) · Burke, Peerage · private information (2013) ·

Tom Donnelly