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Shamrock: Ireland’s Answer to the T-Bird

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  Shamrock

Shamrock: Ireland’s Answer to the T-Bird

Melissa Davidson
November 5, 2013

Most car enthusiasts are familiar with the DeLorean Motor Company and its iconic Irish built DMC-12 model that made an iconic appearance as a modified time machine in the Back to the Future film trilogy. While many understand the shattered hopes of a successful Irish-built sports car that the DeLorean failure represented, many forget and are even unaware that Ireland made an earlier attempt to join the world of luxury sports automobile manufacturers. In 1959, Ireland rolled out the 1959 Shamrock, a two-door, four-passenger second-generation fiberglass sports car.

The vehicle made its debut in the United States in a two-page spread in the September 1959 issue of Motor Trend magazine. The Shamrock was designed by William Curtis, an Irish-Californian who was just 25 when he began conceptualizing the car. Nearly sixteen months later by age 27, his vehicle was ready to debut and became the final fiberglass sports car to be introduced during the 1950’s. Curtis, a restaurant equipment manufacturer by trade, was inspired to build the car following a trip back to Ireland to visit his wife’s family. Shocked by the level of unemployment in the country, he set out on a mission to produce a large luxury car model for export to the United States in an effort to help the country and its people. Curtis believed that automobiles offered the most favorable prospects in manufacturing.

An Innovative but Impractical Design

A prototype of a new four-passenger luxury sports vehicle was produced bearing a strong resemblance to the Thunderbird built by Ford. The Shamrock was intended to sell for about half the price of the Ford Thunderbird. The ladder frame was built with a 98” wheelbase and was equipped with an Austin A55 drivetrain and suspension. With a weight of just 1910 pounds, the Shamrock featured a 1.5 liter B-Series engine that was used in a number of British Motor Corporation vehicles including the Nash Metropolitan. However, the Shamrock’s version of the engine only produced 53 horsepower. Curtis enlisted Canadian Formula 3 racer, Alvin Rhiando, to design the fiberglass body. The open-top convertible featured the fin-tail styling and wrap around the windscreen that was a popular feature of the 1950’s showcasing flair. The seventeen foot long Shamrock boasted the latest fiberglass technology in an effort to lower the weight of its body shell. The chassis and coil suspension were considered one of the best of its time. The vehicle’s windscreen came from Vauxhall. The Shamrock was to be originally manufactured in Tralee, County Kerry but plans did not materialize as negotiations with officials in Kerry broke down on the location of the proposed manufacturing plant and the expansion of Fenit Harbour to accommodate large vehicle transport ships. As a result, Curtis established a 40,000 square foot factory in Castleblaney in County Monaghan to manufacture the vehicle.

According to the 1959 Motor Trend article, the Shamrock, nicknamed the Irish T-Bird, was to be made available at a proposed price of $2,495. Curtis told Motor Trend that he hoped to employ 2,400 workers within the first six months of production with plans to ship approximately 3,000 Shamrock vehicles to the United States the following year. The majority of them were destined for Southern California. Based on the performance of the 53-horsepower engine, Motor Trend predicted that the Shamrock’s performance would be adequate but not outstanding while fuel economy should be good. While the legendary Shamrock seemed to offer promise, the design was equally as innovative as it was impractical.

The Little Engine that Couldn’t

After production of the Shamrock began, several design flaws became apparent. The small 1.5-litre Austin A55 engine limited the performance for a vehicle of its size and weight. In addition, the colossal overhangs prevented the rear wheels from being removed for simple tire repairs without the need to drop the Shamrock’s axle and lower the suspension first. The lackluster 51-horsepower produced by the engine proved to be inadequate for powering the Shamrock. Even in spite of the fiberglass bodywork designed to keep the weight of the car down, the four-cylinder mill could not provide much thrust. Overall, the mechanicals were a mismatch reminiscent of a small English car trying to disguise itself as one of its larger American counterparts.

In an article for Cars Magazine, writer Duncan Maxwell, noted that while the front seating was suitable, the rear seating was somewhat cramped. He indicated that although the handling of the Shamrock was on par with other sports cars in its class, the acceleration was nothing to be impressed by achieving 30 miles per hour in 6.1 seconds and 60 miles per hour in 19.7 seconds. He highlighted a number of deficiencies in the prototype including the absence of a glove box and the low ground clearance. As the vehicle entered production, the Shamrock was adjusted from the original prototype to include a glove box and rear wheel wells that enabled rear tires to be changed without issue in production models. In addition, the instrument cluster was modified and a radio was added.

Unfortunately, the largest problem for the Shamrock proved to be sales with few drivers being interested in buying it. Some suggested that it was too American for the British market while it was too small for the American market. It was rumored that Curtis had received an order for as many as 600 Shamrocks for the Californian market but like so many vehicle manufacturing efforts, financial troubles forced the project to be scrapped in the early 1960’s. The factory was eventually closed with the fiberglass bodies and other parts allegedly dumped into the local lake, Lough Muckno. In spite of its lack of success, the Irish are proud of their very own T-Bird as it reflects the nation’s ties to the assembly line and efforts to produce marques of Ireland. The Shamrock would have indeed been an interesting sight driving in the rural Irish countryside. The little engine may have been a good fit for Ireland where one must be prepared and drive defensively given the vast numbers of rural obstacles. But it might also be hard for many to imagine a cosmopolitan luxury sports car amid fields of cows and sheep.

It is believed that as few as ten complete models of the Shamrock were produced in the six months before production ended. The Shamrock is now an extremely rare car with just eight believed to remain in existence. Five are located in Ireland in Drogheda, Wexford, Castleblayney, and Killarney while three reside in the United States with two in California and one in Seattle.

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