Joe Pat O’Kane
This article by Pat Burns is reproduced from Carsport Magazine March 2009. Photos are from John O’Neill, Esler Crawford and Richard Young.
“We had completed the first two days of the Donegal Rally and on the Saturday night we went out for something to eat. Tommy Tennant was navigating for me and the craic was good. I noticed that one of our service crew had disappeared, he had gone off to get his girlfriend. When I came back to our hotel, the boy was in my room with her. I didn’t want to disturb them, so I found another small room with an old camp bed inside. I spent the night there but couldn’t really sleep at all, so I got up early next morning to go to 8am mass. The mass was over in half an hour but as the rally didn’t start until eleven, I decided to park the chase car I was driving in a lay-by near the hotel and have a sleep. When the rest of the guys got up, they were all running about saying, “Where’s Joe Pat?” and somebody said I’d gone to mass, so they all went off in the direction of the chapel. If only they had gone the other way they would have seen me asleep in the car. When I did waken, I discovered my navigator had taken the Porsche out and was continuing in the rally! Needless to say it wasn’t too long before I had him stopped. And do you know what, I’m not sure if the pair who got my room ever got married! ”
Joe Pat O’Kane has competed in a vast number of motorsport events during his 50 year career. From karting and hillclimbs to racing and rallying, Joe Pat has been there and done that with the best of them. He has competed in over 200 rallies with 56 different co-drivers and has had his fair share of success along the way.
His humble beginnings in the motor trade started off in the 1940s with his apprenticeship at Chesney’s Garage in Portglenone who were Vauxhall car and Ferguson Tractor dealers. For his first year at Chesney’s, Joe Pat worked from nine in the morning to seven thirty at night, six days a week, for absolutely no pay! (That was the terms of apprenticeship in those days). The second years pay was only marginally better…
At night he would help out in the family business, the Largy Bar on the Randalstown to Portglenone Road. Once he had completed his five-year motor engineer apprenticeship, Joe Pat decided he would start up in business on his own and rented a small workshop in December 1952, just outside Castledawson where he would repair cars, tractors or indeed anything that people wanted fixing. While he was there he spotted a plot of land for sale on the Hillhead Road, along the main Belfast to Derry road, where he built a house, workshop and filling station, which is still there today and would become O’Kane Cars.
While Joe Pat was still playing football with Portglenone GAA team, the motor sport bug had already bitten and in 1960 his debut came behind the wheel of a kart, but it was not the most auspicious of starts… “I built myself a kart and went to a race down south but the chassis broke in two. The only things holding it together were the accelerator and brake cables!” So he decided to purchase a proper machine — a twin engined Fox kart — and ably assisted by life-long friend, Patsy McAllister, who was mechanic and pusher, Joe Pat competed in numerous races north and south of the border, both on tracks and airfields, but in many street races through various towns including Portrush and Ballymena — mini Monte Carlo’s!
Joe Pat was by now a well established motor trader in Mid-Ulster and in the late sixties he was approached by the Rootes Group who wanted him to be one of their dealers. This was at a time when the Hillman Imp was trying to compete head-on with the Mini, but Joe Pat was not overly impressed the first time he drove an Imp. ”When the Imp was put into production the Rootes Group discovered that the sidelights were too low and the car wasn’t road legal. So the easiest way for them to rectify this was to put higher softer springs in the front of the Imp to raise up the level of the sidelights. But these springs ruined the handling. The first time I took one out I couldn’t get it going right at all, but we soon discovered what was wrong.”
Joe Pat competed in his first Circuit of Ireland in 1965 in an Imp. He still has all the details of his first Circuit. He competed in the Touring section and the rally covered 1,028 miles. The Imp used £8 of petrol, averaging 32mpg…
With the help of Robin Eyre-Maunsell of Bairds in Belfast, Joe Pat was able to get his hands on an ex-works Imp (AKV 6B), and this car was rallied throughout Ireland. He also tried autotesting in this car but with the engine in the back and not too much power, it was never an autotest car. He had more luck though in hillclimbs and races with a full-race lightweight 998cc Imp later on.
Joe Pat went on to try Lotus Cortinas with some success but went back to the Rootes Group products with an ex-works Hillman Hunter (793TZ) and then in a Humber Sceptre (AIL 1001).
Joe Pat competed on events throughout Ireland, Scotland and three times on the Isle of Man. He also bought an ex-David Lindsay Racing Anglia which had a Lotus twin cam engine in it. He manufactured new engine mounts and, with the help of Tommy Tennant, put the Lotus power plant into an Avenger, producing the world’s first twin cam Avenger.
This Avenger (COI 521) was a familiar sight for many years scoring many class victories. But perhaps the most successful Avenger Joe Pat ever owned was another ex-works car (HDU 91OL), a 4-door 1500cc Group One car, in which, partnered by Roy Sloan, he won the Northern Ireland Rally Championship in 1977, beating many more powerful cars along the way.
A couple of years before this championship win, Joe Pat had purchased another slightly more powerful car which he refers to as a “Big Imp” — the famous purple Porsche 2.7 Carrera (GIA 444) – in which he had some great results, and is perhaps his all time favourite car, although he admits, “The 911 was maybe a bit unlucky for me.” On the ’75 Circuit of Ireland, Joe Pat was pushing hard and had Roy Sloan on the maps. They were lying sixth overall against some of the best works teams of the day when trouble struck on the way back North. “We were just outside Navan when all the spotlights went out. The standard headlamps on the Porsche were like candles and we had to start the next stage, Great Freffran, with just the headlights. Of course, there were no pace notes back then and we got caught out when we came too quickly into a tightening right. We got two wheels on the grass which dragged the car down into a deep drain. Roy got a cut above his eyebrow and we couldn’t get the car out for 3 or 4 hours. That was the biggest disappointment of my whole career…”.
“The competition was fierce then, especially when you are against CB Curley or Ronnie McCartney. Our best result in the Porsche was second overall in the Wexford Rally, but I thought I was going to win it. The first year I competed in Wexford, I was third, the next year I was second, so I thought it would be 3rd time lucky. But even before the rally started the omens were against us. Roy got delayed on the way down and rang the hotel to say that he would never make it there on time. The rally organizers put out a request over the PA system for a co-driver and I got one. But a driveshaft broke early on and that was it.”
It was around this time that Joe Pat employed Dungiven man, “Wee” Patsy Donaghy, a very capable and innovative mechanic, whose knowledge of Porsches was legendary. Indeed Patsy designed a brake-bias pedal box to overcome the dodgy Porsche brakes. It was also around the time that you could find 5 or 6 Porsche rally cars at O’Kane’s garage, just before a rally, for some of Patsy’s attention, cars which would have included Freddie Patterson’s, Phil Coulter’s and Cahal Curley’s.
Accidents were few and far between for Joe Pat, despite competing in hundreds of events. “Rallying only got expensive back then if you crashed – maybe I was a bit too careful,” he says.
But two of Joe Pat’s indiscretions are worth mentioning… “I was doing a night road rally with Roy in the Avenger in County Down, when we came into a tight farmyard with high walls on both sides. It was really mucky and we couldn’t get stopped. We hit the wall straight on and bounced straight back off it. I stuck it in gear and drove on, but I couldn’t see very well as my glasses had been knocked off in the shunt. I asked Roy to reach me up my glasses and after some scrabbling about he found them and handed them to me.
”I still couldn’t see much and thought that it was because of steam coming from the radiator until Roy said he couldn’t see anything either. We both wore glasses, both pairs had come off in the accident, and Roy had reached me his by mistake!”
”The last stage of the 1974 Circuit of Ireland was a gravel stage through Newcastle Forest which finished in the grounds of the Donard Park Hotel. The weather was good but it was difficult to see at times as it was very dark under the trees. We burst out of the darkness into brilliant sunshine which dazzled me. The road went 90 right and the left hand front wheel hit a big rock which broke the steering arm and the wheel.”
“Navigator Tommy Tennant jumped out and somehow managed to balance the Porsche by perching himself and the broken wheel on the bonnet. I drove on to the end of the stage on 3 wheels — the noise of the nearly flattened brake disc on the forest floor was deafening. We lost some time, and dropped a few places but we still won the team award.”
Another popular anecdote about Joe Pat is that he used to stand on his head at rally headquarters for fun, but he denies this. “That’s just another rumour Plum Tyndall started about me!”
Joe Pat learnt his trade on road rallies, which used to start on a Friday night about 9 or 10 o’clock and run right through until 5 or 6 in the morning. ”You had to drive as hard as you could — often it was a quick as stage rallies. But you had to be careful as the roads were not closed to the public, and around midnight could always be dangerous as you could meet people coming home from the pub!
When the national speed limits came in, that was the beginning of the end of road rallies.”
By the late seventies Joe Pat had built up a successful business, O’Kane Cars, selling and servicing Peugeot Talbot, along with rally parts sales. His two sons, Joseph (or Jo-Jo as Joe Pat calls him) and Eamonn joined him in the business and all three competed together in Sunbeams and Avengers in the eighties. The O’Kane Cars trio of father and two sons won the Team Award in the 1981 Ulster International Rally.
By then Joe Pat reckons he had competed in 14 hillclimbs, 7 races, 6 autocrosses and 220 rallies, scoring numerous victories, but it’s not in Joe Pat’s style to recount his wins — just the craic.
He also competed in the one-make Shellsport Sunbeam series and remembers some terrific battles with Richard Young, particularly at the Phoenix Park races.
Indeed the Sunbeam connection is still very evident at the Castledawson garage today with O’Kane Cars well known throughout Ireland and the UK as major supplies of competition parts for this particular classic car. With a revival in historic motorsport, the Sunbeam and Avenger have become very popular again, and O’Kane Cars have a wide customer base with regular clients as far away as France and Germany.
Now retired from the day-to-day running of the garage, Joe Pat is able to concentrate on his other great passion — classic cars – and he has a really nice collection which include a MK1 GT Cortina, a 1939 Wolseley 12 (owned for over 35 years), a 1953 Morris Oxford and a 1968 Sunbeam Stiletto with only 15,000 miles on it. Another tasty car is an ex-works Avenger Estate “chase car”, the only one left in the World, though Jo-Jo says its his!
He also has a lovely Avenger which he sold brand new in 1971 and still has the “Stop Looking — Start Driving an O’Kane Car” real window sticker. Cars that he sold in the ’70s have started to come back to him like sheep to a shepherd! Perhaps pride of place in his collection goes to a very rare Avenger Tiger (pictured) one of probably less than 100 left in the World.”
Joe Pat was instrumental along with John McLernon, Raymond McFaul and others in setting up the North Ulster Car Club, which ran the very successful Forward Trust Rally for several years. Later Joe Pat would be a founder member of the Magherafelt club, indeed some would say this club was his brainchild. He still has the original minutes of the very first meeting of this club, held in October 1980, and his original design for the Magherafelt club’s logo which is still used today.
Now aged 78 (in 2009), Joe Pat can’t wait for the milder weather to come again so he can get back working at his cars… or spectating at a rally. Indeed, it’s only a couple of years ago that he last competed in a rally — the Loughgall Historic Rally, driving a Sunbeam and navigated by daughter Fiona. Don’t be too surprised if his racing boots are dusted down again sometime very soon… just for the craic. ..