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by Jez Spinks

It was only six years ago that there were four companies manufacturing cars in Australia, but by 2017 there will be none.

It’s a lamentable end to an industry that unofficially began in 1896 with the build of a car using boiled water to generate mechanical power, but gathered a proper head of steam from 1948 when Holden released the all-Australian 48-215 (later FX) and Ford commenced Falcon production in 1960.

Falcon and Commodore sales peaked in the late 1990s, though, and the large Holden’s status as Australia’s best-selling car was ended by the imported Mazda 3 in 2011.

With Toyota becoming the last car manufacturer to announce it would be ending vehicle production in Australia, CarAdvice provides a rundown on what happened and what it means for car buyers.

 

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What caused local car manufacturing to end so quickly after decades of production?

It has basically become unsustainable for companies to continue producing cars in Australia. Ford, Holden and Toyota have each blamed multiple factors rather than a single issue. The common factors have been a high Australian dollar that has hurt export opportunities – mostly for Toyota and Holden – and sweetened deals for those brands importing, Australia’s high production/wage costs, and a car market that has become too small and fragmented – 50-odd automotive brands compete for a slice of a million-vehicle market.

Despite government industry assistance that has been estimated at between $500 million and $1 billion annually, the local car makers have struggled financially. Ford has lost about $600m since 2008, Holden was profitable only twice between 2005 and 2012, and while Toyota posted a $149m profit in 2012 it lost $150m over the three previous years. Once Ford declared in May 2013 it was planning to abandon local production of the Falcon large car and Territory SUV in October 2016, there were immediate fears for Holden and Toyota due to the implications for the critical automotive parts supplier base in Australia that served the trio.

 

The Honourable Tony Abbott MP, Leader of the Opposition,Budget Reply Speech Parliament House Canberra.

What role did government funding, or lack thereof, play in the industry’s demise?

The Tony Abbott-led Coalition entered September’s federal election promising to cut $500m in automotive manufacturing industry assistance to 2015 compared with Labor, and stuck to its guns after forming government.

Federal Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane revealed the government was in discussion with Toyota about further assistance to support its bid to continue building cars in Australia before yesterday’s announcement stopped negotiations in their tracks.

Previously, Holden secured a $275m assistance package in March 2012 that was intended to help it build new-generation versions of the Commodore and Cruze and shore up its local manufacturing operations until 2022. Reports from July 2013, however, suggested Holden needed an additional $265m to continue with those plans, though the government declined to offer further assistance.

Ford’s last significant round of funding came in January 2012 when the Victorian and federal governments contributed to a $103 million co-investment deal to help the company continue local production until 2016 and introduce significant model updates to the Falcon and Territory in 2014.

Estimates suggest Ford, Holden and Toyota have shared in more than $4.5b in state and federal government funding since the turn of the century, though the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) claims that every $500m invested by the government feeds $21.5b back into the Australian economy.

 

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What are the implications for local workers?

The closure of the five Victorian and South Australian production facilities operated by Ford, Holden and Toyota will directly result in the loss of approximately 6600 manufacturing jobs by 2017: 2500 from Toyota’s Altona plant, 2900 from Holden’s Elizabeth vehicle plant (1600) and Port Melbourne engine plant (1300), and roughly 1200 from Ford’s Broadmeadows vehicle plant (at least 650) and Geelong engine plant (510).

At least 300 of those will disappear from June this year, however, as Ford scales back its vehicle output in the face of record low Falcon and Territory sales. Additionally, the company says it cannot guarantee its local production operations will survive until 2016, meaning hundreds more jobs may go sooner than originally planned.

A wider view of the industry reveals a more significant impact. Government data shows more than 45,000 Australians are employed in the local motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry, and industry experts believe as many as 30,000 jobs – many of those in component manufacturing – could disappear with the three car makers by 2017.

According to the same government data, almost a quarter of a million Australians are employed in automotive repair and maintenance, and motor vehicle and motor vehicle parts retailing and wholesaling industries. Encouragingly, a Productivity Commission report concluded that those workers were not likely to be seriously influenced by the presence of a local vehicle manufacturing industry.

 

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Will there be any assistance for displaced workers?

Abbott offered little comfort to automotive manufacturing industry workers after Toyota’s plant closure announcement, declining to make any commitment to financial or other support for employees facing uncertain futures.

Toyota workers can take heart in the knowledge that assistance has been promised to Ford and Holden employees, however.

In June, Ford Australia and the Victorian and federal governments committed more than $65 million to support workers displaced by its closure announcement, funding reskilling and diversification of the industries in Geelong and northwest Melbourne.

In December, the Prime Minister announced a further $100 million fund to help workers affected by Holden’s local manufacturing exit.

 

holden-commodore-range

It didn’t seem long ago that the Holden Commodore dominated Australian car sales charts…

The Commodore was indeed Australia’s best-selling car for 15 years up until 2010 but sales of large cars have been in decline for years.

Ford’s executive version of the Falcon, the Fairlane, was the first high-profile victim of this trend in 2007, and it was followed just a year later by Mitsubishi’s 380, formerly known as the Magna. Falcon sales peaked at about 80,000 in 1995 but in recent times it has posted record low after record low – culminating in just 10,610 sales in 2013. Australian-made vehicles overall totalled nearly 250,000 in 2005 but had more than halved by 2013 (118,510). In that same eight-year period, vehicles coming from Thailand – and benefiting from a zero import tariff courtesy of a free trade agreement – have jumped from nearly 85,000 to almost 230,000.

 

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Will I be able to buy a Ford, Holden or Toyota in 2017 and beyond?

Some misleading newspaper headlines in December – such as “Holden to exit market” – might have led some car buyers to believe it wasn’t going to be possible to buy a Holden-badged car in the future. But each of the companies is only going to stop production by 2017 and they will continue to sell vehicles as import-only businesses.

 

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Will there be replacements for the vehicles currently built in Australia?

Mostly, yes. Toyota has said it will import the Camry that it has been building locally since 1987.

At Ford, the Territory SUV will be replaced by the next-generation Edge (though Ford could rebadge it ‘Territory’ for this market to capitalise on that model’s success since it was launched in 2004). A direct replacement for the Falcon is not expected. While North America is expected to build a new generation of its large car, the Taurus, Ford will use the Mondeo as a model that straddles the medium/large segments (just as models like the new Nissan Altima do at the moment).

A new-generation Commodore is set to be released in 2017 but will be quite unfamiliar from the car Australians grew to love since the nameplate replaced the Kingswood in 1978. It’s expected to be front-wheel drive rather than rear-wheel drive for starters, with potential for all-wheel-drive spin-offs – crucial for Holden performance arm HSV, it would be argued. The new Commodore is likely to be built in Asia, with some speculation about China. The future of the Cruze is also unclear. A new-generation Cruze could be released as early as late 2014 but it sits on a different platform to the current model, and Holden would need to retool its plant to accommodate it. CarAdvice learned from insiders at the 2014 Detroit motor show that the Astra nameplate is being pencilled in for a return as a Holden. Astra had already made a comeback in 2012 as part of Opel’s entrance to the Australian market before General Motors’ German brand made a shock exit after less than a year, blaming excessive competition.

 

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Will the sales of Toyota, Ford and Holden be affected adversely by their decision to stop making cars in Australia?

Highly unlikely. A number of car companies have produced cars in Australia over time and they have gone on to have successful import-only businesses after ceasing production. Nissan stopped building the Pintara and Skyline in 1992, and two decades on was the sixth most popular car brand here in 2013. The most recent example is Mitsubishi, which ceased production of the 380 (nee Magna) in 2008. There was a slight dip in 2009, but sales have been consistent since and in 2013 the company sold 71,528 vehicles to place seventh in Australia’s 10 best-selling brands.

 

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Will Ford, Toyota and Holden do more than simply sell cars from 2018?

Ford will continue to employ more than 1500 Australians after its manufacturing exit, including more than 1000 in product development. Australia will remain one of four product development hubs for Ford globally, and will continue to design, engineer and test global vehicles, as it has done with the Ranger ute and Figo city car (latter for India), and as it is currently doing with the Escort sedan (for China) and Everest SUV.

Holden confirmed it would “significantly reduce its engineering operations” when it ceases vehicle production in 2017. Included in this is a plan to sell its Lang Lang vehicle proving ground in Victoria. Australia will continue to be home to a global design studio for General Motors, however. The Chevrolet Adra concept, a sub-compact SUV concept unveiled at last week’s New Delhi motor show, was built in Australia and its development was supported by Holden employees.

Toyota is yet to announce the wider impacts of its decision to cease local production, though made no mention of a renewed focus on design or engineering in its post-closure years. In a statement yesterday, it said it would become a “national sales and distribution company”, and said its corporate divisions would be studied to determine what roles and functions would remain in the future.




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