Atari Ireland: Tipperary’s Arcade Connection

Atari’s massive success in the late 70s presented many challenges, not least of which was one of logistics. How do you get arcade product shipped globally to meet the huge demand for its arcade games? Shipping bulky 300lb lumps of wood, glass and metal around the world from a single operational base in the USA was an expensive business. Expecting European arcade operators to soak up that additional cost would have been commercial suicide. Add that to the fact that its main production plant in Sunnyvale California was already close to capacity meeting the demand in the USA, it was clear that Atari had to do something to take advantage of what was clearly fast becoming a global market for its coin operated products.

In 1978 Atari started looking at a number of locations in Europe that could act as a base of manufacturing and distribution. A variety of possible solutions were considered, but rather bizarrely, a small Irish town called Tipperary quickly became the obvious choice. A new factory building had just been built on the outskirts of the town, and the Irish government (in the form of the Irish Development Authority), keen to attract overseas investment in the struggling town, successfully courted Atari with some very lucrative subsidies, grants and incentives.

Ireland itself offered excellent tax breaks to manufacturers setting up plants on their shores, and as a member of the EEC (now known as the EU), exporting product to other European countries was in theory a slick operation.

atari ireland factory 2
Atari’s newly built factory at Tipperary in 1978, courtesy of the Irish Development Authority. The wooden sign on the side of the building says “Atari Ireland Ltd” & logo. Photo: Mike Jang

Atari would eventually purchase this building from the Irish Authorities. Furthermore, two companies that could act as a subcontractor to assist with the logistics of building arcade cabinets were identified: Murray Kitchens, an established wooden cabinet builder, was within spitting distance of the main factory just down the road in the small town of Ardfinnan; and an hour’s drive away, Kromberg & Schubert, an electronic components company based in the coastal town of Waterford was secured under contract to supply the wiring harnesses, switches and bulb assemblies required for the Tipperary-built arcade machines. Despite being just a one-room factory built from breeze blocks, Kromberg & Schubert had a great German engineering pedigree, having supplied European car manufacturers with wiring looms for many years.

Atari Ireland Arial View
Atari’s European arcade cabinet manufacturing facility in Ardfinnan here in red. Hard to believe that arcade cabinets were built at such a picturesque location!

On paper it looked to be a perfect solution. All Atari had to do was produce game PCBs in California, and ship them to Ireland ready to install into the locally produced arcade carcasses. Atari’s PCB plant was huge, so the capacity could be met quite easily – it was simply a case of extending the normal run already in place for the USA market. Sourcing wood, sheet metal, components and parts from local business simply made commercial sense. One suspects also, that this ‘local supplier’ logistics solution was a requirement of the Government subsidy deal, as this would secure much-needed employment to the residents of this rural area of Ireland.

Irish officials were very keen to help Atari get things up and running quickly, and within months of an agreement being signed, Atari started its Tipperary manufacturing operations in 1978. But there were early teething problems. Atari’s early employees arrived from the US with various tools to get started, including a fax machine – one of the first to be used on Irish shores, but quickly discovered that Tipperary’s phone exchange was as yet unable to handle international direct dialling. (Not surprisingly this oversight was quickly put right by the Irish Development Authority).

Further issues were identified at the cabinet building operation. Murray Kitchens were struggling with their new brief from their American taskmasters. The transformation for the Ardfinnan based company from making kitchen cabinets to Atari arcade cabinets was proving difficult. Despite being housed in a 30,000 square foot factory, they were only managing to produce around 20 of these new fangled Atari cabinets each day, still trying to get to grips with the change (and probably still hanging onto a lackadaisical 70s workforce ethic). Atari’s expectations were that they should be producing five times that amount – the daily target was in fact 125 cabinets. Things weren’t going well.

Atari Ireland Jim Riordian Pic 1
How Murray Kitchens looked in 1978 before Atari’s involvement. Photo: James Riordan

I’ve told this story before here on the blog, but it’s worth repeating here: Sensing trouble, the Vice President of Atari USA sent a task force across the Atlantic to sort things out. James Riordan was the head of the team flown over, and describes what happened:

When we arrived at the plant, fresh off the plane, I was greeted by a room full of local engineers who, before even introducing themselves, asked sarcastically, “What makes you think you can do this any better than we are?”. I replied, “Because gentlemen, I am making 500 arcade machines a day in the United States and my boss told me to either make this place perform or turn it into a badminton court, so I expect you to either work with me, or I can go buy you all some racquets and I’ll be on the next plane back”. Let’s just say they had an immediate change of attitude.

Ardfinnan History FB Page 2
An early shot of the Ardfinnan facility, c.1979. You can make out familiar wood shapes here. In the middle right hand side of this picture is a Sprint 2 cabinet. Photo: Ardfinnan History FB page
Ardfinnan History FB Page 3
Another shot from Ardfinnan around the same period. Note the blank white cabinets up on the shelf on the left – I see a Subs I think, and a Tempest? Photo: Ardfinnan History FB page

And so with that rather awkward start, the team built new production lines, streamlined systems, and retrained staff. Within eight weeks, Riordan had this Irish factory churning out on average, 151 Atari cabinets every day ready for distribution across the European markets. Well over the expected target. The staff were motivated and worked hard. This small increase in expected daily production of just 26 cabinets, added $1 million of earnings to Atari’s bottom line every single month.

You can see that this was big business for Atari, and for several years, tens of thousands arcade cabinets were built at Tipperary and shipped throughout Europe and beyond in large shipping containers, using an export company called Bell via the port of Waterford, just south of the town.

With so much at stake, Atari flew some of its best men over the Atlantic to oversee and run the operation as it grew. Gil Williams, a long-standing employee was placed in charge of the plant from 1979, along with Tommy Martinez and Phillip Stewart. All were American natives who brought a little bit of the California lifestyle to rural Ireland. The rest of the staff were all locals, including Kevin Hayes of Donegal, brought in as Financial Controller. Following Gil’s return to California in 1979, Kevin took over as Managing Director of the plant.

Ardfinnan History FB Page 1
What a fabulous shot. These are either Asteroids or Missile Command cabaret machines on the production line at Ardfinnan, late 1980. Photo: Ardfinnan History FB page

In time, production became slicker. Armed with each new cabinet plan from America, the factory at Ardfinnan would build the wooden cabinets. These shells would be moved to the main plant at Tipperary to be fashioned into the final product.

Former Atari employees recall a weekly container that would arrive by air every Friday direct from California. Within the shipment would be early build samples of prototype cabinets, parts, tools, printed circuit boards, schematics and plans, all with the intention of giving the Irish facility a guide to what they should be producing.

These two never seen before pictures from 1981, show rows of Asteroids Deluxe upright cabinets nearing completion at the Tipperary plant:

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Workers putting finishing touches to Atari’s Asteroids Deluxe at the Tipperary plant in Ireland. Photo credit: Mike Jang
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Ready to ship across Europe. Completed Asteroids Deluxe cabinets. Photo credit: Mike Jang

At its height, over 200 Irish workers were building 2,000 arcade cabinets a month ready to ship across Europe and beyond. Every major Atari arcade title was built here. I personally own an Asteroids cabaret, Centipede cabaret, Battlezone cabaret and Tempest cabaret, all built at Tipperary. Although just a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of cabinets that would have passed through the town during its heyday, it’s great to know that some of the cabinets pictured in these photos are still around to this day, safely in collectors’ hands across the world.

Atari Irish Cabaret arcade machines
Three of my Atari cabaret machines. Built in Tipperary, Ireland!

The cabinets produced at Tipperary and those pictured here will be familiar to US-based arcade collectors. The plans largely mirrored the designs pushed out by Atari in the American market. But interestingly, there were one or two cabinets that were unique to Atari Europe.

This cabinet design would house Atari’s European versions of Time Pilot, Food Fight, Millipede and Popeye games:

Atari irish Time Pilot
Irish Time Pilot cabinet. A rare machine this one.

And this funky looking mid-sized cabinet was produced to house the Irish-built versions of Gravitar, Dig-Dug, Fast Freddie, Black Widow and Kangaroo:

Gravitar Irish Cabaret
Irish Gravitar cabinet. I wonder if the combined marquee and bezel was done that way to save on production costs?

Some of these European-exclusive cabinets have popped up in the US – the concensus of opinion here is that Tipperary was known to have shipped cabinets to Canada as well as Europe (weird!). Exactly why these particular two cabinet designs veered away from their equivalent US-style designs is a mystery.

So operations continued until 1984, when the global demand for arcade cabinets slowed significantly. What followed was a patchwork of ownership: during that year, Japanese manufacturer Namco looking for a similar European based arrangement set up a five-year joint partnership with Atari. This proved commercially successful and added stability and security to the local workforce. Kevin left the firm at this time, and Namco brought their own man in to head thngs up; another local, Mike Nevin. In 1990, ownership went back to Atari, until being sold to Midway lock stock and barrel in 1995 for a short period of time. Namco then bought the facility alone, and the plant was run and managed by Pat Pickham a local Tipperary man until its eventual closure in 1998, with the loss of the its final 42 employees. One could imagine this was quite a blow to the local economy.

Atari Ireland Jim Riordian Pic 2
Another great picture full of detail. Cabaret machines lined up behind a row of cocktail cabinets. Those white cabinets are there again up on the shelf to the right. Photo: Jim Riordan

The closure of the Tipperary factory and its impact on the local area was discussed in the Irish parliament. You can read the transcript of that debate here.

Tipperary’s historical association with Atari remains strong to this day. Many local people would have worked at the plant, and for us European collectors, the arcade machines built there still turn up to this day. No question it was a key part of Atari’s growth and dominance in the arcade market during the Golden Age of arcade gaming.

ATARI IRELAND IDENTIFIER
An Atari Ireland identifier plate, found on the back of arcade cabinets produced at Tipperary

A company called MOY Insulation who occupied a neighbouring building for many years, took over the old Ardfinnan facility in 1998 until its demise in 2008. The buildings are still standing idle waiting for new business to hopefully arrive.

The main factory building in Tipperary is still there. The NAMCO sign is still present:

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The old Atari facility at Tipperary as it looks today. Photo: Google Street View

So there you have it. This small county in rural Ireland played host to one of the largest companies in the world, and produced huge numbers of arcade cabinets that were supplied across Europe. Atari Tipperary clearly played a key part in arcade history. Cool stuff.

Huge thanks to Jim Riordan, Mike Jang (again!) and Alan from the Ardfinnan History Facebook Page for providing additional insight into this subject, and allowing me to share these great pictures here on the blog.

If anyone has additional pictures, info or corrections they’d like me to add to this article, do get in touch using the About/Contact link at the top of this page and I’ll get back to you.

Many thanks for your visit this week. I’d appreciate your help in sharing this article using the social media buttons below.

Tony

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. My Star Wars cabinet was built here, still has the sticker on the back proclaiming its Tiperrary birthplace. Great article Tony!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Craig Walker says:

    AFAIK Sega also used Atari to build cabinets for them in the mid 80’s from this plant. I presume the partial looms that joined to the Sega loom were also made at the same place down the road as they are very Atari esq.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eddhorse says:

    Great blog post, thanks.
    Was nearby recently as decided to go see the building. Still has its Namco sign alright, was tempted to ask the current users for it. It really is off the beaten track in Ireland, strange location for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Darren Doyle says:

    Such an amazing insight to something that has escaped me for years within Atari lineage while based here in Ireland, I do how ever remember traveling with my father to Atari’s Home Computer and console division up in Dublin south in the town of Tallaght to which my father having a great contact at Atari’s sales rep (Dominic Farrell) which brought the future of Atari to the home with amazing Atari VCS releases and a selection of Atari 8bit home software to a kid now in my 40’s lol that still celebrates all things Atari. So maybe you will that story if you manage to source those that worked there, it was an amazing place to visit at the age of 8 🙂

    Kind regards.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. geoanas111168 says:

    Congratulations for this valuable source of a significant piece of Atari’s history. Amazing article!
    I would also specially thank you, for giving me the permission to publish the Greek translation on “iamretro.gr”. I frankly believe that many Greek readers will definitely, find it very interesting. I’ll bet on it! 🙂

    Best Regards
    George

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Colm says:

    Fantastic article… you brought me back in time theee! Growing up across from this building it provided a playground for the local kids, but as we grew up we understood the significance this building had for the town and it’s working people. Thanks Colm

    Liked by 1 person

  7. neil1637 says:

    Another great story Tony. Love Atari everything, so can never get enough of these stories and photos. What a great time to be an Irish woodworker!! I always chuckle when I read the badminton court speech, too. Thanks for sharing pal.

    Like

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