Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 11 July 2019
Tales from 1919: The First Fordson Tractor
In late June 1919, citizens of Cork welcomed the announcement that Mr Edward Grace, Managing Director with a party of engineers from Messrs Ford’s Tractor Works had arrived in Cork to expedite the completion of the Marina factory. There were visible signs of big developments at the works. The glass roof on the newly erected iron work was making rapid progress as well as the installation of the large amounts of glass work in the main buildings. The First World War was deemed responsible for the building delay. Many cargoes of materials such as steel fell victim to submarines attacks off the Irish coast.
By 3 July 1919, the first Ford tractor left the assembly line. An obligatory commemorative picture was taken at the time. In addition, the Cork Examiner carried a notice that from 30 June 1919 hours and pay were posted up at the office of the tractor works. The work hours were Monday to Friday inclusive, 8am to 4.30pm with a half hour lunch break from 12.30 to 1pm. Saturday’s hours were 8am to 12pm. The total working hours were therefore 44 per week. The minimum rate per hour paid at the works for men over 18 were 2s 5d with a share of profits per hour set at 3d. The total rate per hour was 1s 8d. For boys under 18, wages were 6d per hour with share of profits set at nil. Profit sharing was based on good conduct and was paid at the discretion of the company. It was also subject to employment for at least six months. Male office staff over 18 were paid 1s 5d per hour and a share of the profits at 6d per hour. Female office staff over 18 were paid 1s per hour with 3d share of the profits. Girls under 18 in the office were paid per hour with no share of the profit.
By the end of 1919, 303 Fordson tractors had been built at the Cork factory. During 1920, which was the first full year of production, 3,626 tractors were produced. The sum of £327,000 was also spent on a machine shop, foundry expansion, new wharves and equipment. The sale of the Fordsons was primarily in Ireland and Britain. Large numbers were shipped to Bordeaux, Cadiz, Copenhagen, Romania and the Near East.
In April 1920, the acquisition of Henry Ford & Son, the company, from the Ford family by directors of the Detroit Ford Company, meant disorganisation in sales strategies. Fordson tractors that were previously sold by specialist dealers were now been sold by car and truck agents with limited knowledge of the product. The tractor venture became more and more uneconomical. World markets also suffered depression and many European countries adopted a protectionist approach. Tariff and currency barriers also made exporting difficult. Political unrest on the Irish scene hampered the consistent arrival of workers to the plant every day.
Edward Grace, managing director, realising that it was uneconomic and unwise for the Cork factory to rely on tractor production noted a number of home truths. The high cost of establishing the Cork factory and maintaining an efficient work force meant that it was cheaper for European distributors to buy Fordson tractors in New York and ship them across the Atlantic, rather than purchase them in Cork. Grace’s solution to the profit problem was logical. Manchester needed extra production facilities for Model T cars. Cork had a machine shop and foundry that were not being used to their full capacity. To get parts made in Dearborn, Michigan would have been cheaper but freight costs from the States was more expensive than exporting from Cork to Britain where there would be no import duty. This was due to Ireland’s part of the United Kingdom.
By August 1921, the foundry at the Cork plant was producing all Manchester’s cast-iron requirements, including the engine. However, in 1921, tractor output from Cork fell to 1,433. The plant could only operate economically with 1,600 men. The 1918 Corporation lease of the land had specified that Fords provide work for 2,000 Cork workers. In February 1922, Cork Corporation ordered the Company to comply with the terms of the lease or face expulsion. The directors of Henry Ford & Son opposed the rationale claiming that the economic and political climate had changed radically within three years of the company setting up in Cork. Cork Corporation backed down from their requests.
During the rest of 1922, the Cork company narrowed its tractor operation by clearing its stocks and building another 2,233 Fordsons. On 29 December 1922, the 7,605th Cork-built tractor came off the line. Edward Grace assembled all the equipment used in Tractor manufacture and shipped everything to Dearborn, Michigan. The Cork factory now focussed on being an assembly plant, producing cars for the Irish market. In fact, in the early 1920s, whilst a Ford factory was being built in England, Cork also manufactured components for the home and export markets. Cork manufactured Model T parts and supplied both UK’s Trafford Park and the Continental Ford Plants with all their requirements of engines and rear axles up until 1927 when the European production of the Model T ceased.
Upcoming historical walking tours:
Saturday 13 July 2019, The Victorian Quarter; historical walking tour with Kieran of the area around St Patrick’s Hill – Wellington Road and McCurtain Street; meet on the Green at Audley Place, top of St Patrick’s Hill, 11am (free, duration: two hours).
Sunday 14 July 2019, Sunday’s Well, historical walking tour with Kieran; discover the original well and the eighteenth-century origins of the suburb, meet at St Vincent’s Bridge, North Mall end, 2.30pm (free, duration: two hours).
1005a. Mr Edward Grace of Messrs Ford’s Tractor Works sits on the first Fordson tractor to roll off the assembly line, 3 July 2019 (source: Cork City Library).
1005b. Workers in the machine shop of Messrs Ford’s Tractor Works in August 1921 (source: Cork City Library).