The post-war era saw a return to full production in Cork, but the economic path wasn’t always smooth. Some workers sailed to Dagenham, while those who stayed saw plenty of VIP guests.
The start of the 1950s was a time of great optimism. The ravages of the war in Europe were fading and a new consumerism was starting to take hold, fuelling a boom in car sales worldwide.
In the late 1940s, Ford in Cork had returned to full production and the new decade began well, with the 75,000th vehicle being driven off the assembly line at the Marina on July 18, 1950.
The company’s longest-serving employee did the honours, cheered on by 150 long-serving workers who between them boasted 4,000 years of continuous employment at Henry Ford & Son.
That 75,000th vehicle was a Ford Prefect, billed as ‘Ireland’s most popular car’, which on its own then outsold all other makes on the Irish market.
It would be the first of many landmarks in the decade, culminating in the 150,000th vehicle being made at the Marina at the end of 1958 — a doubling of production in just eight years.
However, these statistics conceal the fact that sales and profits dipped as well as rose in the 1950s, as various external factors came into play, such as the Suez crisis and the Korean War.
As indicated by the length of service of some of the employees in 1950, Ford was now a long-established company in Cork, and had fostered a workforce akin to a family.
This family-friendly theme was embellished by the fact that many workers joined up alongside their fathers. It was said they had oil in their blood.
When Miriam Nyhan conducted interviews with former Ford workers for her acclaimed book, Are You Still Below?: The Ford Marina Plant, Cork, 1917-84, she was struck that well over half had a family or personal link to the factory.
There was also a sense that talented workers could ascend the ladder if they showed aptitude and industry.
One man told Nyhan: “For a guy that came in, in 1955, sweeping the floor in the parts warehouse... I kind of grew with the company and grew through it and eventually ended up as a director.
“There was little employment in Cork and very few opportunities. The idea of going to third level education or university wasn’t far from non-existent.”
Soccer ace Stanley Matthews visits Ford in Cork in 1957
The 1950s was a decade of mass emigration too. Consider that about 57,000 people were born in Ireland each year in the 1930s, and around 45,000 emigrated each year in the 1950s. So a well-paid, secure job was appreciated — even among young people.
In the 1950s, up to 40 telegram boys were employed in Cork, delivering money orders.
During downturns in production, workers had the option of sailing to Dagenham, as £15 million was invested in its plant from 1950-53.
A further five-year programme of modernisation and expansion, including a new assembly plant with stamping and machining facilities, was initiated in Dagenham in 1954, costing almost £80 million.
In Cork and Dagenham, new, more modern car models were required to attract consumers.
First to be developed was the Consul/Zephyr range in early 1951. After 21 years on the market, in various guises, the Model Y, now known as the Ford Popular 103E 8 horsepower, went out of production on August 8, 1953.
In October it was replaced by the new Anglia 100E and Prefect. Both models were introduced to Cork shortly after their Dagenham debut.
There were some illustrious visitors to the Marina plant in the 1950s, with President of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford II, visiting in 1954 and President of Ireland Seán T O’Kelly enjoying a guided tour a year later.
In 1956, British film actress Anna Neagle was a VIP visitor and the following year, England soccer star Stanley Matthews toured the plant.
British actress Anna Neagle visits the factory in 1956
Those visits coincided with a dip in sales and it was 1958 before production returned to 1949 levels. In 1959, Cork Managing Director John O’Neill was succeeded by Thomas J.Brennan, another local man who benefited from the advancement opportunities provided by Ford.
Brennan had started at the plant in 1922 at 16 and went to Dagenham in 1932, where he rose to area sales manager. He returned to Cork in 1955 as general sales manager.
There was a warning of the fragility of the plant in 1959, however, when new Taoiseach Séan Lemass signalled a desire for free trade and an end to protectionism.
Any fears this could affect the tariff-free environment that had benefited Ford since 1932 were eased when a Committee on Industrial Organisation produced a report for the government outlining the structural weaknesses of the economy, which needed to be remedied before Ireland could face competition arising from free trade as it prepared to join the Common Market.
It was to be a stay-of-execution, rather than a reprieve.