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