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FEATURE: When Ford Motors came to Cork
A Fordson tractor, built in Cork from 1919, being used to advertise the Ford company in 1922. Photo: Library of Congress

FEATURE: When Ford Motors came to Cork

The story of the American motor giant who, in a time of war and revolution, opened a manufacturing plant on the banks of the River Lee

by Dr Leanne Blaney

A new family business opened their new Cork offices at 36 South Mall street in April 1917. They would only remain at these premises for a matter of months before moving to new offices at the ‘Marine, Cork’, yet the moment of their arrival is a milestone event in the industrial history of city and country alike. Henry Ford & Son Limited would remain at the ‘Marina’ until 1984, when the removal of protectionist tariffs (following Ireland joining the EEC in 1972) and increased international competition eventually forced them to close their doors. Throughout the 67 intervening years, Ford would become the largest employer in Cork and boasted one of the most substantial factories – in terms of size and output – ever witnessed in Ireland. By 1930, records indicate that 6,712 persons were employed within the factory and 16,214 vehicles were being exported to destinations as diverse as the Argentina, USA and Turkey. However, none of this would have happened had it not been for either the burning personal ambition of Henry Ford himself or the particular set of circumstances presented by the First World War.

In 1912 following a tour of Europe, Henry Ford wrote to Percival Perry, head of the Ford organisation in Britain, with the suggestion that Cork could provide a suitable location for a new Ford manufacturing centre. Ford, the descendant of Irish émigrés, confessed in his autobiography that his reason for choosing Ireland was largely personal and that his ambition was to ‘start Ireland along the road to industry’. Perry was unimpressed by the prospect of a Cork base for the business. In fact, keen to establish the factory in Southampton he actively discouraged the idea. It took the outbreak of the First World War to transform the context in which such decisions were made and as food shortages began to impact across Britain – exacerbated by the German submarine offensive against merchant ships – Ford was able to seize his opportunity. Food shortages throughout 1916 forced the British government to consider more efficient policies to increase and improve food production. One notable proposal involved the provision of £350,000 from the Treasury towards the purchase of 1,000 new tractors. These new tractors would be used to assist the skeletal national agricultural workforce who were now to be charged by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries with implementing a stringent and increasingly scientific fertilisation programme aimed at optimising food yield.

Up to this point, tractors were largely inefficient, unreliable and expensive. Most British and Irish farmers relied on horse and human labour owing to the size of their farms, the nature of work to be undertaken and the expense involved in employing mechanised labour. Moreover, such ‘tractors’ as there were, were often nothing more than crudely adapted cars, modified in such a way as their wheels would not bog when ploughing fields. Though there were other tractors on the market, crucially for Ireland, Henry Ford – well aware of the challenges that faced the farming community owing to his farm childhood in Dearborn, Michigan – had decided after the success of his Model T motorcar to set about inventing a new affordable and efficient tractor. 

Advertisements for the Fordson tractor, which were built in the Ford factory in Cork from 1919. (Images: Library of Congress)

By the autumn of 1916, Ford’s new tractor, the ‘Fordson’, was in production. As to how precisely this American-manufactured vehicle ended up being tested, in Spring 1917, by members Royal Agricultural Society in green pastures outside Birmingham in England, there are conflicting accounts. One such account has it that Lord Northcliffe, the Dublin-born newspaper magnate, and Chairman of the British War Mission to America, visited Dearborn and was so impressed by the Fordson that on his return to England had Ford’s Percival Perry arrange for a number of tractors to be shipped over. These tractors were subsequently tested, found to be satisfactory and, as a consequence, the British government decided to enter into an agreement with Ford to build a factory in Cork to exclusively manufacture Fordson tractors. A different account has it that Percival Perry, the aforementioned Managing Director of Ford in England who had been assisting the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries since late 1916 as they tried to overcome the issues relating to food shortages, was able to use his influence to convince some of his British colleagues within the government to choose the Fordson as opposed to other British or European produced tractors. 

Whatever account is correct, there is no disputing the widespread criticism that accompanied the British government’s March 1917 announcement that it had granted the Ford Company permission to erect a factory in Cork with the aim of producing 50,000 Fordson tractors a year. Only two months previously, on 10 January 1917, Westminster had, after all, passed legislation prohibiting the manufacture of all agricultural tractors within the United Kingdom unless a special licence had been granted. 

For its part, Ford brushed aside the controversy and pushed ahead with its plans. In April 1917, the month following the British government’s announcement, Henry Ford & Son was officially incorporated as a limited company under the Companies Acts of 1908 and 1913. The name deliberately differed from the existing ‘Ford Motor Company’ which had been founded by Henry Ford in 1903 and was incorporated in 1906. There exists a theory that the empowerment of ‘Henry Ford & Son’ was evidence that by 1917 Henry Ford was considering withdrawing himself from the Ford Motor Company in order to expand other manufacturing operations, which may not have been condoned by other Ford Motor shareholders. Underlining just how personal the Irish plant was to the Ford family, the company’s Board of Directors included Henry Ford, his wife Clara, their only son Edsel, Perry (whom the Ford’s considered a personal family friend) as well as two other close business colleagues. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in his memoirs reiterated the idea that it had long been Henry Ford’s ambition to build a factory in Cork. He wrote that Ford ‘was anxious to establish a motor factory in Ireland, and offered, if granted permission...to use the factory during the war for the purpose of making agricultural tractors’. 

Henry Ford and his wife Clara. They sat on the board of the Cork Ford factory along with their son Edsel and family friend Percival Perry. (Images: Library of Congress)

Ancestral ties aside, it should be stressed that by 1917 there were also sound practical and economic reasons for the Ford company to opt for Cork over other more industrialised ports situated along the British coastline. Firstly, there was the belief that Cork was in less danger of German U-Boat attacks than the rest of Britain. Secondly, Cork was geographically closer to America from where all the raw materials needed to construct the tractors would have to be imported. Thirdly, though Cork was not industrialised to the same extent as many other regions of the United Kingdom, it had a large labour-force, many of whom already had substantial experience of working in the city’s breweries and distilleries, meaning that they were experienced in factory work. These prospective workers as Henry Ford later recounted in his autobiography were used to casual labour and poor wages: with Henry Ford & Son Ltd, however, they would ‘work eight hours a day, five days a week- steadily [and enjoy a] minimum wage [of] two shillings and three pence an hour, or a sovereign a day- five pounds a week’. Given that in 1917 a survey of 1,010 working class Cork families conducted by Rev. A.M. MacSweeney had found 35% of those families surviving on less than 19 shillings per week, the readiness of Cork’s working classes to apply to work within the factory cannot be underestimated.

In his impressively researched PhD thesis for Maynooth University in 2008, Thomas Grimes emphasised how the lure of international investment and a large number of permanent jobs with comparatively high wages encouraged the Cork Industrial Development Association (IDA) and George Crosbie, owner of The Cork Examiner, to assist Ford in their search for a suitable factory site. When the proposed 136 acre site was eventually chosen – formerly the location of the city park and racecourse situated on the southbanks of the River Lee – the price of approximately £21,000 was considered reasonable to the Southport businessman Richard Woodhead, who had been appointed to act as Ford’s representative during the negotiations. Additionally, both Woodhead and Ford were aware that by locating their new factory within what was then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, any vehicles or parts manufactured within the Cork factory could be imported into the rest of Britain without incurring the increased protectionist McKenna tariffs, a 33.3% UK import tax introduced in 1915 on a range of ‘luxury’ items including motor cars, gramophones and clocks. Woodhead in particular was convinced that this loophole would ensure that Ireland rapidly came to be considered as the solution for many international companies who were keen to avoid the McKenna tariffs. He predicted that ‘it will not be necessary for Irishmen in future to leave Ireland...For the next 10 years no country in the world is going to offer better prospects for the investor of time and money than Ireland.’ 

The Grand National Steeplechase in Cork Park, the site was used for the Ford plant. (Image: Illustrated London News [London, England], 29 May 1869)

Owing to the urgent need for tractors, construction of the Marina plant began in June 1917. There had been a short delay to allow one final horse race take place on the city racecourse on 10 April 1917 – no other horse races would be held in Cork city until 1924. Still, it quickly became apparent that the site required a great deal of levelling and preparation before the factory could actually be built. Consequently, for the remainder of the war, all of the 6,000 Fordson tractors provided to the British government were manufactured not in Cork, but in Dearborn, Michigan, from where they required to be imported. It is estimated that these tractors ploughed 480,000 acres before peace was finally declared in 1918.

If the First World War had provided the impetus for establishing the Cork plant, it had run its course by the time it finally opened its doors. It was 1919 before the Marina site was operational. And an impressive site it was. At its core was a huge state-of-the-art building comprised of a machine shop, with a glass roof covering an acre, a power house, an assembly unit, wharves to shop the vehicles, and an iron foundry to pour and cast parts. In total the building covered a floor area of 330,000 square feet- just over 7.5 acres. Employing 1,800 workers, John O’Neill, who joined Ford in 1919 and would later rise to the position of Managing Director of the plant (in 1932), described the plant as being ‘ahead of anything else in Europe’ in terms of layout and equipment. Even so, when the first tractor rolled off the production line on 3 July 1919, all was not well.

The Ford Motor Company was enlisted to help both the British and American governments during the First World War. (Image: Puck, 10 March 1917)

The post-war boom in car sales was already beginning to slow down as the market became saturated with vehicles. Put simply, the number of vehicles being produced – in both Europe and America – far exceeded the number of prospective buyers and drivers. So much so, that by December 1920 the Ford Motor Company was on the brink of bankruptcy. To avoid this, the company’s Detroit headquarters kept a close eye on developments in all their international manufacturing and assembly plants, including Cork, where expectations of healthy growth were not being met. As was the case with motorcars, the tractor market was vastly over-saturated in those lean post-war years. People who could afford tractors had already purchased them, and those who could not either borrowed their neighbour’s tractor or went without. Nor did changes to Ford management help matters. Percival Perry (who had been played such a prominent role in bringing Ford to Ireland) resigned as Managing Director in Britain in 1919 and while his replacement, Edward Grace, was a capable and effective leader, he lacked the business skills, drive and vital contacts with motor and tractor dealers which could have helped generate greater business for the Cork plant. Thus while Cork produced 303 Fordson Model F tractors by the end of 1919, in 1920 the figure would only increase to 3,626. 

The Ford factory at the 'Marina' in Cork. (Image: Irish Press, 21 July 1950)

A deterioration in the Irish political climate served only to compound Ford’s difficulties in Cork. A war of independence had begun in 1919 and enveloped in the city and county of Cork in a way that a factory employing so many could hardly have remained unaffected. In the summer of 1920, Port Stewart, a key management figure who had been sent from Detroit to assist with the running of the Cork plant, wrote to a colleague in Detroit of the scary backdrop of violence, tension and fear:

‘Conditions in Ireland seem to be getting worse...a raid on city hall last night...the lord mayor and ten of his associates were arrested. It is a nightly occurrence to see armoured cars running around the street and to hear machine guns fire all night; the next morning the show windows in the main street can be seen full of bullet holes. My wife and children and myself were held up the other evening whilst we were out for a drive; we were placed under arrest and made [to] drive to the barracks between two truck loads of soldiers, with guns pointing all around us; but we got off all right without any serious mishap.’

It is testament to abilities of Percival Perry’s replacement, Edward Grace, that the Cork factory only closed on two occasions during the course of the War of Independence. His decisive actions particularly in the days after Tomás MacCurtain’s death and his strident rebuttal of sustained attempts by the IRA to smuggle arms and ammunition from America aboard shipments carrying parts and consignments for the factory ensured that Henry Ford & Son Limited’s buildings and reputation managed to emerge from the war relatively unscathed. Furthermore, over the course of the Civil War, Grace’s determination to keep the Marina plant fully operational and to ensure politics did not hinder production led Irish nationalist J.J. Horgan to write a glowing letter of recommendation to Grace’s superiors in Detroit. Horgan stated: ‘the one bright spot amidst all the turmoil is your factory a constant example of what industry and determination can accomplish.’

The fact that Henry Ford allowed the Cork plant to remain open despite the difficulties it faced during its first few years in operation and subsequently following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 is demonstrative of what John O’Neill described as ‘the generosity and determination of Mr Ford’. There is no question that it did not make any economic sense for the factory to remain open post-1922. Having realised that the demand for tractors was waning, late in 1921 the Marina had begun manufacturing parts for the Ford motor car factory based in Manchester. However, all of this appeared jeopardised by the political settlement that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, the effect of which was to place Cork outside of the United Kingdom and subject to a 22.22% importation tax on any parts produced in Cork for its UK operations. Yet Henry Ford insisted that Manchester maintain their prior agreement to import the vast majority of their parts from Cork, even though it meant increased expenditure and a reduction in the profit margins. Arguably in this instance, Ford’s actions were those not of a brilliant businessman, but of a philanthropist who understood the economic importance that his plant had acquired in the city of Cork. By 1923, approximately 15% of Cork’s bread winners earned their income directly from the plant and were it to close, it would have plunged the local economy into crisis. 

A look at the Ford factory throughout the years - Top: Jack Lynch opens the new extension to the factory in 1967. (Image: Irish Press) Bottom, left to right: A Fordson tractor on the assembly line in the Cork factory in 1919. (Image: Meath Chronicle); Eamon de Valera visiting the Ford plant in 1936. (Image: Irish Press); W. O'Connell, works manager, prepares to drive the 75,000th Ford built at Cork since 1932. (Image: Irish Press)

Mercifully, for Cork and Ireland, Ford would remain true to its promise to ‘bring industry to Ireland’ and it would continue to allow the Marina to remain in operation throughout the Economic War of the 1930s, the Second World War and beyond. Although Irish manufacturing was afflicted by a general malaise for much of the 20th century, the Ford factory paved the way not only for the introduction of the motor assembly industry in Ireland during the 1930s, it also acted as a template for subsequent international investment into Ireland. The Marina proved that with foresight, funding and the right people at the helm, Irish industry could overcome everything from violence to tariffs. Moreover, at a time when access to higher education was limited, Ford provided many of their Irish workforce with an opportunity to improve their lot: among those who entered the Cork plant as 18 year-old apprentices were a number who rose to positions of senior management not only just in Ireland but also in larger Ford factories across Europe. Among these was Patrick Hennessy who was recruited to the Marina plant on returning from service during World War I before moving to Ford’s new plant in Dagenham in 1931 to act as purchasing manager. Hennessy would subsequently be promoted to General Manager and was knighted in 1941 for his role in assisting the Ministry of Aircraft during World War II. In 1956 Hennessy was appointed Ford’s British Chairman where he was responsible for introducing the American concept of ‘product planning’ to British motor manufacturing, a concept which would revolutionise the British motor manufacturing industry and provide thousands with jobs in the post-war era.

Ford was rewarded for their dedication to Cork – and Ireland – by the unwavering loyalty of Irish consumers. During the 1930s Ford commanded over half of all sales of private and commercial vehicles in southern Ireland and even into the 1960s Ford vehicles still accounted for over a third of all vehicles registered on Irish roads. Ultimately without Henry Ford’s dedication to his ancestral home and the outbreak of World War I the history of Ireland’s motor industry would have been very different.

Dr Leanne Blaney is a social historian with a specific interest in the history of Irish transport.

RTÉ

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