Wednesday 21 November 2018

The Shamrock: The flash and sleek Irish car that never got out of first gear

The Shamrock: 'A small car wearing a big American car costume,' according to one US critic
The Shamrock: 'A small car wearing a big American car costume,' according to one US critic

Damian Corless

One of the world's most collectable motor cars, albeit for all the wrong reasons, is The Shamrock, which began production in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan 55 years ago.

According to The Complete Catalogue of British Cars published in the early 1960s: "The Shamrock car was a Spike Rhiando design based on the Austin A55 engine and other components. A factory in Tralee had been acquired for the production of this glass-fibre bodied car in 1959 but only a handful were produced."

Alvin 'Spike' Rhiando was something of an international man of mystery. First making his name in the 1930s as a star of the speedway track, he was initially billed on posters and fliers as an Italian. Depending on where his globetrotting took him, he later added American and Canadian to his list of nationalities, while some enemies put about the story that he was actually a Deptford lad from south London chancing his arm, or to put it precisely "a Londoner with a touch of showmanship".

The school of thought that believed Rhiando was making himself up as he went along was bolstered by a series of ripping yarns he wrote in 1939 for the sporty Topical Times magazine.

In these pieces, Spike gave gripping accounts of his multi-crash escapades racing cars in the United States. Relating one hair-raising incident, he claimed that after being hurled from the cockpit of his car, he picked himself up, made some quick running repairs to the badly damaged vehicle and fought his way back to a third-place finish in the 80-lap race.

Other tall tales featured his stints as a motorbike rider on the wall of death and as a fearless wing-walker with Red Herman's flying circus, and stories of how he had become pally with superstars such as Jimmy Cagney and Mae West during his time as a top Hollywood stuntman.

As proof of his real mettle, he recounted his adventures running guns around the Sahara in the 1930s until he was captured by tribesmen and had to be rescued by the French Foreign Legion.

Suspiciously, two decades later, in 1953, Spike told Motor Cycling magazine that he'd recently been road-testing a new design of glass-fibre motorbike sidecar and had broken down in the Sahara desert, which necessitated his rescue by the French Foreign Legion. He later changed the identity of his rescuers to a team of French geologists.

For all his fanciful talk, there remains no doubt that he was an accomplished and celebrated racer.

The years immediately before the outbreak of World War II were the heyday of the short-lived fad of midget car racing, and Rhiando was one of its stars.

His efforts to revive midget racing fell flat in the post-war period and he turned his hand to speeding 500cc cars around the circuits at Goodwood and Silverstone where he pitted his skills against the legendary Stirling Moss. In Ireland, a midget car revival did take place in the post-war years, with one meeting at Santry Speedway attracting 6,000 people in 1948. Midget cars were hand-built using motorbike engines.

By the late 1950s, with his racing days all but behind him, Spike was brought on board an enterprise to build a big, luxury car in Ireland for the American market. The Shamrock was the brainchild of US businessmen William K Curtis and James Conway. Curtis and Conway established a company, Shamrock Motors Ltd, and earmarked a factory in Tralee, Co Kerry, as the production centre. Teething problems quickly set in, however, and the whole project was transferred to Castleblaney in Monaghan.

Early on it became blindingly obvious that, for all his undoubted prowess on the track, Spike Rhiando hadn't a clue about how to design a proper car. The proportions were all wrong, leading one commentator to describe the Shamrock as looking more "like a parade float than a car". The fibre-glass body had colossal overhangs front, rear and sides with the unfortunate upshot that if the vehicle got a puncture the rear wheels couldn't be changed without the messy business of dislocating the rear axle.

Perhaps worst of all in a vehicle designed to take on the big American gas guzzlers, the Austin A55 engine was far too puny to carry its heavy frame at any respectable speed. In the words of one US critic, the Shamrock looked "like a small English car wearing a big American car costume".

As production pressed ahead in Castleblaney, the owners talked about rolling out 3,000 Shamrocks in the first year on their way to a total run of 10,000. In the event, as few as eight or 10 finished articles emerged before cash-flow problems and negative publicity slammed the brakes on the project.

Some reports allege that after the factory shut its doors the unused parts were transported the short distance to Lake Muckno where to this day they sleep with the fishes. Alvin 'Spike' Rhiando reportedly died in Ireland in 1975. His granddaughter Romayne spoke for more than herself when she said: "Spike died leaving behind many unsolved mysteries which I would love to piece together."

From Clery's Clock To Wanderly Wagon by Damian Corless, published by Collins Press.

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