A Leaf Short of Lucky

DTW recalls a well-intentioned but misguided and ultimately doomed attempt to establish a motor manufacturer in the Republic of Ireland.

1959 Shamrock Advertisement (c) independent.ie

Ireland in the 1950’s was still an impoverished agricultural economy with little industry and systemically high unemployment. The country had fought a guerrilla war of independence against British forces between 1919 and 1921. This was brought to an end by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921, which partitioned the country and enabled the establishment of the 26 county Irish Free State a year later.

However, the country then became embroiled in a year-long bitter and bloody civil war between the provisional government that supported the treaty and those who regarded it as a betrayal of the principal of nationhood declared in the 1916 Easter Rising.

The bulk of Ireland’s former heavy industry had been located around Belfast and was lost in partition. Subsidies and protective tariffs had limited success in establishing new industries during the 1920’s and 1930’s and the economy’s growth was poor. Although officially neutral in the Second World War, Ireland suffered from the ongoing privations the war caused throughout Europe. Waves of migration to Britain and the US in search of work left the country further weakened with an ageing population.

In 1957, a Californian manufacturer of commercial catering equipment, William K. Curtis, visited Ireland to meet his expatriate wife’s family. Curtis was distressed by the lack of industry, high level of unemployment and the general impoverishment he saw. He began formulating an audacious plan to do something about this. Curtis was just 25 at the time of his visit and, fuelled by a mixture of altruism and ambition, he decided to build a luxury car in Ireland for export to the United States.

Low rates of pay and cheap land would, Curtis thought, make this a profitable venture for him and his American business partner, James F. Conway. A company, Shamrock Motors Ltd. was established and a site in Tralee, Co. Kerry identified for its new factory. With no state aid available, the venture would be funded entirely by Curtis and Conway.

It took just two years for the first running prototype of the Shamrock to be built. It was unveiled on 18th April 1959 and was a large four/five-seat convertible with a fibreglass body over a pressed steel ladder chassis. The large, one-piece moulded ‘hull’ owed more to marine than automotive construction techniques.

The engine was a 1.5 litre, 51 bhp in-line four taken from the contemporary Austin A55 Cambridge, as were other drivetrain and suspension components. The Shamrock was claimed to have a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 19.7 seconds and a top speed of 90mph (145 km/h). Given its construction, it was appropriate that the handling was, to say the least, somewhat ponderous, like a schooner in a heavy swell.

1959 Shamrock feature (c) mechanix illustrated

Responsibility for the styling of the Shamrock was, inexplicably, given to Alvin Spike Rhiando, a Walter Mitty like character who claimed to be Canadian (or American) of Italian extraction, but actually hailed from Deptford in south-east London. Rhiando was a former speedway rider, motor racing driver and soi-disant adventurer with no experience whatsoever in automotive design. This lack of experience, coupled with an equal lack of any discernible talent in this field, was painfully obvious in the completed car.

At around 17′ (5,180mm) long, the two-door convertible body simply overwhelmed the modest 98″ (2,489mm) wheelbase and 51″ (1,295mm) front and 49″ (1,245mm) rear track widths. Despite its fibreglass body, the car was no lightweight at 1,910 lbs. (866 kg). The styling was an amalgam of contemporary US influences, including the panoramic wraparound windscreen (from the F-Series Vauxhall Victor) large tailfins and tall oval tail lights (from the Vauxhall Cresta PA).

One publicity photo shows a folding soft-top, but this does not appear on the production cars, which had a removable hard-top with a reverse-rake rear screen instead. Bizarrely, the car had no side windows in the doors, fixed or otherwise. Another rather impractical quirk of the original prototype was that the semi-enclosed rear wheels required the axle to be dropped to replace a wheel in the event of a flat tyre. Some surviving examples sport an enlarged rear wheel arch to obviate this problem, including the example featured in the advertisement at the head of this piece, suggesting that this was a factory modification rather than a later alteration.

A 40,000 sq.ft. factory was located in Tralee, Co. Kerry, to build the Shamrock. It was planned to employ 2,400 workers to build a projected 3,000 cars in 1960, the majority for export to southern California, where the car would be priced at $2,495, according to information released by the company at the time. Curtis was quoted as planning for an increase in annual production to 10,000 cars by 1963. The car was pitched as a cut-price alternative to the Ford Thunderbird, which cost over $1,000 more but came with a 352 cu.in (5.8 litre) V8 engine and features, comfort and performance that were a world apart from the Shamrock.

For some unknown reason, the company abandoned Tralee and moved the whole venture north to the small town of Castleblayney in Co. Monaghan, close to the border with Northern Ireland. A factory was quickly opened there, and small-scale production started.

Unfortunately, the car bombed in the US market. Curtis and Conway could not persuade any US importer to distribute it. Even the large Irish diaspora’s love for the old country could not overcome the Shamrock’s many shortcomings, including its wheezy little engine, wayward handling and poor build quality. There was no market in Europe either for a (badly) American styled behemoth that was hopelessly impractical and too large for most roads.

The factory limped on for less than a year before the cash ran out and Curtis and Conway threw in the towel. It was a genuine attempt to do some good in Ireland, but the car was hopelessly misconceived and always destined to fail. The actual number produced seems hard to quantify, but around eight survive today, three in the US and five in Ireland. Local rumour has it that that surplus bodyshells and other parts from the abandoned factory were dumped in a nearby lake, Lough Muckno.

1959 Shamrock (c) blog.consumerguide.com

Why did two apparently successful American businessmen think the Shamrock could succeed? Did they allow sentiment for the country of their forefathers to overrule their judgement? Perhaps they looked at the Metropolitan, a modestly successful small two-seater produced by BMC for the US Nash Motor Company and American Motors Corporation since 1953. That car, however, occupied the subcompact market niche that was not of great interest to the US Big Three in the 1950’s and had a ready-made existing dealer network through which it was sold.

The few Shamrocks that remain are occasionally wheeled out for St. Patrick’s Day parades on both sides of the Atlantic. All the original cars were white, but one US example has been repainted in a rather fetching and patriotic metallic green. The Shamrock has been likened to a parade float because of the overwhelming dimensions of its body on its diminutive chassis, so they fit in perfectly.

Back in 2001, the BBC’s Top Gear programme visited Dundalk, Co. Louth, to meet the owner of one of the surviving cars. Here is the feature from that programme:

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

13 thoughts on “A Leaf Short of Lucky”

  1. Goodness, what a tangled tale. Curtis and Conway must’ve had money to burn but it’s the clandestine character of Rhiando that intrigues. One can guess this chap had the gift of the gab, right time and place to earn a few quid then (presumably) hot foots it outta there when the goods were shown. Did Cutis and Conway swoon when first shown the Shamrock? Or keel over as if in a small craft on a high swell? Throw in not one but two factories and you have the makings of a film, never mind a trashy novel. As always, the real shame being the dereliction of the local economy and social impacts. High hopes from the local workforce dashed on the rocks. Just because the car was rubbish doesn’t mean there wasn’t any pride in doing a good job. A sad tale but well told, Daniel, thank you

  2. Stylist ‘Spike’ is actually more interesting than the car ! Thanks for the link, Charles.

  3. What a great piece Daniel. There was me in my ignorance assuming the ill-fated DeLorean DMC-12 was the first Irish built car.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, ckracer. We’ve got a piece in the infamous DeLorean (the man and the motor) coming up in the near future. Stay tuned to DTW!

  4. I wasn’t aware that any of these things had actually survived, much less was still drivable! The colour doesn’t help – it adds to the effect of an inverted bathtup riding on a shopping trolley…
    In a sense Spike Rhiando was ahead of the curve: I’m aware of quite a number of projects where glassfibre bodies cloaked bought in mechanicals in the sixties, extending to the seventies and even eighties (yes, Reliant, that’s you!) but were they many others in the fifties, racers and microcars excepted? Maybe with more professional styling and a bigger engine it might have had a fighting chance of offering badly needed employment for a few years.
    Finally I’m left wondering how badly Curtis and Conway burned themselves on this. Did they ruin themselves in the process of tilting at windmills in this fashion?

    1. Hi Michael, “inverted bathtub riding on a shopping trolley” That’s a brilliant description of the poor old Shamrock!

      One remaining Shamrock, the car I mentioned that was repainted green, even has its own Facebook page and, apparently, quite a jolly social life:

      https://m.facebook.com/pages/category/Community/The-Shamrock-Car-1513154025572603/

      I’m not sure what became of Curtis and Conway, but I would assume they returned to the US, poorer but wiser men.

  5. Lovely article, Daniel. I knew about the Shamrock, but it had nestled itself in a not often visited part of my brain. Fascinating story, especially that Alvin Spike Rhiando character. 866 kg might be a bit much for 51 bhp, but over five meters of car below 900 kg is quite an achievement, I reckon.

  6. I’m put in mind of Myles Na gCopaleen’s Catechism of Cliche, refer to the “It could only happen in Ireland” section.

    “The Shamrock was claimed to have a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of 19.7 seconds and a top speed of 90mph (145 km/h)”

    The expression “one for the romancing” comes to mind. The Farina Oxford VI, a couple of hundredweight heavier, but with another 10bhp, managed 82mph and 0-60 in 20.3 seconds.

    An enlightening and entertaining article, and I salute Daniel’s efforts. When I tried to research the Shamrock about 15 years ago, it seemed to have been redacted from history, with even reproducible pictures hard to find.

  7. A fascinating tale indeed, and it all really revolves around one Albert J Stevens.

    Not for the first time, a DTW article has inspired me to look further into the story. Thanks!

    I have spent an enjoyable time researching further the character the two poor American babes-in-the woods engaged to get the Shamrock up and running. The Americans seem on the face of it to have been incredibly technically naive if they thought a fibreglass 204 inch long but narrow car powered by a BMC B Series wheezer and costing $2500 was going to sell in the USA in 1959. That was a lot of money then when a full size Detroit Three car went out the door for that money or less. A 1960 Ford Falcon was $2,000. But, The Shamrock was a convertible, so there’s that. The 1900 lb weight quoted seems far too light and part of the overall, shall we say, exaggeration that Spike Rhiando, nee Albert Stevens, was well-known for in certain circles. However, despite its ugliness, the production of that fibreglass body was a solid achievement for the times.

    Unlike the current EV con artists pervading the US scene raising billions on the stock market for fantasy cars and trucks, though, Alvin Spike Rhiando was both a dreamer and a doer, the proverbial colourful character, an original.

    Rather than write an article in the comments, I’ll post links to the more relevant sites that allow those motivated to wonder at Rhiando’s rather bald-faced approach to life.

    One can start with his grandaughter Romayne Lewis enquiring of an Autosport forum crowd in 2002 to assist her in finding out more about him. Her initial enquiry repeated his various fabricated stories about his birthplace and career. but by 2010 she had pulled together a sketch of a London lad, Albert Stevens, in the possession of an imagination and chutzpah to promote himself almost beyond description:

    https://forums.autosport.com/topic/36644-alvin-spike-rhiando-my-grandfather/

    Amazingly his life had been a mystery to his own relatives, including his son!

    Then, one can read all sorts of stuff untroubled by the facts as stated by his granddaughter:

    http://500race.org/people/alvin-spike-rhiando/

    Naturally, one would expect to encounter articles written far earlier on Spike that don’t have the benefit of his granddaughter’s later research. Or newer ones like the following which although mentioning her, seem to delight in rehashing his earlier gossip rather than quoting her research, perhaps because it’s more lurid:

    https://www.independent.ie/life/the-shamrock-the-flash-and-sleek-irish-car-that-never-got-out-of-first-gear-30600546.html

    One real enigma is how Rhiando got his Trimax 500cc racing car designed, and indeed very well fabricated in 1950, following a couple of years of racing early Coopers. That Trimax accomplishment alone, which was an aluminium monocoque a dozen years earlier than Chapman’s Lotus 33, meant that he could probably rally the human resources to design the Shamrock properly. Including an X-Ray view, here is Motor Sports’ take on the TriMax:

    https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/april-2004/83/rhiando-trimax

    which is complemented by this take:

    and http://500race.org/marques/trimax/

    From a chap who was a mystery speedway dirt bike rider in East Anglia in the early 1930s, racing under two names, from which he chose to keep Alvin and Spike, not to mention his invention of Rhiando as a surname, he must have been a boastful soul who perhaps took cues from the “professional” wrestling world or circus barkers. His four stories published in Topical Tales magazine in 1939 simply reek of fantasy. Perhaps Topical Tales paid more than The Rover and The Wizard!

    Part one, Round the Wall of Death on Roller Skates!
    Part two, Thrown Out of My Car Into the Crowd!
    Part three, Adventures with the Stars in Hollywood
    Part four, Dodging Snipers on a Motor-bike!

    After making a nest-egg in the ridiculous postwar Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme that Attlee promoted along with National Health and council flats, Spike got into racing cars, presumably because he could afford it. An amazing mystery man. How the two Americans met up with him to engage him to design and produce the Shamrock would be a story worth hearing. Perhaps he bamboozled them with his tales of being Canadian or American and thus understanding the US car market, or emphasizing his claim to be on speaking terms with Jimmy Cagney and Mae West. The two well-meaning Americans seem to have been completely outmatched by their glib partner and paid the price. However, they did get eight cars as a remembrance.

    Fascinating stuff for a lockdown day.

    1. Good evening Bill. Well done on your further investigation into Rhiando a.k.a. Stevens. Was he a real-life ‘Walter Mitty’ fantasist, or just a con-artist, hiding from his past victims. He certainly did a number on Curtis and Conway, although in fairness, the project was doomed from the outset as the concept was never viable, even if it had been styled by Pininfarina.

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