PastImperfect

 

From the archives of Bob Montgomery, motoring historian

THE CIRCUIT OF IRELAND RALLY: Easter in Ireland is traditionally associated with the Circuit of Ireland Rally. Sadly, recent events are a pale shadow of this once-great motor sport event. In its heyday, the "Circuit" was a formidable challenge for drivers, navigators and cars. Its proud history stretches back to the Ulster Motor Rally of 1931 and it lists many of the "greats" of Irish and international rally sport among its winners.

The first Ulster Motor Rally was an innovative event - modelled on the Monte Carlo Rally, it claimed to be the first of its kind to be held in these islands. It had no fewer than five starting points - Belfast, Bantry, Dover, Land's End and John O'Groats.

Each competitor had to cover 500 miles to qualify, calling at route checks (often in police stations) along the way. The last 24 miles was a regularity test.

Among entries for that first event was Donald Healey who had won the Monte Carlo Rally earlier that year. However, he and all other fancied competitors were beaten by Belfast man Jimmy McCaherty in his 16 hp Austin.

For the 1932 event the mileage was raised to 750 miles and Dublin was added as a starting point.

As the competitive nature of the event grew, the organising club, the Ulster Automobile Club, sought to make the event an even sterner test of men and machine. To do so it was necessary to increase the mileage covered and this could be done only by making the event an all-Ireland trial with a route roughly following the coastline. Thus the 1936 event became the Circuit of Ireland Trial with a 1,089-miles route starting from Bangor and visiting Dundalk, Wexford, Killarney, Ballybunion, Lahinch, Clifden, Ballina, Ballyshannon, Derry, Larne and Belfast before finishing at Bangor.

Winner of this first real "Circuit" was Basil Clark who drove a 16 hp Austin accompanied by Cliff Holmes and a young Ronnie Adams.

The new event went from strength to strength until 1939 when war broke out. It restarted in 1946, although petrol rationing in 1948 caused the cancellation of that year's event.

However, perhaps the golden years of the event were the late 1960s and

1970s when it was dominated by Paddy Hopkirk in ever more powerful Minis and Roger Clark in the first of the Ford Escorts. Many great names of rallying came to Ireland to compete in the "Circuit" but few triumphed, finding the event gruelling and often with a sting in its tail.

Sadly, changes in the rules for international rallies led to the route being shortened in more recent years, with the demise of many classic special stages. Today's event may be emasculated compared to the great days of the rally, but those who, in the event's heyday, stood at Sally Gap in the Wicklow Mountains or at Moll's Gap in Kerry awaiting the leaders' passage through the stages will never forget the unique atmosphere of the "Circuit".

THE FIRST MOTOR AGENT: The world's first motor agent was Emile Roger of 52 rue des Dames, Paris, who was appointed sole agent in France for Benz vehicles in 1888. In subsequent years, Roger manufactured Benz cars under licence.

The first motor agent in Ireland was almost certainly the Dublin coachbuilding firm of John Hutton & Sons of Summerhill, Dublin, who became Daimler agents in 1898. To facilitate the sale of Daimler and other cars, they opened a showrooms at No 2 Dawson Street in 1902.