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Hidden History: The Irish Motor Industry

David Levy 22 July 2011

With the advance of the pharmaceutical and technological industries in Ireland over the last fifteen years, allied with the continuing marginalisation of the Irish motorist, it is easy to forget that Ireland used to be home to a car manufacturing and assembly industry. This island could never claim to be one of the powerhouses of automobile innovation but from the opening of the Ford Cork plant in 1917 though to the latter decades of the 20th century Ireland was home to steady and highly productive motor assembly plants. R4 production in Wexford

The Shamrock of the 1950’s and the DeLorean and TMC Costin of the80’s were all short-lived but highly ambitious enterprises which at least demonstrated the possibility of designing and building cars in an industry-starved island. While the fate of Irish run enterprises such as the TMC Costin may have fallen by the wayside, the car assembly industry thrived in Ireland up until the 1980’s. The Thompson Motor Co. who built the Lotus inspired Costin also produced the RHD variant of the legendary Renault 4. Renault also had an assembly plant in Dublin along with Chrysler and Talbot.

The most significant of all though was the Ford Motor Co. plant located by the banks of the Lee. The heart of industrial Cork, the plant was a major employer in the City for most of a century and produced some iconic vehicles such as the Fordson tractor, the Prefect, the Cortina and the Sierra. The closure of the plant in 1984 was a devastating blow and in effect signalled the end of car assembly in Ireland.

The legacy of these plants can be seen even today. Ford have never forgotten their Irish roots and their offices in the Marina in Cork are the only in Europe to carry the insignia ‘Henry Ford & Sons’. Irish consumers have remained brand loyal with cars such as the Focus and Mondeo still selling strongly just as the Cortina and Escort did in the 1970’s. Vintage and classic car clubs thrive in counties such as Wexford, Cork and Dublin where they are often run by former car assembly workers. Take a trip down to Crosshaven beach in Cork and you might come across some of the beach huts that are in fact the remnants of the containers that housed the ‘Knock-down Kits’ from which Ford’s were assembled.
Unfortunately, an appreciation of the importance of the motorcar in the history of Ireland has yet to materialise at an official level. Plans for an Irish motor museum on the site of the old Ford plant in Cork fell through with the collapse of the docklands redevelopment programme and look unlikely to resurface. Meanwhile motorists themselves are becoming increasingly penalised with unjust hikes in fuel, tax and tolls forecast for 2012. While a purpose built national transport museum may never come to fruition, thankfully Ireland does possess enterprising individuals who have independently established motor museums around the country. R4 production in Wexford

If you get a chance during the summer to enjoy some of the spectacular driving routes this country does have to offer why not take some time to enjoy hidden gems such as The Kilgarvan Motor Museum in Kerry (http://www.kenmare.net/jjmitchell/) or the An Dun Transport and Heritage Museum in Westmeath (http://www.shannonregiontourism.ie/detail.asp?memberID=12173). Both offer a glimpse of Ireland’s motoring past, an aspect of our heritage that is all too quickly fading from memory.