Kerry – where rally legends go on holiday. Cathal Curley re-traces the 1974 Circuit of Ireland route

Kerry – where rally legends go on holiday

Cathal Curley was in Kerry last week, and he visited Slea Head for the first time since his victory on the 1974 Circuit of Ireland Rally. Kerry Motorsport News caught up with the legend (we even supplied him with the official road book from the event) and recorded his memories of that famous Easter Sunday 47 years ago.

When Cathal Curley starts talking he can’t stop.

His favourite pastime is recalling his adventures in International rallies and he will while away a whole day if anyone cared to listen long enough.

But when Cathal talks, most people will listen as he is just as good a storyteller as he is a rally driver.

And he is entitled to talk. He has been there, done that and all but made the movie.

In his career, from the mid-1960s up until the 1980s he won just about every major rally in Ireland.

His first major Irish victory was on the 1970 Ulster Rally.

He went on to win Galway, Donegal, and the Circuit of Ireland – his last international win was in the Cork ’20’in 1980.

That is a lot of storytelling.

But each and every time he talks about his illustrious past, he cannot do so with mentioning the 1974 Circuit of Ireland and Slea Head.

Driving his famous Porsche 911 2.7, the record books show he won the rally at a canter.

However, it was won and lost on the most westerly stage in Europe. And the fact that this was the first and only time Slea Head was used as a special stage on the Circuit of Ireland adds greatly to the story.

Kerry Motorsport News traced the route and historical importance of Circuit’s only visit to West Kerry in a previous article and that can be viewed here:

Curley got the opportunity to retrace the route while on a week’s holiday in Killarney last week.

“It was something I wanted to do for a very long time,” he said. “I don’t remember one yard of the stage.”

Slea Head was the 25th stage in the 1974 rally, up to this point Billy Coleman and Curley swapped seconds. The rally was a clear battle between the two rising stars of Irish rallying at the time.

A contemporary Motoring News report captures the mood perfectly.

“Every Irish rally, it seems, has to have a hair-raising cliff-top stage and the Circuit is no exception. Slea Head is some 12 miles long, most of it with a cliff on one side and the sea on the other, and it was here that the battle for the lead was settled,” explained the report.

“The long starting straight led into a deceptive right-hander that was to catch almost everybody to a greater or lesser extent. Curley admits to going within a grass blade’s breadth of going off,” said Motoring News. “

This is the corner that ultimately decided the battle and the rally.

Cathal Curley at the water splash. Photo from AutoIreland archive

“Over the course of Friday, Friday night and all-day Saturday, me and Billy would have had several close calls and moments, but nothing had disturbed me as a rally driver, on the event, except this long C-shaped corner,” Cathal told Kerry Motorsport News. “When we left Killarney on Easter Sunday morning, we were going to war.”

“I remember for a mile or so after our fright, Austin Frazer, my co-driver, kept asking me was I alright and to clam down,” he added.

Motoring News takes up the story.

“Coleman was not so lucky. His rear wing clipped the wall and buckled inwards taking the rear panel and the battery cut out switch with it. Seven vital minutes were lost while the wires were sorted out and life returned to the motor. It was just plain bad luck,” added the weekly newspaper that is known as Motorsport News today.

Billy Coleman at the famous water splash – showing damage from his earlier mishap- photo from AutoIreland archive

“I called in to see Billy on the way home,” he said. “Billy does not have happy memories of Slea Head and he has never been back to the scene of the accident. It took them an age to find the problem. It is something they should have found sooner. Billy remembers that the car was not too bad but the time loss was a result of the battery cut out switch getting damaged.”

As a side note, this event marked the last time Ford placed a battery cut out switch in the boot of a Ford Escort Mk1. From then on, they were mounted on the upper front panel near the windscreen.

Unfortunately much of rural West Kerry has been lost to progress.

Despite his best efforts and relying on a memory of 47 years ago Curley was unable to find the correct location that give him and Frazer the fright and cost Coleman over seven minutes. New road layouts and road widening schemes make the area unrecognisable to those who were racing there in 1974.

The road book does not provide any clues either, the stage details were not published in the book and instead codrivers were asked to refer to maps of the stage supplied separately.

However, Cathal will return to Tralee next May for the Déjà Vu event and Kerry Motorsport News will take him to the location we believe was the scene of the accident.

After his 1974 Circuit success, Cathal followed with one of the greatest runs of International rally wins ever recorded in a Porsche Carrera RS.

Later the same year he won the Donegal and Manx International Rallies in AUI 1500, the last right-hand drive 911 2.7 Carrera RS Sport produced by Porsche.

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