David Mullen looks beyond Béal na Bláth at what eventually happened to the car in which Michael Collins was travelling on that fateful day in 1922.
Even had there been no ambush at Béal na Bláth and even if it hadn’t played a part in one of the pivotal moments of Irish history, the Leyland touring car in which Michael Collins was travelling when he was shot was noteworthy enough in its own right. Its afterlife, however, is stranger and more remarkable still.
Although the Leyland name became associated with the ill-fated British Leyland in the 1960s, the firm was never particularly known as a car-maker, being much better recognised for its trucks and buses. Prior to the 1970s, in fact, only one car had ever borne the Leyland name, but in its day it was able to make a convincing claim to being the best car in the world.
Flush with cash in the wake of the First World War, commercial vehicle maker Leyland Motors decided that in order to show off the sheer breadth of its engineering talent, it was going to build its first passenger car. This would be no ordinary jalopy though; this to be a sparring partner for the likes of a Rolls-Royce and, overseeing its design would be the firm’s chief engineer, the brilliant JG Parry-Thomas.
Unveiled at the 1920 London Motor Show, the Leyland Eight was nicknamed ‘The Lion of Olympia’ and boasted a huge number of technical innovations, including vacuum-assisted brakes, anti-roll bars and an enormous seven-litre, eight-cylinder engine developing 115bhp.
All of this engineering came at a great cost though — at launch, the price for the chassis alone was quoted at £2,500, nearly ten times the cost of a new Ford.
Given the Leyland’s exorbitant cost and lack of customers due to the parlous state of the world economy at the time, just eighteen cars were built, with only two surviving today, both built from leftover engines and chassis long after Leyland had pulled the plug on the Eight and after Parry-Thomas had been killed trying to break the Land Speed Record in 1927.
It’s not entirely clear who owned the fourth Leyland Eight to be built. The model, a four-seater open tourer with factory bodywork was presented by Leyland to General Sir Neville Macready, commander-in-chief of the British forces in Ireland.
It’s likely that Leyland gave the car to Macready as a sort of demonstrator, perhaps to see how the car performed in the hands of its target customers or perhaps to showcase the company’s capabilities to high-ranking British army staff in the hope of gaining military contracts in future.
According to historians Bob Montgomery and Patrick Twohig, in the process of transferring power from the British over to the new Free State government in 1922, it was noticed that Michael Collins had cast an admiring glance at the yellow Leyland.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own