Since it launched in Australia at the end of 2015, startup American Special Vehicles (ASV) has boldly claimed that its right-hand drive Ram 2500 and 3500 trucks were a cut above existing converted US pickups already on sale.
For one thing, ASV — a joint-venture between Ateco Automotive as distributor and Walkinshaw as converter — is unique in having direct collaboration with Fiat Chrysler in the US, and acts as a de facto RHD supplier with export potential.
It’s also potentially alone in the depth of its pockets, which have allowed the company not to just convert these big rigs from their natural LHD to RHD, but instead re-engineer them with a number of bespoke, or re-purposed Mopar, parts to factory standards and beyond.
At least, that’s the claim. As is the claimed level of crash testing (well beyond government requirements for full-volume certification) and the evident attention to detail.
This week, the company let CarAdvice and a small group of other Australian media behind the shutters at its Melbourne factory in Clayton, next door to where it assembles HSV products. Having spent time in a Ram 2500 before, it made for an interesting morning.
Indeed, it’s apparent that the partially government-funded ASV factory in Melbourne is a good-news story for local vehicle manufacturing.
Helpfully, ASV also gets federal government funding through the Next Generation Manufacturing Investment Program, of which Walkinshaw is an approved applicant. The scheme subsidises 50 per cent of tooling and validation assessment up to $10 million, plus assistance with facility setup costs, and covers next-generation models in future years.
Notably, ASV said it would have gone ahead with the project with or without public dollars.
There’s little doubt that ASV’s two constituents have vast experience in their respective roles, with Ateco having been an official importer for an array of global car brands in Australia, and Walkinshaw operating well-known companies such as HSV.
The factory line is a repurposed 8000 square-metre storage shed with capacity to store and re-engineer 1000 Rams annually (though current targets are about three-quarters this, at 60-70 units a month).
It’s produced 300 cars since November as it refines its processes, while its network of 24 national dealers with full aftersales (and a three-year/100,000km warranty) have sold 148, priced from $139,500 as you can read in detail. Exports markets in Asia are being explored, and the relationship with the FCA factory is said to be deepening with regular site visits.
The setup has ISO9001:2008 accreditation (we don’t know precisely what that means, either), 28 full-time floor staff, all of whom bar a select few are new to the group and not ex-HSV, and can create a RHD Ram from its LHD base in three days.
Basically, US-market LHD Ram 2500 and 3500 models arrive. From there, the cabs are separated from the rolling chassis, fluids are drained, and retained parts such as the radiator are parked, the firewall is changed over, key engine mechanical components are flipped or re-fitted (new steering box, drive belts, AC compressor pump, radiator hose, intercooler pipe etc) and then the body is re-married to the chassis, which is reinforced with a new RHD cross-brace.
Both the revised Ram 2500 and 3500 (the former comprising 90 per cent of sales) use 400 unique RHD parts total, with the most expensive externally being said steering box, and the HVAC unit. But small items such as headlights and mirrors are all changed, either by bespoke solutions in-house, with repurposed Mopar parts, or through suppliers.
At the same time, a sub-assembly section is re-doing the dash and other cabin arts (such as flipping seat switches and motors), which is fitted before the end stage. This new dash design cost $1.3 million to design in CAD and create, and has been project-led by the same group that does the Camry dash for Toyota’s Altona production line.
ASV says the secret is keeping the 2500 and 3500 offerings streamlined, with the only ‘option’ being what colour paint you want.
The level of workmanship goes beyond what is required. Each welder has submarine-level training costing thousands, steering arms were tested through 100,000 cycles with three-tonnes of force (equivalent to 20 years driving) and there has been extensive RHD calibration and development work done locally.
In terms of crash safety, multiple iterations of the RHD cabin were crashed into a wall on a sled, and then a Ram 2500 was driven into a wall. The airbags deployed and the crash cell stood up, as you can see. Melbourne-based crash tester APV has previously recorded no tests by a converter of this type.
If ASV's intended message is that it is a converter operating to OEM standards, then it did a solid job. If peace-of-mind is what you want from your RHD American pickup, this is a good place to start.
Click the images tab for more photos taken by Mike Costello
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