For the first time in almost 20 years, an Australian car assembly line will tonight return to 24-hour production – to keep up with unexpected and unprecedented local demand for Ram pick-ups from the US.
While it’s not the same as the mass production lines that built Fords, Holdens and Toyotas that fell silent two years ago – which could each pump out in excess of 100,000 vehicles annually – the facility in Clayton, south east of Melbourne, will push out close to 7000 vehicles this year and is reviving jobs in a sector most had written off.
In 2015, when the Walkinshaw Automotive Group realised it had to transform its business from turning Holdens into Holden Special Vehicles performance sedans, it looked at Australia’s increasing appetite for utes and placed a bet there would be enough buyers who would want “full size” US pick-ups.
The investment in tooling and engineering was in the tens of millions – the largest investment the company had ever made – and the money wouldn’t even begin to come back in until after the first batch of utes was sold.
Initially, there were fewer than 30 workers on the assembly line that takes a left-hand-drive Ram pick-up from the USA and “remanufactures” it to right-hand-drive.
To keep up with customer demand, there are now more than 150 employees working across three shifts around the clock Monday to Friday. The first night shift starts at 11pm tonight and finishes at 7am tomorrow.
Sound proof booths have been installed in certain sections of the production line to make sure the nearest residents – about 1km away – aren’t disturbed late at night.
Despite the $80,000 starting price for a Ram – in excess of the $50,000 to $60,000 paid for the most popular variants of the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger, the country’s top two selling vehicles outright – there is currently a waiting list of up to four months.
“Of course we’re happy, but we honestly never thought it would be this big,” says John Di Berardino, pictured above, a former Holden Special Vehicles engineer who is now in charge of the Ram assembly line.
“We’re so lucky in many ways that we had car manufacturing skills to draw from. While it’s a different process than mass production, we still need certain skill sets.”
When the company began converting Ram trucks from left- to right-hand-drive it was a three-day process. With 24-hour production the company is hoping to cut the conversion time down to 12 hours per vehicle.
To help make the Walkinshaw Automotive Group “remanufacturing” business viable, there is a separate line adjacent to Ram – but under the same roof – that does the same process for Chevrolet vehicles.
On a third line at the same site Holden Special Vehicles now re-engineers and adds enhancements to the Thailand-made Colorado ute, rather than retuning V8 Commodores.
But it is Ram that got the jump start and is paying big dividends.
Having just produced its 1500th right-hand-drive Ram locally, the company expects it will sell close to 3000 pick-ups this year, the largest share of the estimated 7000 vehicles across three brands that will come out of the same Clayton facility.
When the business started, the forecast was 500 to 1000 Ram vehicles a year.
“Having been to Detroit and seeing how they build these actually gave us the idea to do this as efficiently as possible,” says Di Berardino. “We reverse what they do but fit more than 290 unique parts, using a lot of suppliers that previously made parts for Holden, Toyota and Ford. They know how to make parts to full manufacturing quality standards, so it was good to be able to bring them with us on this.”
The last time car assembly ran for 24 hours in Australia was the Holden production line in Elizabeth, South Australia, in the early 2000s. Back then, Holden produced 13 variants of the Commodore, including the Monaro coupe.
Ford said to the best of its knowledge the last of its manufacturing facilities to work around the clock was its engine and stamping plant in Geelong, also in the early 2000s.
Toyota, which built cars at Altona until late 2017, said it never switched to 24-hour production, despite being the largest local producer of motor vehicles in the decade prior to its factory closure.
View from the production line: HSV to Ram
Production worker Fernando Carvajal, pictured above, witnessed the transition from local car manufacturing to a conversion business from the front line.
He started working for Holden Special Vehicles in the year 2000 and switched to Ram in 2015, soon after Holden and Ford announced their factory shutdowns.
“I do the final inspections, I’m the last set of eyes before the car leaves here,” says Carvajal. “It makes you so proud when you see these on the road.”
Carvajal says a lot of people in the industry were initially sceptical about the plan to convert US pick-ups to right-hand-drive to mass-production safety and quality standards.
Unlike small, independent operators that historically converted vehicles one at a time in modest numbers, these vehicles come with a warranty supported by the US factory and were crash tested locally to ensure they meet Australian safety standards.
“A lot of people said we couldn’t do it, the cost of converting these vehicles to full manufacturing standards would not be possible and would cost too much,” he said.
“But we found a way. That’s what makes this company special. There’s so much knowledge under this roof, we’re just so lucky we haven’t lost it.”
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling