1930's Cork boomed with the introduction of tariffs during a period of global crisis

Our series counting down the decades of Ford’s century in Ireland reaches the 1930s, and at a time when industries across the world were failing, the Ford Marina plant went into overdrive.

1930's Cork boomed with the introduction of tariffs during a period of global crisis

It was a decade bookended by catastrophic global crises, but for Ford and Cork, the 1930s was largely a decade of economic stability and growth, when boom more often than not overcame the spectre of bust.

The stock market crash of October, 1929, triggered the Great Depression in Henry Ford’s American homeland, while for much of the 1930s, Ireland and its nearest neighbour were engaged in a damaging Anglo-Irish Trade War.

And by the end of the decade, the world was on the brink of another devastating global conflict.

But in between, life at the Ford factory on the Marina didn’t just survive, it thrived.

This was down to a number of factors, not least Ford’s resilience and unerring ability to find new products for an expanding market.

But the key turning point that brought stability to the Cork plant was the Irish Government’s decision to introduce a protective tariff policy in May, 1932.

At the time, there were real fears that the Irish factory would have to close, given the global economic climate.

Just how damaging this would have been to Cork city can be seen by the fact that by 1930, Ford employed 7,000 people there and was the second largest employer in the Free State after the railways.

Read more: A day in the life of a Ford factory employee in 1950's Cork

In the historic general election of February, 1932, Fianna Fáil swept into power for the first time — they would be the largest party in Dáil Éireann at every election until 2011.

One of the first items in the new Government’s in-tray was to introduce an order covering customs duties on motor car bodies and parts, to protect Irish industry and jobs and boost self-sufficiency. The order introduced 75% tariffs on imported cars and eliminated tariffs on car parts.

This had the effect of discouraging the importation of complete motor cars, while promoting the assembly of them in the Free State, and, at a stroke, meant Ford could flourish anew solely as an assembler of vehicles.

The change wasn’t without pain. A year later, tractor operations were wound down at the Marina and some workers were let go, as Henry Ford & Son reconfigured itself once more.

But under a new manager, John O’Neill, Cork was soon assembling a range of models, including the new Ford Model Y with parts shipped from Britain.

The change to assembly operations, with a smaller workforce, marked a final transition and the beginning of a half-century of relative stability and success for Ford of Cork, all the way up to 1984, when the issue of tariffs this time played a pivotal role in the endgame.

The new tariffs in 1932 also led to increased competition in Ireland from other motor manufacturers who had formerly only imported cars.

Within two years there were ten other assembly plants in the Free State, turning out makes such as Dodge and Chrysler.

But despite the competition, Ford retained the majority of new car registrations and remained Ireland’s largest motor producer until 1984.

On the factory floor in Cork, the Model A was Ford’s flagship vehicle at the start of the decade, and when its production ended in March, 1932, 4,858,644 had been made in all body styles worldwide.

Its successor in Europe was the Model Y — the company’s first car specifically designed for markets outside the US — which was built from 1932 to 1937.

While early sales were hit by a combination of the ongoing recession and teething problems with the vehicle, it soon gained acceptance.

In the Free State, sales rose steadily and new records were broken regularly, despite increasingly stiff opposition. Up to the end of 1937, a total of 13,201 Model Ys had been sold in the Free State alone.

On a visit to the Ford works in December, 1937, Seán Lemass, the Minister for Industry and Commerce, was given an extensive tour and briefing by the management.

He was impressed by the plant and the amount of Irish-made materials incorporated in the cars, and a month later, the Ford dealership CAB highlighted this aspect, taking out a quarter page press advert to draw attention to their use of Irish labour and Irish-made materials.

The 25,000th car to be built by the company since assembly operations began in 1932 came off the line at the Marina in January, 1938, while the company’s 21st anniversary was celebrated three months later with an ‘open house’ involving guided tours for the public, when thousands of visitors viewed the plant.

In 1935, Ford in Ireland had its most profitable year before World War II. Profits rose to £126,680, almost double the previous year.

Its market share averaged over 60% of new car registrations and reached 71.2% of the market in June, 1936, followed by a peak of 71.7% in July.

Dealerships that year numbered 191 — of which 72 were main dealers — up from 158 in 1934.

With the advantages of being first to assemble, vigorous marketing and lower prices, Ford had become the dominant motor company in the Irish Free State.

In 1936, Fianna Fáil initiated legislation to improve working conditions, including compulsory annual leave and public holidays with pay. Previously at Henry Ford & Son, only salaried staff had enjoyed paid leave.

In spite of this change and the large number of competitors, 1937 was another excellent year for Ford. Sales continued to improve and even a protracted building strike in Dublin and Cork did not significantly affect progress.

The Model 7Y, a re-worked version of the Y and described as the first Ford car to be designed and developed in Britain, was launched in Ireland at the end of 1937, and went on to become another success.

It cost £165, compared to £140 for the Model Y and £177.10s.0d. for its nearest competitor, the 8 horsepower Morris.

For Ford in Cork, these were boom years indeed and the pride in the Marina plant went right to the heart of the city.

As Miriam Nyhan Grey, author of the book Are You Still Below?: The Ford Marina Plant, Cork, 1917-1984, observed:

“When Dubliners boasted the brewing excellence as exemplified by Guinness, and Northerners proudly laid claim to Harland and Wolff, Cork now too claimed its own important location on the Irish industrial map.”

But as 1939 played out, storm clouds were gathering. Ireland may have opted to remain neutral in the conflict that was to come, but the shockwaves of World War II would have a devastating effect on the Ford operation here.

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