Joe was born in Dublin and left school at thirteen and went to work at the Henry Street Market. Later he became an apprentice on the railways learning to be a fitter on the steam trains. But somehow ended up driving trams and buses around Dublin with an old school friend called Jimmy Golden. They used to race each other at the end of the night shift, until Joe had a crash and left in a hurry.
Joe moved to England in about 1937 or 1938, just before the War and went to work in London for Pickfords and Carter Pattersons, as they were known then. He became the foreman of the factory near Wimbledon where he lived with his girlfriend Maureen who he later married during the blitz. They had four children.
Joe returned to Eire in about 1947 and started a garage and petrol station called The Red Cow. By this time his passion for racing had begun to affect his marriage and Joe left and went back to England. He split his time between both Ireland and England.
He started racing in 1948 with a Maserati 6CM and received an entry for the 1949 Grand Prix at Silverstone by Royal invitation. He also had a Porsche that he used to hill climb in Ireland and he was often loaned other cars to race.
Then in 1950 he bought his Alta, GP3, with a 1490 cc 4-cylinder supercharged engine. He competed in the Alta in the first ever round of the Formula 1 World Championship at Silverstone on May 13, 1950. And, though this attractive machine never achieved any real success, Kelly did manage to take a second place in the Wakefield Trophy handicap race, narrowly being beaten by Duncan Hamilton's Maserati at the Curragh in 1950 on the very last corner and by less than a car's length.
He also came third in the Ulster Trophy at Dundrod in 1952 against much better opposition. With the introduction of rule changes favouring Formula 2, Kelly had his Alta extensively modified to take a Bristol engine. He raced this machine, renamed the IRA (Irish Racing Automobile), sporadically through 1952 and '53, but was far more interested in enjoying himself at the wheel of his Jaguar C-Type (particularly at the Curragh), which he raced in his inimitable hard-charging style through until 1955, when his career was brought to an end after a three-car accident at Oulton Park.
In February 1954 Kelly travelled to Italy to meet with Enzo Ferrari. He purchased a 750 Monza Spyder Scaglietti and got the Ferrari agency for Ireland. He raced the 750 Monza in the Tourist Trophy at Dunrod. Driving with Desmond Titterington they failed to finish due to gearbox problems. They then took the Ferrari to the Leinster Trophy which they won. The car was then driven by Mike Hawtorne in the Goodwood Trophy but the car suffered a rear axle failure. Titterington had just been offered a Jaguar sports car works drive for 1955 and whether this played a part in what happened next is not clear, but after the Goodwood Trophy, the Ferrari was disassembled by Jaguar to find out why Ferrari had been thrashing them so badly on a regular basis. They put it back together and at the same time, repaired the damage suffered at the Goodwood event. The car was then sold on to Peter Whitehead.
Then in 1955 he had a bad crash during qualifying for a race at Oulton Park. Kelly sustained serious injuries and narrowly escaped the amputation of a badly damaged leg. While resting up in a pub (Where else would one recuperate!)some months later he met his second wife. She was going out with a pilot from Air Lingus, who knew Kelly. He wanted her to meet the Famous Joe Kelly, Irelands first Grand Prix Driver. Kelly took a shine to her and got a friend to nip around to a call box to phone the pub asking for the pilot. They told the unfortunate pilot that he was needed as cover for another pilot who was ill. Kelly kindly offered to look after his girlfriend and that was that. They married soon after.
They lived in London from 1955 to 1969 and then sold up all the Car showrooms, the land and other business intrests and moved back to Ireland. Joe concentrated on property development. He started a car collection in the late 1970s untill 1984 amassing forty cars in all including a Lamborghini Miura SV, Aston Martin DB5, Ferrari Daytona 365, Rolls Royces, Porsche, Mercedes etc. Unfortunately like a lot of other people, he lost most of this in the property crash in the late '80s.