The following profile appeared in MotorWeek on 14 February 1970. Photos have been added from various other sources.
In the early sixties, a crop of top-class drivers appeared on the Ulster rally and driving test scene but since then, with the exception of Desmond McCartney and Cahal Curley, there has been little exciting fresh talent. People such as the Woodside brothers, Robert McBurney and Adrian Boyd began making the headlines and continue to do so. Shortly afterwards, Ronnie McCartney first became known and since then has remained very much to the fore in all branches of motorsport. Before many four-wheeled motorsport enthusiasts had heard of Ronnie he was well known in the motorbike world. Riding a Dot and a Greeves in grass-track events, trials and scrambles he fast established himself as an extremely skilful and quick rider. One of his biggest successes was third overall in the 250cc Irish grass-track championship. The winner was Bertie Mann.
He was first attracted into four-wheeled competition when he competed in the 1959 Syonﬁn Hill Climb in his father’s three-week-old Singer Gazelle. He walked away with the saloon car handicap but despite this immediate success, the bug didn’t bite for some time. He continued with success in scrambles and grass-track but did compete in the odd car event. His first rally was an Omagh Motor Club event and he used a 1937 Austin Seven. He must have had a somewhat hairy reputation as he couldn’t get a navigator. Eventually, someone from a nearby army camp volunteered but they hadn’t much luck. In 1960 he acquired a VW 1200 and started to compete in local driving tests but it wasn’t until 1961 that he began to make any real impression. He first made the driving test circus sit up and take notice when he finished 3rd in Armagh MC tests at Meghaberry. To show this wasn’t a flash in the pan he went one better at the next meeting.
He also had his first attempt at the Circuit of Ireland in ‘61 and finished up in 34th position. He competed again in the Circuit the following year, again in a VW and with Bill Beattie navigating. Unfortunately, they had a wrong approach and they could only finish 5th in the class. However he continued to put up good performances in driving tests and when he bought a Mini, outright wins began to come his way.
The turning point in his career was in 1963 when he teamed up with Terry Harryman who had been previously navigating for Robert Woodside. They were an immediate success and won the Scallon Cup and Circuit of Monaghan, but had bad luck in the Circuit of Ireland when the Cooper ran its bearing on the last morning while they were in the lead. They finished 5th in the Ulster Rally Championship and, but for two retirements, would have been higher. They crossed to England and competed in the Cats Eyes rally finishing up in 11th position. This was a pretty good performance considering that local knowledge is vitally important when rallying in England and Wales.
Ronnie did even better in the driving test world and was picked to represent Ulster in the Ken Wharton Memorial Tests for the TV Trophy. An incident in a local driving test meeting before this typifies for me what has been one of Ronnie’s few failings. That is the lack of proper preparation and of last-minute rushes to get his car ready in time. He competed in a Mid Antrim Motor Club driving test meeting having borrowed a friend’s standard Mini at the start and what is more, he won!
The fact that he won shows up two of his greatest attributes, his adaptability and his ability to rise to the occasion. He shares the ability to jump into any car at a moments notice and win with a number of other top drivers, but he, most closely of all, resembles Paddy Hopkirk being able to rise to the occasion. In the TV Tests Ronnie very sensibly drove steadily and kept his end up leaving the fancy stuff to Paddy, who snatched a last-minute win for Ulster in the famous box test.
1964 was his best ever year and he and Terry won virtually every important rally in Ireland. Their most important victory was in the Circuit of Ireland in a 1071cc Cooper. The story of this event alone would fill these pages. During a special stage in Donegal not long after the start they, along with many other drivers, hit a large rock, which despite the presence of a sump guard, cracked the sump.
They managed to struggle to Sligo where they patched it up with Isopon but shortly afterwards they lost third gear. Despite this, they struggled on continually topping up with oil. They reckon they used nearly 30 gallons of oil! As if that wasn’t enough they had three punctures and had to change a fuel pump. This performance typifies Ronnie’s great determination to succeed and his never say die attitude.
Among their other successes that year were victories in the Circuit of Ulster, Circuit of Monaghan, Circuit of Munster and Double Diamond all at the wheel of a Cooper. They also competed in the Scottish and finished second in their class.
After all this, the Cooper was beginning to become tired and unreliable and so he prepared a Vauxhall Velox. One of the reasons for this odd choice was the fact that he was then working as a car salesman selling Vauxhalls. He and Terry astounded the rally world when they took the big car to victories in the Queens Winter and Night Owls rallies. This was a tremendous performance for although the Velox was fast enough in a straight line it wasn’t ideal for narrow rally roads. To crown the year’s successes he won the Ulster Rally Championship.
In ‘65 he lost the services of Terry who teamed with Paddy Hopkirk for the Circuit. Renault sent over three works prepared Gordinis and the one sensible thing they did was to give one to Ronnie. Mike Hart joined him in the hot seat but the cars all gave trouble and retired before reaching Killarney. Ronnie retired at Clougheen with gear-box trouble.
For the rest of the season he drove a great variety of cars. He and Mike took the premier award for the second time, in the Double Diamond, once more at the wheel of the Velox. They had cruel luck in the Starlight in this car, getting stuck in reverse gear while leading. He prepared a Renault Gordini and in it won the Carlsberg Safari rally.
He also used the Renault Gordini in the RAC rally with Doug Lockyear as co-driver, but they retired when a stone pierced the radiator. Undaunted Ronnie caught the first flight home, borrowed brother Desmond’s Cooper, and competed in the Enniskillen Motor Club’s last rally of the year. He and Mike finished second overall and this was enough to give them the club’s driver and navigators championship. Not a bad performance when it is realised that Ronnie had been going for three days and nights without sleep.
He was picked yet again for the Ken Wharton tests and helped Ulster to another fine victory. He and Mike drove the Renault in the ‘66 Circuit but by this time it just wasn’t quick enough and the best they could achieve was 10th overall and second in their class. However, they completed the hat trick of victories in the Double Diamond. There wasn’t a great deal of success in the Ulster Rally Championship events and they finished up fourth in the series.
Ronnie went one better in the newly named Ulster Driving Test Championship for the Paddy Hopkirk Trophy and was once again picked to represent Ulster in the TV Trophy. On this occasion he had to take second place in his class to Eire’s Conor Lenehan but despite this Ulster won once more.
The 1967 season was rather more successful with a 4th in the Circuit, this time back at the wheel of a Cooper, and 3rd in the Ulster Rally Championship. He competed in both the Scottish and Gulf London rallies but retired in both. In the latter he was only 45 miles from the finish when the front suspension broke. There was another trip back across the Irish Sea for the TV Trophy and again he was a member of the winning team.
He succeeded in persuading Peter Browning the BLMH Competition manager to sell him a works 1293 cc Cooper for the ‘68 Circuit. This was the car which Paddy Hopkirk had used to win the Acropolis rally. It didn’t bring much luck and his best event was the Erne Safari which he won. He retired in the Circuit when the front suspension broke after the Monday supper halt.
By this stage Ronnie was finding it more difficult to get time off to compete and this problem became more acute when he left the motor trade and started his own container haulage business. Driving all night through England in a lorry isn’t the best way to prepare for rallies.
Last season he decided to concentrate mainly on Autocross and driving tests and didn’t compete in the Circuit. He prepared a very quick 1293 cc Cooper ‘S’ and with it won his way into the Player’s No. 6. Auto-cross final. Just before leaving to catch the Larne Stranraer ferry he discovered he had little oil pressure. Rather than miss the boat he and Rob Pollock drove to Larne, started to take the engine out on the quay, continued on board the boat and finished the repair on the Stranraer quay. All this trouble was well worth it when he won his class beating the hot favourite Norman Harvey.
Yet once more he was chosen for the Ulster driving test team and once more thrilled millions of television viewers with another display of faultless driving . . .well almost faultless!
Ronnie is probably the best all-round driver in Ulster and has competed successfully in rallies driving tests, autocross, sprints, hill climbs and on motorbikes. He can always be relied on to put up a good show and has always been extremely safe despite his early hairy reputation. For the future he hasn’t really any plans, although he intends to compete in the Circuit with Rob Pollock as mechanic / co-driver. Doubtlessly we shall see him competing in driving test and auto-cross. Things wouldn’t be the same without Ronnie and his entourage arriving with just a few minutes to spare and then going out and setting up FTD.