Reprieve for Ford plant in Cork during a roller coaster decade

The 1970's were a time of highs and lows for workers at the Marina. As models like the Capri and Escort kept Ford as a brand leader, the global economy and industrial strife had adverse effects.

For Ford staff and management in Cork, the 1970s was a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows — not just in terms of sales, profits and turnover, but in regards to the mood of the workforce and the issue of the plant’s future.

As the decade began, Foreign Affairs Minister Patrick Hillery was deep in negotiations for Ireland to join the EEC.

Although politicians and the public were broadly in favour of this, the thorny issue of the tariffs that allowed Ford to assemble vehicles here being abolished as part of the membership cast a shadow over the future of the Marina factory.

The shadow was lifted one summer’s day in July, 1971, when the Cork Examiner splashed with the front page headline ‘Major concession for car industry’, and revealed Hillery had negotiated a 12-year protection period once Ireland joined the EEC to prepare for the lifting of tariffs.

When Ireland duly joined the EEC on January, 1973, it meant the concession would be in place until the mid-1980s.

However, this was an era of rampant inflation, and in 1972, Ford MD in Cork, Paddy Hayes, warned that car prices were likely to rise by nearly 25% that year alone — a staggering rate.

A rationalisation plan that year saw Cork become a two-car plant, producing the two best-selling cars in Ireland, the Escort and Cortina. These models were accounting for 75% of Ford sales in Ireland at the time, while around 4,000 cars a year were being exported to Britain.

Read more: Cork's Ford plant celebrated its 50th anniversary with a £2 million revamp in the 1960's

The early 1970s also heralded an unprecedented oil crisis, which had detrimental effects both directly and indirectly on the car industry.

In the subsequent recession, demand for motor vehicles in the Irish market declined drastically, from 61,276 in 1973 to 53,540 vehicles in 1974.

By early 1975, Irish car assemblers were starting to close. In the Dáil, Fianna Fáil TD Des O’Malley stated: “There have been three closures in motor assembly firms in Dublin and the total number of redundant workers is between 1,300 and 1,400 in Brittains, McCairns and Reg Armstrong.”

There was renewed optimism in the air when Henry Ford II, grandson of Henry Ford, visited the Cork plant in 1977 for the company’s 60th anniversary.

There were hopes he would announce more investment here and although that did not materialise, he boosted morale with a series of announcements.

The chairman of Ford Motor Company described the Irish operation as “a vital link in the Ford of Europe sales and manufacturing chain”, highlighted the jobs created by suppliers to Ford, and predicted a bright future for the Cork plant, emphatically denying any question of phasing out car assembly here.

Henry Ford II added that he “hoped to double the present hourly-paid workforce”, but perhaps one of his more telling remarks was: “We, as business people, go on business not on sentiment.”

Certainly, at a time of economic woe and industrial strife, Cork’s role as an assembler of vehicles left it vulnerable.

In 1978, production workers in Cork were put on a week’s protective notice as stocks dwindled owing to a four-week strike at UK Ford plants, where pay offers of 12.5% had been rejected.

Also that year, Cork dockers threatened to block components for Ford over fears the company planned to re-route its imports from Britain through Dublin.

Even so, on the models front, Ford was enjoying great success with its popular Escort, Capri and Cortina ranges, while in 1978, Ford was asked to come up with the body design for the Popemobile on John Paul II’s visit to Ireland.

The social side of life at the factory also went from strength to strength. One of the highlights of the events in the 1970s was the annual National Tops of the Town competition presented by Henry Ford & Son Ltd and held at Cork Opera House.

The 1974 event, in aid of Cork Disabled Children’s Fund, held on February 26, was entitled ‘The Rhythm Of Life’.

And after the rollercoaster ride of the 1970s, the decade ended well — 1979 was the second best year ever in Ireland for the company, with 28,500 vehicles sold and the Cork plant employed 1,150 people.

The downside was that the clock was ticking louder and louder on Patrick Hillery’s 12 year protection period on car tariffs.

It would be an issue that returned to haunt the plant a few years later.

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