It is a tantalising idea that Ireland could once again be a car manufacturing hub in terms of electric vehicles, but the autotech route might take a different turn, says John Kennedy.
On the main road in Ballinascarthy, Co Cork, there is a silver replica Model T Ford. It is a monument to honour the Ford motor giant founder Henry Ford’s father, William, who was born in the village. I only know this because I heard Norman Crowley, also a native of Ballinascarthy, talking on the radio about how his own father got him and his siblings to sell raffle tickets when they were young to raise funds to build the monument.
Crowley, a successful businessman who started and sold three businesses for more than $750m before he was 40 and is a leading figure in Ireland’s cleantech landscape through his business Crowley Carbon, hit the headlines last week for revealing plans to bring back car manufacturing to Ireland 40 years after the industry disappeared.
You could say that cars are very much in Crowley’s entrepreneurial DNA. When I first met him at the height of the dot-com bubble, when he sold his company Ebeon to Eir (then Eircom), he had side businesses in panel beating and chauffeuring.
Crowley’s latest venture, Electrifi, plans to create more than 150 new jobs as part of a €50m investment, becoming the first company to manufacture cars in Ireland since Ford closed its manufacturing plant in Cork almost 40 years ago.
Electrifi has already begun car manufacturing in Wales and the first cars that will be manufactured at a new plant in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, will leave the Irish plant by the end of this year. At first the company will focus on converting classic cars such as Ferraris, Aston Martins and Jaguars, from petrol-guzzlers to clean energy electric vehicles (EVs) with all the torque of a Tesla and more, while maintaining their classical appearances.
But that’s just the start – within a year or more, Crowley plans to build his own-brand Electrifi supercars.
Buncrana Beetles and Ireland’s fascinating carmaking heritage
Ireland’s history in car manufacturing is riveting.
In Offaly, the Edenderry Works factory produced the Aylesbury for the 1907 Dublin Motor Show. In Kilcullen, Co Kildare, the Silver Stream luxury car was produced between 1907 and 1909. Between 1925 and 1933, the Thomond No 1, No 2 and No 3 saloon cars were manufactured on Haddington Road in Dublin 4. In Antrim, between 1954 and 1962, the DAWB 6 touring car was built by Davy Woods and Artie Bell.
In 1917 Ford opened a plant in Cork to manufacture tractors. In its time the factory produced iconic cars including the Cortina and the Escort, culminating with the last Sierra rolling off the assembly line in 1984. At its peak the Ford factory employed 7,000 people and the site extended over 18 acres.
In Belfast, more than 2,000 people were employed at DeLorean’s carmaking plant in Dunmurry making the iconic DeLorean DMC-12, the time-travelling car made famous in Back to the Future. Sadly, the plant closed in 1982 after just 8,500 cars were produced.
In Wexford, the TMC Costin sports car was made by the Thompson Motor Company in Castlebridge between 1983 and 1987.
In Donegal, Auto-Montan-Werke produced an all-terrain vehicle named the Chico and nicknamed the Buncrana Beetle. It was envisaged 1,000 people would be employed but just 100 roles were created and just 130 Chico trucks were produced by the time assembly ended in 1984.
In Summerhill, Co Meath, Fiat had a manufacturing operation where several models were manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s.
The very first Volkswagen Beetles to be assembled outside of Germany were built in the 1950s at a former tram depot in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.
In fact, Ireland even had its own-brand vehicle entitled The Shamrock, made in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan. It is believed that only eight were ever produced.
The idea of a revival of car manufacturing is a tantalising one but, as Crowley himself admitted, Ireland will never be able to compete with lower-cost economies to produce cars en masse. So we have to think differently.
Powering the digital future of cars
Where Ireland can compete – in fact, it is already competing – is in the design of the software and the electronics to power the transport of tomorrow.
There had been rumours in recent years that Apple – whose Project Titan plan to build the tech giant’s own electric, autonomous vehicle has hit a few speedbumps – may be considering making Cork part of its plans to get into carmaking.
In recent months Siliconrepublic.com revealed how Dublin-headquartered Cubic Telecom’s technology is now connecting more than 2m vehicles across Europe.
In February we reported how Irish chipmaker Arralis and the Tyndall National Institute signed a €400,000 deal to develop a chip with a myriad of uses, including 5G data transmission in future cars.
In March, we reported how autotech giant Valeo is to invest €44m in a major research, development and innovation (RD&I) centre in Tuam, Co Galway. The investment will see Valeo’s Irish R&D centre grow to more than 500 people and will also make the Tuam operation one of the largest R&D facilities in Ireland.
In Limerick Jaguar Land Rover is expanding rapidly at its new facility in Shannon, which includes an advanced R&D workshop for its vehicles.
In Dublin, Verizon’s R&D team – formerly Irish company Fleetmatics, which was acquired by Verizon three years ago for $2.4bn – has developed its Engine Connect technology, which gives fleet managers a complete view of their vehicles’ performance, heading off problems before they arise.
Meanwhile, Irish entrepreneur Aidan McClean is in the process of building a pan-European EV car rental app business called UFO Drive with its own entirely electric fleet.
It is understood that more than 90pc of the value of a car is in its electronics and if you consider that more than half of Intel’s global supply of 14nm chips comes out of its plant in Leixlip, Co Kildare, then the role Ireland is playing in autotech may run deeper than you realise.
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