Ford: American revolution, Irish roots

Workers on the first moving assembly line at Highland Park, Michigan in 1913.

The Ford Motor Company may be a stalwart of Detroit, but its roots are very much anchored in Ireland. Though founder Henry Ford was born in Michigan in 1863, his father William Ford (with his siblings and parents) had emigrated from Ballinascarthy, Co Cork to the US in 1847 to escape the Great Irish Famine.

Ford’s interest in mechanics was sparked on the family farm in Greenfield Township, Michigan; though he initially concentrated on making work easier for farmers, he quickly realised the potential of the motor car. His mother died when he was 13 and three years later, with no interest in taking over the farm, Ford left to find work in Detroit, becoming an apprentice machinist.

Though he returned to the farm for several years, in 1891 he took a job as an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company, founded a decade earlier by Thomas Edison to build electrical generating stations. Within two years Ford was promoted to chief engineer, with the time and funds to focus on experimenting with petrol engines, which lead to the creation of his first automobile, the Ford Quadricycle. Consisting of a simple frame, four bicycle wheels and an ethanol-powered two cylinder engine, the Quadricycle featured two gears, four horsepower and a top speed of 32km/h. Encouraged by Edison, Ford built a second vehicle and in 1903, following several unsuccessful partnerships, founded the Ford Motor Company.

Ford in Cork

Fast forward 10 years and Ford’s company was a brand to be reckoned with, building a range of vehicles at affordable prices. The Model T had been introduced in 1908 and proved wildly successful, aided by the development of the world’s first moving assembly line in 1913, opening the world of automobile transportation to middle America. Within days of its release, 15,000 orders had been placed. By 1927, the 15 millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line in Highland Park, Michigan.

“I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for,” Ford said of the Model T. “It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

A 1910 Model T Ford in Salt Lake City, Utah, photographed for an advert by Harry Shipler of Shipler Commercial Photographers.

With this growth came opportunities beyond the USA’s borders. Ford of Canada was founded in 1904, while Ford of Britain began operations in 1909, alongside factories in other markets in the following years including Germany, Argentina and Japan.

Ireland was another early addition to this list. The first Ford cars seen in the country arrived in 1907, with three examples of the Model N displayed at the Irish Motor Show in the grounds of the Royal Dublin Society. Though the Model N proved difficult to sell in the early days, the Model T was an instant success, and in 1913 600 Ford cars were sold in Ireland.

Ford’s first trip back to the family homeland came during the summer of 1912. Travelling through Europe with Ford officials, he spent time in Cork, Bandon and Clonakilty and – for the first time in 65 years – a Ford stepped foot in Queenstown. There’s no doubt that the Ford family’s roots in Ireland led to the decision to open a plant in Cork in 1917 – 100 years ago today. Ford historian Bob Kreipke writes that “He knew what he was able to do socially and economically in the United States, and he figured that he could apply that model to the depressed area of Cork.” Ford himself said that a plant should “start Ireland along the road to industry,” and he established Henry Ford & Son Ltd, which began as a private venture and was later incorporated as a division of the Ford Motor Company.

As Europe was beginning to emerge from the ravages of World War I, and with a huge modernisation programme underway in Communist Russia, Henry Ford & Son Ltd – based on the Marina in Cork city – began to produce the Fordson tractor, and by 1929 was the largest tractor factory in the world. However, passenger models were also produced along the River Lee, including the iconic Model T – the last Model T produced in the world was built on the assembly line in Cork in December 1928.

Growth and decline

An important facet of Cork’s economic landscape, Ford in Cork celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1967, marked with a £2 million investment programme to modernise the assembly plant, which became the largest and most modern factory in the country. A further £2 million investment following the formation of Ford of Europe in the same year meant that the standard of the facilities in Cork equalled any other across Europe. A new approach saw the Cork factory become a two-car plant, producing the two best selling cars in Ireland at the time – the Escort and Cortina – which represented 75% of Ford sales in the country (and exports of around 4,000 cars to Britain every year).

However, Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 sounded the death knell for a factory that produced all of the main Ford models sold in Europe from the 1930s until the 1980s, including the Model T, Model BF, Prefect, Anglia, Escort, Cortina and Sierrra. New rules that removed vehicle import restrictions, combined with a reduced market in the late 1970s and 1980s, reduced the plant’s viability, and Ford’s Irish arm was believed to be losing millions each year.

“It doesn’t call for much logic to realise that an Irish car-assembly industry makes no economic sense. It was anyway a hangover from the 1930s when Eamon de Valera was preaching virtuous self-sufficiency,” Andrew Hamilton wrote in The Irish Times in late 1983. “Motor assembly was nothing more than an expensive job-creation programme and the customers who were the motorists of Ireland paid for it. A crate of parts for local assembly usually cost as much to ship into Ireland as a complete car landed fully built up.” In 1984 that logic apparently prevailed, and the plant closed its doors for good.

The Ford plant in Cork
Looking back

Ford’s legacy is unmistakable, transforming the automobile from an expensive plaything for the wealthy to practical transportation that the average citizen could afford, and revolutionising American industry through mass production of goods coupled with high wages for workers. But his legacy was also felt on the streets of Cork city. Throughout the decades the plant operated on the Marina, thousands of workers were afforded the opportunity to earn a living wage, sustaining families through lean years and providing career prospects where otherwise there may have been none.

Though Henry Ford & Son Ltd no longer makes cars on Irish shores, it still operates as a sales organisation overseeing 60 Ford dealerships across the country. This week the company is making the most of its centenary, marking its 100-year presence in Ireland with a week-long series of activities and events, some of which will be attended by Ford Motor Company executive chairman William Clay Ford Jr, a great-grandson of Henry Ford.

“I am excited and honored to be coming home to Cork to celebrate 100 years of Ford in Ireland,” Ford said. “Ford has deep roots in Cork, not only through my family’s historical connection, but also through the impact that the Ford factory has had as an engine for prosperity for the area over many decades.”

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