Adams, Ronald James (Ronnie) (1916–2004), racing driver and businessman, was one of the last of a generation of successful amateur gentleman drivers, and was well known in his native Ulster. He was born in Belfast on 8 March 1916, only son of James Adams and his Scottish wife Sarah (née Steele). Sarah Adams had been married before, and her son by that marriage, Hubert Henderson, was brought up along with Ronnie and his two sisters in the family's home, 'Moyola', Adelaide Park, Belfast. James Adams had succeeded his father William Adams (1849–1908) as chairman of a flourishing business, Derryvale Linen Company, which produced double damask table linen of the highest quality.
Ronnie Adams was educated at Rockport preparatory school, Craigavad, Co. Down, and then at Wrekin College in Shropshire. He joined the family business but, as a young man, gave most of his attention to sport and particularly to car‑driving and racing. The family's chauffeur had taught him, aged only 11, to drive, and he held a licence from the age of 13. He took part in hill‑climb races in his father's car in 1934, and in 1936 his father gave him his own first car as a birthday present. He was a co‑driver on the three‑man team which won the Circuit of Ireland rally that same year. Like others in that period, Adams had to cover his own expenses; cars were sometimes provided by manufacturers, only somewhat modified for competition, and they were not supported by teams of engineers. Co‑drivers and navigators had to be able to fix punctures or splice wires to repair the electrical system in emergency, and on many occasions Adams carried out major repairs in roadside garages.
During the second world war Adams volunteered and served in the North Irish Horse as a lieutenant until injured and invalided out in 1943. While petrol rationing was in force, he turned his attention to yachting, and competed so successfully with the Royal North Yacht Club that he was almost selected for the British Olympic team for 1948. By then he was back in motor sports; he won his classes in the Circuit of Ireland rallies in 1946, 1947 and 1948, and competed three times in the gruelling Monte Carlo rally before 1954, when he led the team that was placed sixth. The following year, starting from Glasgow in dreadful weather, he came eighth in a works Jaguar Mark VII, and was awarded the Royal Scottish Automobile Club cup as best Glasgow start in the rally. In the 1956 Monte Carlo rally, also in a Jaguar, the brake linings were causing concern, so Adams decided to sacrifice tyre rubber instead; he skidded round icy Alpine corners rather than using brakes. In a re‑fuelling accident, petrol splashed over his clothes, but he drove on without changing to safer ones. Adams, his co‑driver Frank Biggar from Dublin, and their navigator Derek Johnston from Belfast came first out of the ninety teams who had qualified, and were the first Irishmen to win the rally, and indeed the first to win a major international motor event.
The men were flown back to London by the BBC, and were interviewed on a television programme, 'Sports Review', by Raymond Baxter (who had himself competed in the rally). When Adams and Johnston got back to Belfast on 26 January 1956, a crowd of over 1,000 at Nutt's Corner airport sang the music‑hall song, 'The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo', and the two were presented with laurel wreaths. The Monte Carlo rally, like other international road races, was at the peak of its popularity in the 1950s, and Adams was a celebrity. Driving various makes of car, Adams continued to take part in rallies and hill climbs, both at home and abroad, including several East Africa safari rallies, the Alpine rally and a particularly tough Liège–Sofia–Liège event.
Following his father's death in 1954, Ronnie Adams became more involved in the family business, but the textile industry changed very rapidly from the middle of the twentieth century. Adams tried to maintain market share by introducing artificial fibres into the manufacture of damask tablecloths and napkins, to make them easy-care, but eventually, after his retirement, the Derryvale brand was sold to one of the few surviving Ulster linen companies, Samuel Lamont & Sons of Ballymena.
Doctors advised Adams to retire from racing, because of an irregular heartbeat, and so from the 1960s he had to cut back on competitive driving. He competed for the last time in the Circuit of Ireland in 1963, with a unique record of having competed in and completed the race on fifteen occasions. He continued sailing Dragon class dinghies and when his medical condition stabilised, after twenty years absence from racing, started to race classic cars including Daimlers and MGAs, in a number of events. He suffered a broken collarbone and cracked ribs when his Daimler somersaulted in a race on the Isle of Man in 1996, when he was 80. Six years later, in January 2004, his nephew organised a drive for him in a 400 h.p. Porsche Turbo on the Kirkistown circuit in Co. Down; Ronnie Adams commented that the 127 mph that he achieved that day was faster than he had ever driven before.
His memoir of his racing career, From Craigantlet to Monte Carlo: the rallies of Ronnie Adams – The first Ulsterman to win the Monte Carlo rally, co‑written by Collette Baird, was published in 2004. Ronnie Adams died 13 April 2004. His first wife Eileen pre‑deceased him, but their three sons and a daughter, along with his second wife Sheila, survived him. His family helped the Jaguar Museum in Coventry acquire several of his trophies.