Atari’s massive success in the late 70s presented many challenges, not least of which was one of logistics: How were they going to get arcade product shipped globally to meet the huge demand for its arcade games? Transporting bulky 300lb lumps of wood, glass and metal around the globe from a single operational base in the USA was (and still is) 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 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 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 process.
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.
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 new Californian PCB plant was huge, so the required 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 suppliers simply made commercial sense, and would extend the economic chain further. 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 teething problems. Atari’s 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.
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 can?”. 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.
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.
Whilst they aren’t the best quality, Atari’s January 1981 edition of Coin Connection magazine (produced to keep operators up to date with the latest Atari business news), featured a couple of images showing off its then new European facility:
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.
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 three never seen before pictures from 1981, show rows of Asteroids Deluxe upright cabinets nearing completion at the Tipperary plant:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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 businesses to arrive with investment for the local economy.
The main factory building in Tipperary is still there. The NAMCO sign is still present:
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!), the good folk at The Strong Museum in Rochester, NY and Alan from the Ardfinnan History Facebook Page – all generously provided additional insight into this subject, and allowed 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.
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