Profile: Joe Kelly

Nationality Irish
Date of Birth 13th March 1913
Date of Death 28th November 1993
Car Alta (1950-51)
Races Entered 2
Races Started 2
Best Result NC (GB 1950, GB 1951)

Before Formula One

The Irish Republic has had little association with Formula One over the years. There was the Silverstone-based Jordan team, which achieved 4 wins in a 15-year period of ups and downs. There was Derek Daly, who came close to winning the infamous 1982 Monaco Grand Prix in a year where he very much lived in the shadow of his world championship-winning Williams team-mate Keke Rosberg. Apart from these two examples, very few Irishmen competed at the top of the motor racing ladder, much less made an impression. One of them however, was present at the very first World Championship Formula One race at Silverstone in 1950.

Joseph M. L. Kelly was born in Dublin on March 13, 1913. Some sources erroneously record Argentina as his country of birth. This is false and may be a result of him putting his nationality down as Argentinian to mess with race organisers! At age thirteen he left school to work on the Henry Street Market, later moving onto the railways learning to be a fitter on the steam trains. After that he drove trams and buses in Dublin with an old friend from his schooldays whom he would often race against at the end of the night shift. It was here perhaps that the seeds of his love of motor racing were sown.

Kelly moved to England in the late 1930s, allegedly on his way to fight in the Spanish Civil War, though this has been called into question, as he had a habit of fabricating fantastic tales about his life. Some of his tales were false, but others amazingly turned out to be true! What is known about this period is that he became the foreman of the Carter Paterson factory near Wimbledon. He lived here with his girlfriend Maureen, whom he would marry during the Blitz. They had four children.

After the war, rationing was still in force in Britain. Due to the shortage of steel all buyers of new cars had to sign a covenant with the British Motor Trade Association obliging them to keep the car for at least six months and not to sell the new car on within the same period. Kelly, along with a fellow London resident – future sportscar legend Roy Salvadori – set up a scheme whereby they would obtain Alvises, Rileys and MGs and encourage other people to sign their names claiming ownership of them; they would also buy fuel for their cars on the black market. This was how their motor racing careers started.

The Maserati 6CM. Kelly always painted shamrocks on his cars as a nod to his homeland

The Maserati 6CM. Kelly always painted shamrocks on his cars as a nod to his homeland

Kelly then returned to his native Ireland, where he purchased seventy acres of land and set up the Red Cow Garage in Clondalkin, Co. Dublin. For the next decade or so Kelly would spend his time hopping between the British Isles competing in various machinery. He built a racing special based on a Riley called the IRA, which stood for ‘Irish Racing Automobile’. Apparently, this choice of acronym was not a problem when he entered it in races across the border! He also obtained an old Maserati 6CM voiturette, with which he shattered the lap record on the way to victory on the Curragh ‘short’ circuit in its June meeting in 1949. “He was one of the most successful Irish drivers, always very exciting to watch,” wrote Oliver McCrossan, a regular spectator of the Curragh races that were held from 1947-54 and at which Kelly would become a regular sight.

That same year, Kelly received an invitation to race in the first BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone. It was the first race on the circuit that did not use the runways, but instead used the now familiar perimeter roads. Also present were such big names as Alberto Ascari, Nino Farina, Luigi Villoresi, Toulo de Graffenried and Prince Bira. The race was divided into two 20-lap heats and a final 30-lap heat. Kelly took part in the first heat, placing eighth of fourteen finishers. The final heat was dominated by the Ferraris of Ascari, Farina and Villoresi, who took the top three positions. Kelly was nineteenth, four laps down in a race that also took the life of local driver Jock Horsfall.

Formula One

In 1950, Kelly purchased Alta GP3, the last of the three Alta GPs which were ever built. This particular example was equipped with a two-stage 1.5 litre supercharged straight-six engine, with a top speed of 160 miles per hour. It turned out to be a very loud machine, Motor Sport reporting that it sounded “dreadfully rough and noisy”, so much so apparently that Kelly temporarily lost his hearing from the noise! It was with this car that he entered the 1950 European Grand Prix at Silverstone, the first round of the new FIA World Championship for Drivers. A royal invitation was sent to all the motor clubs of Western Europe, requesting the best driver they had available to send to this historic motor racing event. Naturally, Kelly was chosen for Ireland. He qualified in nineteenth, beating the Maserati of Joe Fry and the Talbot-Lago of Johnny Claes. He ended the race thirteen laps down on the unstoppable Alfettas after struggling with clutch problems all day. Despite being too far behind to even be classified, Joe Kelly still set a milestone: He was the first Irishman to race in the Formula One World Championship.

The Alta at Silverstone. Unfortunately, neither car nor driver achieved what they may have been capable of, partly due to the fact that the chassis was not jigged properly. A problem Kelly didn't discover until much later

The Alta at Silverstone. Unfortunately, neither car nor driver achieved what they may have been capable of, partly due to the fact that the chassis was not jigged properly. A problem Kelly didn’t discover until much later

In 1951, Kelly once again made an appearance at the British Grand Prix. He set the slowest time in qualifying, starting eighteenth of twenty competitors, as the BRMs missed practice. He had a brief moment with Duncan Hamilton in the race where the Englishman in the Talbot-Lago tried to pass Kelly around the outside at Stowe, only to spin off the track. Once again, reliability woes impeded Kelly’s progress, the cause this time being a plug change. This was linked to a problem Kelly had been trying to fix all year, which arose from corrosion in the fuel system over the winter. First, he tried modifying the needles that were fitted to the carburetters, but to no avail. He then sought the advice of Alta boss Geoffrey Taylor, who suggested a thorough cleaning and the installment of a new fuel pump, which resulted in an excessively rich fuel mixture, the cause of his troubles at Silverstone. Again, he was too far behind to be classified in the race, fifteen laps down on José Froilán González, who had just made history by taking Ferrari’s first world championship victory.

Despite these modest performances, Kelly became rather famous in Ireland for becoming the nation’s first international Grand Prix driver. Later in life he received lots of fan mail from racing fans all around Ireland and even from fans living on the continent looking to complete their autograph books, though Kelly hated the publicity, later stating in a 1979 interview “I’m much too busy for that sort of thing.”

After Formula One

Kelly did achieve some success with the Alta though – in 1950, he finished fourth in the Ulster Trophy at Dundrod and came close to victory in the Wakefield Trophy handicap race until a last corner overtaking move by Duncan Hamilton saw him beaten to the line. Hamilton would write in his autobiography:

“The scratch man was Joe Kelly, driving his Formula 1, 1.5-litre, two-stage supercharged Alta, and it was generally supposed that he would win: not only did he have the fastest car in the race but, being a local man, he knew the circuit better than anyone else.”

He also challenged for victory in the inaugural Scottish Grand Prix at Winfield Airfield in 1951, where he battled for the lead with Archie Butterworth and local driver David Murray, before Butterworth’s engine failed on lap 13. Kelly unfortunately joined him one lap later with a broken gearbox. A fourth place in a Formula Libre race at the same circuit several months later was attributed by Motor Sport to the fitting of new Weber carburetters to the Alta to cure his problem from before, though Geoffrey Taylor clarified in a letter to the magazine that this was not the case; the car was running its original SU carburetters, which Kelly had sent back to the Alta factory in Surbiton for tuning. The confusion likely arose from the fact that Kelly had previously tried Weber carburetters as a solution in a race in Northern Ireland. In 1952, he dominated the open scratch race in the first Irish meeting of the year at Newtownards, setting a lap record of 1:05.

In June 1952, Joe Kelly gave possibly the finest performance of his career in the Ulster Trophy, one of the few races that were run to F1 regulations that year after the decision to run the world championship to F2. Competition was expected to be fierce; among the favourites were the much-flaunted BRMs of Fangio and Moss, Piero Taruffi in Tony Vandervell’s Ferrari Thin Wall Special and Mike Hawthorn’s F2 Cooper. Hawthorn was quick off the line from second and went into the lead, but Kelly – starting fifth – was even quicker and was in front by the first corner. It wouldn’t be long though before Hawthorn re-passed Kelly at Quarterlands and began to stretch out a gap. By the end of the race, Taruffi had also gotten past and Kelly had to settle for third, although he still impressively beat the Ferrari of Louis Rosier and the Talbot-Lago of Philippe Étancelin. The third place trophy Kelly received still has pride of place in the family collection.

With most former F1 races in Britain now being held to F2, finding events to enter the Alta in was becoming more difficult. In addition, Kelly had discovered that the whole time he was racing it the Alta chassis was not jigged properly, which partly accounts for the lack of performance in what was said to be a pretty solid design. To compensate for these issues, Kelly redesigned the Alta, replacing the existing engine with a Bristol unit and turning it into another IRA Special. He raced it on occasion throughout 1952-53, taking fourth with it in the 1952 Wakefield Trophy and leading the 1953 Ulster Trophy before hitting valve trouble, but then he became more interested in racing his newly acquired Jaguar C-Type, the last production model built, which was purchased from Morris Cavey of Dublin. He achieved several podiums at the wheel of the Le Mans-winning machine throughout 1953-54, including a win at Cranfield and a second place in the Leinster Trophy at Wicklow, where he also set a new lap record for sports cars. He was first on the road in this latter event after a fierce battle with Desmond Titterington but, due to the handicap nature of the event, he was only awarded second place, victory going to Bill Lacy in an MG Special. He also had another great battle with Duncan Hamilton – who had a similar C-Type Jag – at the Curragh. They both tried in vain to catch the winning Gordini of Red Gallagher, but ultimately they finished second and third, Hamilton ahead.

One man Kelly became acquainted with in the 1950s was a young Bernard Charles Ecclestone – yes, the F1 supremo himself. Only at the time he was not the man in charge of FOM but was instead a part time racing driver and motorcycle dealer. Joe and Bernie would trade cars and motorcycles with one another and were very good friends. Bernie would tell Joe of his plans to globalise Formula One, which he seemed to have even as a small-time motor dealer. Joe would tell him he was mad for thinking such a thing was possible, saying “this isn’t football”. We all know what happened next! Still, even as late as 1980 when Bernie was fully realising his concept they were on good terms with one another, with Bernie looking to buy property in Ireland from Joe. Joe’s personal view of the man?

“A non-smoker, a non-drinker he is very disciplined in most ways but my God what a gambler! I once saw him lose £50,000 in Monte-Carlo… I could talk about Bernie forever. In my opinion he is the greatest character in motorsport, or anywhere else.”

Kelly in his new Jaguar C-Type at the Curragh in 1953

In late 1953, Kelly was interested in obtaining a more exotic machine: a Ferrari to be precise. However, there was a slight problem: He couldn’t speak Italian. Luckily, he knew a restaurant owner who could and got him to write a telegram to be sent to Maranello. One early morning he received a reply, which naturally was in Italian. A frustrated Kelly, unable to read the telegram, went to his Italian friend, who was not awake at the time, and threw a brick through his window to rise him from his sleep so he could translate the message. In February 1954, Kelly travelled to Italy to meet Enzo Ferrari himself, bringing the restaurateur along as an interpreter. The first day they were in Maranello they did not get an opportunity to see Enzo, but on the second day (after waiting for two hours) they were finally taken to a big room with a long table. At the opposite end was the Old Man himself, seated in front of a large portrait of his beloved son Dino. Kelly purchased the Irish Ferrari concession on Dublin’s Townsend Street and a 750 Monza – the first example to be sold to a privateer – from Il Commendatore in exchange for 4,000 car covers and an undisclosed sum of money.

Kelly was annoyed once more for two reasons when the car arrived. Firstly, it arrived unassembled, and he had to put it all together himself at Red Cow Garage, and secondly, it had the wrong gearbox. Mr. Ferrari had agreed to supply Kelly with a racing five-speed gearbox, but the car arrived with the production model’s four-speed version. After another exchange of telegrams between Ireland and Italy Kelly was granted his wish, though he himself managed to annoy Ferrari by painting the new car in his own trademark green! More issues arose after it was found that the new gearbox didn’t match the axle, which was designed for the production model, and it couldn’t handle the new gearbox’s higher ratios. Despite this, Kelly shattered his own lap record at the Curragh and finished 3rd in the Open Handicap Final, as Oliver McCrossan writes:

“Man of the meeting was undoubtedly Joe Kelly driving a three-litre Ferrari. Lap after lap he thrilled the huge crowd as he smashed his own record which had remained unbroken since 1949.”

But it was only a matter of time before something went badly wrong with the axle. One week prior to the Curragh races Kelly had shared the Ferrari with Desmond Titterington in the Dundrod TT, where they had to retire the car after only thirteen laps due to – not surprisingly – gearbox trouble. One week after the Curragh Kelly had invited Mike Hawthorn to drive the Ferrari in the end-of-season meeting at Goodwood. Hawthorn recorded in his autobiography:

“[…] as I drove out to the start, I thought the back axle sounded noisy. The mechanics assured me: ‘They’re all like that. We’ve only just put it together’ – but I still did not like the sound of it.”

Starting from the third row, Hawthorn ran well and set the fastest lap of the race in pursuit of Masten Gregory and Roy Salvadori, before he heard “a horrible crunch and the rear axle broke”. With the whole casing split, Kelly decided to hand the Ferrari over to Jaguar despite promising the Italian marque not to do such a thing, and Jaguar promptly disassembled it, giving them a rare and intimate look at their fiercest rivals’ machinery! They found that the reason the Ferrari had been beating them so soundly at Le Mans lately was because of the five-speed gearbox that Kelly had specifically requested from Maranello, and Jaguar went on to win the next three editions of the classic endurance race. They put it back together and sold it on to Peter Whitehead, though it was later offered back to Kelly in 1957. It was clear that the manner in which Jaguar reassembled the car was a rushed job, as until very recently the car was still equipped with Jaguar master cylinders! To end 1954, the Royal Irish Automobile Club awarded Kelly the prestigious Sexton Trophy for the best overall performance in Irish road racing events.

At a meeting in Aintree in 1955 one of the works Mercedes drivers was injured, so team manager Alfred Neubauer approached Kelly with a view of signing him for the race along with the possibility of a Le Mans drive for 1956. Kelly was more than happy to drive for the team, but there was one slight problem: He was drunk! That didn’t stop him from trying to get into the car, but a repeat of Jules Goux’s famous 1913 Indy 500 performance was not on the cards. He was barely able to speak, or even stand, and Roy Salvadori had to restrain him. The chance of the 1956 drive was gone after Mercedes announced their withdrawal from motorsport in the wake of the Le Mans tragedy, and even ignoring this Kelly was involved in an incident that would put an end to his full-time motor racing career.

He recalls:

“The worst [accident] happened in the British Empire Trophy race at Oulton Park when, after a coming together with [Stirling] Moss and [Bob] Berry I went flying off the track straight through the B.B.C. commentary box, scattering Raymond Baxter, his wife and numerous spectators in all directions and injuring a marshal. I was rushed to hospital where they decided to amputate my leg. But while they were making preparations for the operation, sharpening the knife and so forth, I was making my own preparations to fly home to Dublin to my own surgeon. Thankfully, he saved the leg. It still gets painful from time to time, but I suppose a leg with a pain is better than no leg at all.”

The C-Type Jaguar in which Kelly suffered the accident was later sold to Masten Gregory, who had the car restored. This went unmentioned in the car’s history and has since changed hands for millions under the pretense that it was a totally original example!

The C-Type, barely recognisable after the Oulton Park crash

The C-Type, barely recognisable after the Oulton Park crash

While convalescing in a pub (in true Irish fashion!) Kelly met Phyllis Teresa Purcell, the woman who would soon become his second wife. She had been going out with an Aer Lingus pilot who knew him and wanted to introduce her to the Famous Joe Kelly, Ireland’s first Grand Prix driver. Needless to say, they took a liking to each other and Joe got a friend to phone the pub asking for the pilot, telling him that he was needed to cover for another pilot who had fallen ill. Kelly offered to look after the pilot’s girlfriend while he was away. Soon after, they got married, having three children. The youngest, Redmond Kelly, followed in his father’s footsteps by racing in Formula Ford in the early nineties, though sadly he wouldn’t progress further as he ran out of funds. Despite the fact that Kelly left his first family to start a second there was never any acrimony between the two, and they would always have Christmas dinner together.

Retiring from the sport, Kelly began to concentrate on his business interests, but also participated in the occasional hillclimb. He moved back to London, where he lived until 1969. During this period, he owned many car dealerships, later selling them before moving back to Ireland once again. He then became involved in the property trade, owning some of the country’s most impressive estates, such as Old Conna Hill and Wingfield House in Co. Wicklow, which was the site of a massive car collection that he built up between 1978 and 1984, amassing over forty cars, including such exotic machines as a Lamborghini Miura he bought from Rod Stewart, an Aston Martin DB5, a Ferrari Daytona and a fire engine! The latter was bought after Kelly felt he didn’t have adequate fire-fighting facilities at Wingfield, so he got it and trained his family to use it, which knocked £10,000 off the premium!

Kelly dealt with many famous people later in life. He sold property to former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, rented and sold cars to Pierce Brosnan and James Mason, and even the rock band U2 got to stay at Wingfield while they were recording their seminal album The Joshua Tree. Adam Clayton even bought a DB5 from Kelly in exchange for a Ford Sierra and £7,000.

Wingfield House. Joe was pretty well off in the 1970s and 1980s

And even in his property trading days, Kelly still competed in the odd motor race, though nowhere near as frequently as in his 1950s heyday. His last circuit race was at the wheel of a Ferrari Daytona in 1975 at Phoenix Park. He shared it with Gary Gibson, but the brakes faded after about ten laps. He still competed in hillclimbs until 1981, when at the age of 68 he finished fourth in an event just minutes away from Wingfield at Enniskerry, driving a Porsche 911 against competition that included better handling Formula Fords!

Watch: As a bonus, here’s a newsreel featuring Joe winning the same hillclimb over three decades earlier

Kelly lost much of his property in the recession of the late 1980s. Wingfield was sold in 1987 and Kelly moved once again to England, this time taking up residence in Neston, Cheshire. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and died on 28th November 1993 in Ardmore nursing home at the age of 80. He was cremated and his ashes were taken back to Ireland, where they are currently buried at Wingfield. Peggy Kennedy, motor journalist and mother of Shadow F1 driver David Kennedy, summed up Joe Kelly as:

“An incredibly astute businessman, exuding that special kind of magnetism and charm that is the hallmark of all self-made millionaires. A larger than life personality with a wonderful sense of humour. These characteristics coupled with his amazing physical stamina all combine to mould a very remarkable and powerful individual, in comparison to whom the average man-in-the-street appears like a weakling.”

These characteristics not only made him out as a successful businessman, but also as a highly skilled racing driver, arguably the finest to emerge from the Emerald Isle in the extremely dangerous era that was the 1950s.

Sources: Autosport Ireland; Challenge Me the Race, Mike Hawthorn, William Kimber; conceptcarz.com; curragh.info; The Curragh Motor Races 1947-1954, Oliver McCrossan, Dreoilín Publications; The Dundrod TT Races 1950-1955, John S. Moore, Dreoilín Publications; historicracing.com; Motor Sport Magazine; racingsportscars.com; second-a-lap.blogspot.com; Touch Wood, Duncan Hamilton, John Blake Publishing; The Wicklow Motor Races 1950-1957, Joan Carvill, Dreoilín Publications

With thanks to Red Kelly.