What was life on the Ford production line in Cork like? Here, John Brennan, who worked in the factory from 1948 to 1952, gives a vivid insight into his job.
I began my working career with Henry Ford & Co in Cork in May, 1948, just after my 16th birthday.
I was assigned to the Engine Exchange Department, which was separate from the main assembly plant. Here was where old engines returned to the factory by dealers were disassembled, cleaned up and rebuilt as good as new.
The Anglia and Prefect four-cylinder engines of the period generally needed replacing after 25,000 miles owing to factors like the lack of air and oil filters, driving conditions and gear box ratios.
A car owner could go to a dealer who, at a cost of about £10 (for a four-cylinder engine), would replace it with a factory reconditioned one. The dealer would send the old engine to the factory in a specially made green crate.
New employees in the Engine Exchange, like me, were assigned to what was called ‘the strip’ to learn what an engine looked like and how to disassemble it. More experienced hands were expected to do the job in 30 minutes for a four cylinder engine and 45 minutes for a V-8.
At the end of each day, the clerk would record the number of engines broken down and determine if production quotas had been met.
Fords was a great believer in ‘on the job training’ and in a worker’s abilities to learn quickly and find short cuts. Like most people, I knew nothing about crankshafts, pistons, valves, camshafts, tappets or other parts of an engine, but I quickly learned the ropes.
The work was messy and I often forgot that my hands were dirty from old oil as I wiped my forehead. On the way home to Passage West on the first day, I wondered why people in the bus stared at me and snickered. I didn’t realise my face was covered with oil.
On one occasion, the foreman, Mr Tom O’Callaghan was showing me some of the Bunsen Blocks used to check gauges. Previously the chief inspector of Fords, he was a stickler for accuracy. He picked up a micrometer and asked if I knew what it was.
I was familiar with it from my science classes at Sullivan’s Quay Secondary School and told him so. He asked what it was called. I was embarrassed to tell him that I only knew its name in Irish. I became known as the boy who only knew the name of a micrometer in Irish!
A typical day began by clocking-in before 8am and being on the job ready to start when the first bell rang at 7.55am. At that point, all necessary personal functions were taken care of and cigarettes extinguished, not to be lit again until the lunch bell at noon.
All workers had to wear a numbered badge in working hours, so a foreman or security person could tell if you were somewhere you were not supposed to be.
The Ford system was so thorough that there was never a need to move from your work location. All parts were in bins within arm’s length and these were constantly replenished by supply personnel. If a tool had to be replaced, there were workers available to go and get you a replacement.
The lunch bell rang at noon and the half hour break began with a rush to the large canteen. Smokers waited to have a cigarette first. Some workers brought their own lunches and could purchase a large mug of tea for a few pence.
Since it was a long time since breakfast, I usually had my sandwiches eaten by then. However, my friend, the late Noel Forde from Rochestown, worked in the canteen — he and his future wife, Anne Buckley, were two of my closest friends.
When lunch was over and the canteen staff were dining, Noel signalled to me and had a package of delicious sandwiches, chips and dessert left over from the staff dining room. I will never forget the pleasure of partaking in those items.
It was back to work at 12.30pm. About ten minutes before 4.30pm, all workers were required to clean their machines, stow away tools and sweep the area. On Fridays, the entire floor was mopped and stripped of any oil or grease.
Workers were responsible for their tools and quickly learned to be very careful about loaning them out. Occasionally, on the spot inventories were carried out and the cost of missing tools was deducted from your pay.
During one inventory, I found that the records showed I had a 4-inch paint brush from a previous assignment. These cost more than the £2 I was making weekly. I obtained an old used brush from an outside painter and turned it in as FWT (fair, wear and tear) for a new one. I then returned the new one and got it removed from my records.
Conditions were demanding, especially on the assembly lines, and based on methods and practices developed in the US factories.
Fords generally paid more than the going rate and the emphasis was continually on production/time ratios. All workers, bar those in administrative or maintenance areas, were expected to produce so many units in a specific period.
There were many benefits in Fords. It had an excellent medical facility staffed by a doctor and a nurse. Hot showers and clean towels were available after work. The factory was spotless and even had its own fire brigade.
Everything had to be done the Fords way. The work could be dull and tiring and there was sometimes tension between workers trying to complete their jobs before the constantly moving cars got to their next positions.
All components had to be installed exactly and were then tested. Any delays resulted in charge-hands and foremen becoming excited. If the Works Manager came on the scene, you knew the level of shouting was going to rise.
In the trim line, where upholstered seats and dashboard equipment were installed, as many as four men were crammed into a small Anglia or Prefect in the time allotted.
In the early years of the factory, parts were made in the foundry but this function was moved to Dagenham in the early 1930s.
As more cars appeared on the roads in the late 1940s, the work flow in the Engine Exchange was steadier than in the main assembly lines. Rather than lay off skilled workers, Ford assigned some of us to temporary maintenance work. The most common assignment was painting and the large oil tanks got the most attention.
Every piece of machinery and steel in the factory was painted battleship grey. New machines, delivered in bright colours, would be painted grey to conform with the surroundings before going into operation.
The degree of conformity was stark and boring and I carried an aversion to painting to this day.
If the assembly lines were busy, some of us younger workers would be assigned to areas that did not require much experience. The body shop, where the assembly of cars began, was a common assignment. The noise was deafening.
At the end of the body assembly line, there was a short distance before the cars entered the spray booths for their first coats of red lead primer. Car bodies were moving constantly and had to be washed down by hand to remove all metal dust.
I had two buckets of white spirits, sponges, dry cloths and an air hose. Both hands were going full time. After four hours non-stop in the morning and evening, this was quite a work-out.
The inspector would check each body before painting and rejections caused delays and brought undesirable attention.
I was always glad to get back to the less strenuous Engine Department. Years later, I met a man from Chicago who had worked in a Ford plant and did the exact same cleaning job and he agreed it was tiring!
In 1952, Ford had to lay off five workers, and I was number five on the list of seniority. My foreman, Mr O’Callaghan, personally gave me the bad news. It was time to move on with my life.
I picked up my belongings, turned in my badge and my tools and said my farewells, before getting in line with the others to pick up my stamp books and collect my final pay (still a ‘boy’s’ pay) as well as a termination bonus of £25. I used that money to move to New York, where I still reside.
I learned a great deal about life in my years at Fords and I have always looked back at them in a positive way. I received a better education about the real business world and the roles and interactions of people than if I had spent those years at the Harvard Business School.
Oh, and every new car I have bought ever since has been a Ford.
THERE were all kinds of skills required in the Ford factory — including tailors.
John O’Sullivan, of Freemount, Co Cork, worked in the ‘cut and sew’ department of the Cork factory from 1972 until its closure, making the seat covers.
He said: “I served my time as a tailor in Kanturk. A few tailors where I worked got into Ford’s and I applied for it and that’s how I got in.
“In my department, the covers were cut and sewn. Up further were other fellows putting the covers on the frames.”
There were 30 in John’s department and 20 in the frames section.
“There were two cutters and their full-time job was cutting the pieces and then our job was to sew them all together,” explained John.
“In my part, there was a long table, I suppose it was 50ft, to roll out the cloth. It would be maybe a foot thick. A stencil was put on top and it was chalked and then a man would spend nearly three days cutting all the bits and pieces out.
“When we had that done it was moved up further and they’d get the cover and steam it and put on the foam on the frame, then the cover would be put on the frame.
“There’d be another crowd inside who put the seat together and other fellas taking them down to the trim line in a trolley.
“The last stuff I was doing there, I was fitting the part of the Sierra you’d sit down on, I had 80 of them to do in the day, it would take a while.
“They were putting out 80 cars a day, mostly Cortinas and Escorts and most of them were exported of course. You can imagine how many seats they’d go through every day for 80 cars.
“We worked from 8am to 4.30pm, but it was nearly always still 5.30pm, an hour overtime at night.
“It was good to work there, They were very strict on time and things like that. Eight o’clock was eight o’clock, you couldn’t be walking in anytime at all. The money was very good. I’d say Ford and Dunlops were the best around at that stage.
“At that time you could buy a car from Ford and see it being made. You could see it coming down the lines being welded, and then see it go in to be painted, going down the trim line and the chassis line.
“There were characters there. There was always a great buzz around and a bit of ball-hopping and things like that. It was a laugh and a joke afterwards.
“We used to have rests in different places but then sat together and had great banter. You’d never be lonely there anyway, I’ll say that.
“The amount of traffic that would be coming up there at half-four in the evenings, it was like coming out of the Munster Final. You had us, Dunlops, Gouldings and ESB and I don’t know how many more. It was one car after another. Cork was much different, it’s a different city now compared to then.
“Where I was, there were 30 sewing machines one after another so you’d be able to talk to the fellow alongside you, if he wasn’t cranky or something like that!
“At that time, for the garda car, they’d have to put a zip in the roof, for them to turn on the light in the garda car. Things have changed a lot haven’t they?”
John’s first car was a Morris 2000 and he recalled: “When I got the interview, I went up to Ford’s and the security man came out and said ‘And where are you going with that?’ I said, ‘I’m going for an interview’. It was all Ford cars after that I bought, I’m strictly a Ford man.
“One day in Cavanagh’s (a car dealership), I said ‘I think I’ll buy a Toyota’ and the man said ‘No, you won’t, that’s against your religion’! So I’ve stuck with them all the time, Ford cars are great.”
John enjoys collecting vintage Fords and adds: “I’ve a Cortina now, I’ve an Anglia, a Sierra and a Capri.”
He was sad when the factory closed after he had spent 12 years there, in 1984.
“It was a fierce loss to Cork, like. When I got a job there, they were saying to me ‘Oh, you’ve a job for life’. It didn’t work out that way.
“I was in hospital when it closed. I was fond of cycling at the time. I fell off and broke my femur and was in and out of hospital.
“I was actually getting a hip replacement in 1984 when Ford’s closed. It was a fierce loss to Cork and to the surrounding areas.”
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