From the Archives: May 30th, 1959

This profile of Stephen O’Flaherty, the first man to import Volkswagen cars into Ireland and England, appeared as part of Portrait Gallery, a regular series about prominent people in the 1950s and early 1960s

 

Since the boats went down, a large, luxurious green motor yacht has been attracting a good deal of attention at Dun Laoghaire. It looks much more like the sort of craft you would encounter off Cannes than off Killiney; the sort of ship, as someone remarked, that would cost a fortune to keep in petrol and champagne. It is the latest acquisition of Stephen O’Flaherty, the man who built the first Volkswagen ever assembled outside Germany, and put that nippy little car on the road map both in Ireland and England. Stephen O’Flaherty is well-known as the Volkswagen King; what is not, perhaps, so widely known is that as well as assembling and distributing the Volkswagen, his firm also assembles two other leading continental cars, the Mercedes and the Renault.

At 54, Stephen O’Flaherty is slim, active and full of the nervous energy of a man fifteen years younger. You can detect slight American overtones in the Waterford accent, and he dresses in a style that could best be described as “contemporary international high-power executive.”

When he left school in Waterford, Stephen O’Flaherty went into the motor business in England as an accountant. Later, when Ford opened up in Cork, he went there, and in 1933 came to Dublin as general manager of the Vauxhall and Bedford Distributors.

During the war, when the motor business fell on thin times, Stephen O’Flaherty put all the money he could raise into two business concerns. One was a highly successful transport company – he bought a fleet of horses and carted anything anywhere in the Dublin area. The other was an engineering firm in Townsend street.

There he manufactured replacement parts for machines that had to be kept going through the war years. He also built a gun for the Irish army. “It had wheels, as far as I remember,” he recalls, and a barrel about twelve feet long. “We used local materials and made our own machine tools. It was an anti-tank gun.”

Was it a success? He has no idea. It was all very secret. When it was finished – after a very, very long time, because it was built on overtime, during the night shift – the army came and took it away.

Did they ever fire it? He believes they did, once. And as there were no complaints, he assumes that nothing went wrong.

Stephen O’Flaherty’s plans for the post-war period were already turning over in his mind. After five or six years of wartime shortage, the prime need would be agricultural machinery – preferably an all-purpose vehicle which could double as a tractor. O’Flaherty immediately thought of the jeep, got in touch with Willys Overland, and secured the concession to assemble here.

This, of course, was purely a temporary measure. At the back of his mind, he already had a long-term plan. “I knew that the only hope of making a real success in the automobile industry in Ireland was to get a small competitive car – something to compete with the Ford, Morris and Austin. There was only one available – the German People’s Car, the Volkswagen.”

As soon as it became possible to do business with Germany again, he put his plan to Dr. Nordhoff. The Volkswagen was not yet available CKD (i.e., unassembled), but Dr. Nordhoff promised not to forget Stephen O’Flaherty if they ever thought of exporting the car that way. And in 1950, when the firm decided to experiment with CKD exports, they turned to Ireland, and the first Volkswagen ever built outside Germany was assembled in Ballsbridge.

The car caught on immediately, in spite of its revolutionary design (engine in the rear, aircooled, an odd shape) and in spite of certain other snags (it was originally taxed under the old R.A.C. rating as a 15 h.p. car and insured accordingly). Eventually, however, the Government altered the taxation to 10 h.p. cc. rating, the insurance companies brought their premiums down and soon O’Flaherty was selling Volkswagens faster than he could get them. At the moment, the Volkswagen is the fourth best seller in Ireland (after Fords, Morris and Austins), and Motor Distributors have moved from Ballsbridge to an 11-acre £500,000 factory on the Naas road, where 230 Irish workers are turning out 18 cars a day.

Read the original here.

Selected by Joe Joyce; email fromthearchives@irishtimes.com

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