Espionage has been part of motorsport since the sport began, with teams and manufacturers stealing one another’s secrets. It was, of course, a sport in which many car dealers were involved, and that profession has always had a rather poor reputation for its dodgy dealings.
Joseph Michael Kelly, known as Joe, did little to change that image – but he was certainly a colourful character…
As the name suggests, Kelly was born in Ireland in 1913, before the country won its independence from Britain. He left school at 13 and learned a few tricks working in the street markets of Dublin, before training as a railway fitter and then becoming a tram driver. He moved on to drive buses, although he ran into trouble in the late 1930s, when he crashed while racing a fellow bus driver through the streets of Dublin. He departed, rather hurriedly, so they say, to England and settled in South London, doing a bit of this and a bit of that.
He worked with road haulage firms, got married and started a family. Looking to make more money, he moved into the car trade. With Ireland being neutral, he was not in the forces.
There was a lot of money to be made from cars at the end of the war. Purchase tax was payable on all new cars, with double purchase tax on cars that cost more than £1,000. The goal of this policy was to encourage the UK manufacturers to favour exports. Domestic buyers had to sign covenants with the British Motor Trade Association committing them to not sell their cars for 12 months or longer. This meant that demand far exceeded supply and big profits could be made on covenant-free cars, particularly high-end sports cars, such as MGs, Rileys and Alvises. In order to dodge the rules, some dealers paid for new cars, but arranged for others to sign the covenants. They then sold the cars at a substantial profit. A young Roy Salvadori fell foul of such behaviour in 1949, in a legal action which stopped such activity. By then, however, a few car dealers had made small fortunes, which paid for them to go racing.
Kelly was friends with Salvadori (and others) and was soon sufficiently wealthy to buy 70 acres of land on the main Dublin to Naas highway. He established a garage called the Red Cow Service Station and still had sufficient money to buy a Maserati 6CM voiturette. He began taking part in major racing events, notably the 1949 BRDC Trophy at the new Silverstone circuit. Keen to move up the ladder he bought an Alta GP3, the first British-built Grand Prix car after the war, and in the summer of 1950 this led to an invitation to race in the British GP – the very first round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship.
Kelly enjoyed success in Ireland, where the opposition was not as strong, notably at the Curragh, with a Jaguar C-Type. He soon modified the Alta to such an extent that he decided to rename it as the IRA (Irish Racing Automobile). The initials of the car were, of course, the same as those of the terrorist group known as the Irish Republican Army, although in that period the IRA was not as active as it would become later in the decade. The cars appeared in 1952 and 1953.
Early in 1954 Kelly had a new idea. With the help of a local restaurant owner who spoke Italian, he sent a telegram to Enzo Ferrari requesting an audience. When the reply came back, Kelly was so keen to know what it said that he went to his friend’s house in the middle of the night and threw a brick through a window to wake up the poor translator. The message welcomed a visit and Kelly and his translator set off to Italy. They met Ferrari and a deal was struck for him to become the Ferrari dealer for Ireland – and to buy a 750 Monza Spyder Scaglietti. It was the first such car to be sold to a privateer, but the relationship did not develop well. The car arrived unassembled, which did not please Kelly, and he was also upset that he had been sold a car with a five-speed racing gearbox, but it arrived with a production four-speed unit.
Ferrari sent the right gearbox after Kelly complained, but was unimpressed when the car raced in a green livery. Kelly beat his own lap record at The Curragh and shared the car with Desmond Titterington in the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod. They then won the Leinster Trophy at Wicklow and the car was then driven by Mike Hawthorn in the Goodwood Trophy.
Titterington was offered a factory Jaguar drive at that point and soon afterwards, despite promising Ferrari he would not reveal the technical details of the car, Kelly handed over the 750 Monza to Jaguar, which stripped it down and analysed how it was superior to the Jaguar D-Types it raced against. The D-Types were then modified and in 1955 Jaguar won Le Mans with Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb, followed in 1956 by Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson and in 1957 by Flockhart and Bueb. Ferrari did not win again until 1958. One might argue that Kelly was responsible for these successes… In any case, he soon sold the Ferrari to Peter Whitehead.
In April 1955 Kelly crashed his Jaguar C-Type heavily at Oulton Park, in a heat for the British Empire Trophy. He went into the commentary box and suffered serious leg injuries. While recovering he met Phyllis Purcell, who would become his second wife. They settled permanently in England after that and Kelly built up a series of car dealerships in the course of the next 14 years, often trading cars and motorcycles with another dealer called Bernie Ecclestone. In 1969 Kelly sold everything and moved back to Ireland where he built up an impressive property portfolio in the 1970s and 1980s – not to mention a car collection. He competed from time to time in races and hillclimbs until he was in his sixties.
Kelly would lose most of his fortune in a property crash in the 1980s and he returned to England to settle in Neston in Cheshire. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and died late in 1993 at the age of 80.