From the archives of Bob Montgomery, motoring historian
DUNDALK'S HEINKEL CABIN CRUISER: It may be all but forgotten now, but there was a time when Dundalk became, for a short period of years, a centre for the production of one of the most unusual cars ever to be put into production. The site of this enterprise was the old workshops of the late lamented Great Northern Railway, where the Dundalk Engineering Works was set up to manufacture Heinkel Cabin Cruiser bubble cars in 1968.
This was no relatively simple assembly operation and came about when Ernest Heinkel AG relinquished the worldwide rights to the manufacture of the Cruiser. The genesis of the Heinkel Cabin Cruiser was particularly intriguing as it was an attempt to maintain work for the employees of the Heinkel company, and to keep their aircraft factories working in the face of a ban by the occupying forces. Although the Cruiser was a successful stopgap solution for Heinkel, the company had no desire to continue its production once the ban on aircraft production was lifted and the factory returned to its normal output of aircraft.
As a result the worldwide rights to manufacture the Cruiser were purchased by Dundalk Engineering Works and all the tools, dies, presses and jigs necessary to restart production travelled to Dundalk. Once installed, production began of the Cruiser at Dundalk.
The Heinkel Cabin Cruiser - to give it its full title although it was always simply referred to as the 'Heinkel Bubble Car' or just the 'Heinkel' - was an intriguing design. It came in two versions, a 3-wheeler and a 4-wheeler on which the two rear wheels were placed close together. It had room for two adults side-by-side and a small seat in the rear, which could be used for a child. The tubular frame which imparted a surprising strength to the design also allowed a front opening door which was clamped in place, thus becoming an essential component of the cars rigidity. Trailing link front suspension and a rear swing arm with 4-speed gearbox and a chain final drive were employed, while the engine came fully assembled and ready to install from Germany and was a four-stroke single cylinder unit with a particularly advanced head design giving a respectable output of 10 hp for its tiny 169ccs.
The core of the Dundalk facility was a huge 500-ton hydraulic press, which was used to produce the body panels from sheet steel. Despite the enormous difficulties involved in training a workforce from scratch for the production of Cruisers, the product of the Dundalk factory was apparently of good quality right from the start, the paint finish being of a particularly high standard for the time.
Although export markets already established by the Heinkel Company were the main targets for sales, a reasonable number were sold in the home market, even if the rationale for their target market in Ireland seems now, shall we say, unusual? The respected motoring writer, Austen Channing, writing in 1959, described it thus: "This is not a vehicle to be adjudged in the light of how it compares with what most of us would call 'real' motor cars. The Heinkel appeals to the man in the bus queue, the man who runs a motorcycle and keeps a wife and has . . . well, a family on the way. Or perhaps the man who would like to provide his Better Half with her own mobility of movement . . . but decidedly not at the cost of losing his! Most important of all, the Heinkel is an attraction to the family man who can afford to buy a secondhand full-size car but really can't afford the luxury of running it." Ah, different times!
Despite the optimism shown in Dundalk the Cruiser's production there was to be short-lived. Demand for bubble cars quickly gave way to a desire to own full-sized cars as Europe entered a new era of growing prosperity. Nevertheless the story of the Cruiser's Dundalk production remains an intriguing 'what if' in the tortuous history of car production on this island.