Henry Ford is a motoring legend. The founder of the Ford motor company in Michigan revolutionised car production with the Model T “Tin Lizzie” by building it on the world’s first production line. The son of an Irish immigrant formed the global giant ‘Ford’ in 1903 but Henry never forgot his roots and when he needed to exert control over his US operation he returned to his dad’s home to establish a Ford factory in Cork in 1917 – the first purpose-built Ford factory to be located outside of North America.
The plant provided a huge lift to Cork and to Ireland. A job ‘below’ in Ford was well paid and much sought after. Even when the plant closed in 1984 (Ireland was not in a good place back then) the expertise and lesson learned from years of production delivered future movers and shakers to other multi nationals.
Cork is presently celebrating the 100 years of Ford in Ireland with special events and of course the obligatory gathering of the present Ford clan. The guest of honour has been the charismatic Bill Ford, Henry’s great grandson.
Here’s a bit of a history lesson. Henry’s father, William Ford, emigrated from Ballinascarthy in Co. Cork (50km from Cork City) with his parents and siblings in 1847 during the Famine; Henry was born in Michigan in 1863. Growing up on the family farm, Henry developed a strong interest in mechanics. At first, he concentrated his efforts on making work easier for farmers but he soon came to realise the potential of the motor car as a force for good for the development of societies across the globe. Although he cannot be credited with inventing the motor car, Henry Ford was the man who brought motoring to the masses: the affordable yet rugged vehicles he was producing through his newly invented production-line manufacturing technique – which has since been copied by practically every vehicle and machinery manufacturer across the globe. When it came time to expand the business to Europe, there is no doubt that Henry’s Cork roots played an important part in his decision to open a plant in Cork. In his own words, he hoped that the new Ford plant ‘would start Ireland along the road to industry’. The setting up of the Ford plant in Cork was the first example of foreign direct investment in Ireland, many decades before the term was even coined.
The company that he established was entitled Henry Ford & Son Ltd. and that continues to be the legal name of Ford in Ireland to this day – the only Ford entity in the world to include the full name of the company’s founder in its title. When the Cork Ford plant became fully operational, Europe was just emerging from a catastrophic World War and Communist Russia was in the midst of a huge modernisation programme so tractors were the vehicles that were most urgently needed. And let’s not forget there was bit of a todo around 1916 in Ireland that was still on the go.
The Fordson tractor was the main product produced by the Cork plant, which in 1929 became the largest tractor factory in the world. However, the factory also produced passenger models, including the iconic Model T. Indeed, the last Model T ever produced by Ford anywhere in the world rolled off the Cork factory production line in December 1928. The Cork factory also produced all the other main Ford vehicles that were sold in Europe from the 30s right up to the 70s and 80s including the Model A, Model BF and Model Y, Prefect, Anglia, Escort, Cortina and Sierra.
With Ireland’s accession to the EEC in 1973, Ireland had to comply with new rules that lifted the previous restrictions on imports of fully built motor ve hicles into the country; this, combined with a depressed car market in the late 1970s and early 1980s meant that the plant became no longer viable and, regrettably, it closed its doors.
In the intervening years, Ford has continued to be a strong player on the automotive scene in Ireland and the company has the widest network of dealers in Ireland with 52 Dealerships providing direct and indirect employment to some 1,000 people across the country. Fiesta and Focus dominate their classes and Mondeo continues to be hugely popular.
Bill Ford told us that he is immensely proud of his Irish roots but that Ford must look to the future and its roll as a mobility provider. Ford has never been in better financial shape globally and this is the precise time it must move forward to ensure its relevance in the future.
Happy Birthday Ford… And remember after all, Ford is really just an Irish company with a very large office in the USA!