Past Imperfect


From the archives of Bob Montgomery, motoring historian

CHAMBERS MOTORS: My recent piece on the manufacture of Heinkel Cabin Cruisers at Dundalk gave rise to a number of queries from readers regarding which manufacturer, apart from Ford of Cork, was the most successful producer of cars in Ireland.

Many seem to think that the answer is De Lorean, the ill-fated project which produced a gull-winged sports car at Dunmurray in the late 1970s.

As so often seems to be the case with regard to Irish motoring history, the correct answer lies somewhat further back in the past, back as far as the period between 1904 and 1929 when Chambers Motors produced a range of cars from their Cuba Street Motor Works at Belfast. For the first 10 years of its existence, Chambers was able to boast that it was the only company manufacturing cars in Ireland and that its cars were of the highest calibre, built by the best craftsmen from the finest materials.

The Chambers brothers, Robert, Jack and Charlie came from near Downpatrick, Co Down, where their father farmed successfully. In 1897 Robert and Charlie set up their own business as general millwrights at Cuba Street, Belfast. Jack worked first in India before his health forced him to return to Britain where he took a position as receiver and then manager of Robert Wilson & Co, at the Vauxhall Iron Works in London.

They manufactured petrol engines for small launches and in 1902/3 decided to diversify their product range. As a result Jack visited France to study the latest car designs before constructing one himself.

For reasons that have never been adequately explained but were believed to centre around a boardroom dispute, Jack resigned as managing director of the Vauxhall Iron Works. He stayed in London designing a light van for Newington, but in May 1904 applied for a patent for the first Chambers car.

Information about the early years of Chambers Motors is hard to come by, but in its 1906 New Year edition, The Belfast Newsletter described the Chambers operation and the several models it was by then producing.

In 1906 Jack Chambers entered a car in the Irish Reliability Trials of the Irish Automobile Club. At this time the Irish Reliability Trials were a potent test of cars and a car that was successful in them could expect direct sales as a result of their success. The Chambers won its class in the trials and was awarded a silver medal. Jack Chambers continued to enter his cars in reliability trials over the following years to publicise their strengths with great success.

The years that followed were very much the golden years for Chambers with a procession of advanced designs being produced by the company. Amongst many innovative features was a unique design of epicyclic gearbox in the rear axle which was used for most of their production run. Chambers also made almost all of the components in its cars itself, something which was to cause friction with some of its partners down the years.

In 1914, the start of the first World War disrupted the business of producing cars and the factory turned to war work, producing munitions. By 1918 they were producing no fewer than 18,000 18lb shell cases per week, as well as aircraft parts under sub-contract to Harland and Wolff. All munitions contracts were cancelled with the Armistice and, like many firms, Chambers found it had to wait five to six years for payment for its final production, inevitably causing financial problems for the firm.

In truth, Chambers never recovered from this financial shortfall and, although it became agents for various other manufacturers in the years that followed, its end was a matter of some inevitably, finally coming in 1929 when the company was voluntarily wound-up. A sad end to a brave and surprisingly successful Irish motor manufacturing enterprise.