The first half of the 1940s saw the Marina plant virtually shut down due to wartime problems. The workers there survived on scraps, while others moved to blitz-hit Dagenham to find jobs.
When Britain and France declared war on Germany in autumn, 1939, Taoiseach Eamon de Valera took to the airwaves to reaffirm Irish neutrality in the conflict ahead.
“With our history, with our experience of the last war and with a part of our country still unjustly severed from us, we felt that no other decision and no other policy was possible,” he declared.
However, the shockwaves of the war would wash over Ireland in the years ahead, which became known here as The Emergency, and would devastate the economy.
John O’Neill, manager of the Ford factory in Cork, later said: “Operations came to a standstill from 1941 to the end of 1945, owing to the inability to secure supplies due to the war. The company was completely dependent on the American and English companies.”
Initially, life continued in a surprisingly normal manner. As late as January, 1940, the Ford Prefect, the first car to have a model name and so-called because it was “at the head of its class”, was still being advertised in national newspapers.
Petrol was fairly plentiful and a liberal ration permitted motorists to travel without too much inconvenience.
The Ford company also took precautions in case of air raids and built ten air-raid shelters to accommodate its employees.
Production continued in Cork, albeit at a much reduced rate, but O’Neill saw little prospect of obtaining further supplies of parts.
By September, among Ford’s main competitors, Morris had already been out of stock for some time, but Austin, Hillman and Vauxhall still seemed to be securing sufficient stocks of assembly parts.
By the end of 1940, assembly parts for all Ford vehicles were exhausted. Sales for the second half of 1940 had amounted to 819 passenger vehicles, compared to 1,151 and 1,869 in the comparable period in 1939 and 1938 respectively.
The last 26 Ford passenger vehicles were sold in early 1941.
It wasn’t just the vehicles and their parts that dried up.
With national fuel supplies dwindling, the Irish Government introduced an order to curtail consumption. Its original rationing scheme had allowed private motorists with 8 horsepower cars an allowance of eight gallons per month. An order on January 9, 1941, reduced this to two.
The next day the Irish Times stated: “In consequence of last night’s order, private motoring for most practical purposes will come to an end in Éire.”
As petrol imports fell further, the Government was forced to reserve stocks for vital services. On January 29, 1941, it announced the elimination of petrol supplies to private owners, allowing for very limited quantities “for clergymen, doctors, veterinary surgeons and those engaged on work of national importance”.
With this, the motor trade in the Free State came to a standstill, while the Ford factory was now working at 4% capacity.
Conscious of the availability of both premises and a trained workforce, Ford sought the Government’s permission to manufacture aeroengine components for export to Britain.
However, the firm stance on neutrality meant permission was refused. Subsequently, many Cork workers volunteered to go to the Ford plant at Dagenham or the aero-engine factory at Manchester, where they endured German bombing and wartime conditions.
As the majority of cars still running on Irish roads were Fords and since new parts were unavailable until later in the war — and then only in small numbers — the company began reconditioning old parts.
Gears that normally would have been scrapped were reclaimed by welding and remachining, and marked WESP ‘War Emergency Salvaged Part’. Axle parts were made from old tram axles bought from Great Southern Railway.
The country was scoured for machine parts to keep the factory running. Later in the war, Ford looked for other ways of providing employment and contributing to the national emergency. By salvaging packing crates they were able to produce items such as wooden clogs, while nails removed from the crates were straightened for reuse by Ford employees.
Products as diverse as screwdrivers were made from old valve stems and wheeled-carriages for Irish Army Bren-guns were turned out.
The company also contributed to the defence of the Free State by arranging to import from Dearborn, via Spain, some V-8 chassis and components for use by the Army.
The V-8s were shipped to Thompson’s engineering works in Carlow, who were commissioned to build 14 armoured cars on Ford chassis. The vehicles proved very reliable and one squadron commander commented: “You could drive them from hell to eternity with no problems.”
O’Neill responded to the Government’s urgent appeal for food production by planting 60 acres of wheat and five acres of beet on Ford land.
In addition, he acquired a further 74 acres at Carrigtwohill for the cultivation of wheat and the company retained part of its workforce harvesting turf at a bog near Nad in North Cork.
Even when the war ended in 1945, there was a lull before any semblance of normality returned. In Cork, it was the spring of 1946 before production re-started. News of the imminent return to production was announced in the Cork Examiner on February 8, 1946, and the next day the paper reported that the first car, a 10 horsepower Prefect, had rolled off the line.
The company emphasised that in the short term, output would be limited and depend on assembly parts received from the US and Britain.
Plant capacity was given as 10,000 vehicles per year. Cork’s post-war range of private cars included the 8 horsepower Anglia and the 10 horsepower Prefect, which both differed little from the pre-war models they replaced, yet even at a cost of £340 for the cheapest model, demand outstripped supply.
By the end of 1949, Cork sales for the year had exceeded 10,000 for the first time ever.
Unionisation arrived in Cork that year, when the company followed the British example and accepted trade union representation of employees, via the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.