Erin Go Cargh: The 16 Most Interesting Irish Automotive Facts
Where do you think ‘British Racing Green’ came from?
The Irish people do many things extremely well. Those include making tweed, telling stories, producing alcohol, consuming alcohol, and convincing tourists they’ll find luck by kissing a slab of rock upon which the locals relieve themselves. (That last bit comes courtesy of my favorite Irish barkeep who is proficient in the last three activities.) The isle is not so known for its automotive culture and contributions—but there are some unique notables. So for St. Patrick’s Day we’re taking a deeper dive into Ireland’s connections to cars and racing. Feel free to impress your friends at the bar with these nuggets of wisdom over your seventh Jameson.
The first Irish car company didn’t last long:
While plenty of foreign manufacturers set up plants and cranked out models in Ireland, only a few national marques actually saw production. The first was the Alesbury, a saloon with solid tires and a 10 horsepower engine from Stevens-Duryea, a Massachusetts manufacturer. The Alesbury debuted in Dublin in 1907, and was defunct by 1908.
The second stab produced a car named The Shamrock:
Fast forward to the late 1950s and you’ll find the Shamrock, an underpowered, ill-conceived copy of American cruisers of the time. Conceived by an American businessman, the goal was to create a luxurious land barge to export to the States. Instead, a tiny chassis and enormous fiberglass body gave it an awkward appearance and heinous handling. The Austin A55 1.5 liter 4-cylinder engine (and it’s paltry 53 ponies) didn’t help matters, either. The Shamrock folks severely missed their aim of producing 10,000 cars, falling 9,992 short. Of the only eight produced, three are in the U.S. The factory paint was white, but one American owner did paint his bright green.
The Shamrock factory workers weren’t very, uh, green:
When the line died, all the unused parts were dumped into a nearby lake, Lough Muckno.
The final marque, TMC Costin, was made for racing:
In 1983, in Wexford, the Thompson Motor Company began production on a car named for its designer, aerodynamicist Frank Costin. If the two-seat roadster looks like a Lotus Seven, that’s because Costin was responsible in part for some Lotus racing chassis designs. The rear-wheel-drive car featured a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated 4-cylinder that generated 82 horsepower and 91 lb-ft of torque. Factor in a curb weight of 1,451 pounds and you’ve got a quick machine—and it campaigned well. But when TMC shuttered in 1987 for lack of funding, a mere 39 cars had been built.
The Costin begot the Panoz Roadster:
TMC sold the rights to a Costin-designed frame to Georgia manufacturer Panoz, which launched the Roadster a few years later in 1992. Panoz smartly opted for a Mustang V8 over a 4-cylinder engine.
John DeLorean got £100 million to build his DMC-12s in Northern Ireland:
While the cocaine-trafficking builder of stainless-steel sports cars had his eye on Puerto Rico for stamping out his gullwinged coupes, Ireland quickly swayed him to Dunmurry with a sizeable influx of cash. More than 9,000 DMC-12s were built in the Belfast suburb, though quality was an issue because his employees had never before worked in the automotive industry.
Hyundai is currently the best-selling new car in the nation:
The Korean brand recorded 7,109 new registrations in the first few months of 2016, eclipsing Toyota (by a mere 200 vehicles). Ford comes in third, followed by Volkswagen. The top Hyundai? The Tuscon. The only explanation here is copious amounts of Guinness must be flowing at Hyundai dealerships.
A new company wants to produce Ireland’s answer to Tesla:
Swift Composite Prototypes, an outfit from Louth, thinks they can take on Elon Musk via a small, fully electric roadster, the ALEX eroadster. They’re claiming the model, allegedly slated for sale next year, will have a 186-mile range, go from 0-62 in “under 10 seconds,” and have a 25-minute charge time. A shot across Musk’s bow, this is not.
“British Racing Green” has significant roots in Ireland:
In 1903, The Gordon Bennett Cup was the first international motorsport event to be held in the Ireland. There were seven laps on closed country roads after special legislation was passed to legalize road racing. The competing British team chose to festoon their Napiers in Shamrock Green in a nod to the isle, then a part of the United Kingdom. The hue endured, eventually becoming British Racing Green.
The Irish International Grand Prix was a thing:
It was a thing for only for three years, from 1929 to ‘31. There were two separate handicap races of open-wheel glory. For cars under 1500cc, there was the Saorstát Cup while anything over 1500cc competed for the Éireann Cup, held the following day. The action happened over 70 laps around a 4.25-mile circuit laid out in Phoenix Park, in Dublin. Sadly, an Irishman never reached the podium.
The third oldest rally in the world happens here:
The Circuit of Ireland International Rally began in 1931 and typically runs through Northern Ireland, though over the years the course has grown to incorporate big segments within the Republic of Ireland, too. In 2014, the event rejoined the European Rally Championship for the first time since 1991.
You can get some track time in Kildare:
Mondello Park is the only international motorsport venue in the nation, which has played host to everything from British Superbike Championships, Pickup Truck Racing, GT and rallycross events, karting, and motorcycle races since the track opened in 1968. It’s also home to the poorly named “Jap-Fest,” Ireland’s only annual Japanese car show, and there’s a modest museum dedicated to rally and track cars from the past three decades, located beside the 13-turn, 2.2-mile circuit.
Champion rally driver Paddy Hopkirk lost a race to save a life:
The Belfast-born Hopkirk, who won the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally, was on pace to podium again in the ‘68 London-to-Sydney Marathon. In the penultimate stage, he and teammate Tony Nash stopped to rescue the then-leading team, whose Citroen DS smashed headlong into a commuter car on a stretch of road supposedly closed to the public. Both cars were on fire when Hopkirk and Nash dragged the severely wounded occupants to safety. Hopkirk valiantly drove back to warn fellow racers and summon help.
Irishman Derek Daly dominated the 1990 12 Hours of Sebring:
In that he finished both first and second, pushing a Nissan GTP-ZXT.
"Team Ireland" was a NASCAR outfit that competed for one year in the early Nineties:
Martin Birrane, owner of the aforementioned Mondello track, is no stranger to speed. The former racing driver won the GT class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1985 and set the Irish land speed record of 176 mph in 1990 near Dublin. He dabbled in American racing a year later with Team Ireland, a Winston Cup Series entrant. With wheelman Bobby Hillin Jr., the best finish they managed was thirteenth. After fourteen races, they were forced to cease after not paying a fine demanded by NASCAR for their use of illegal cylinder heads in the Mello Yello 500.
The most prolific Irish racer was motorcycle hero Joey Dunlop: