Car manufacturing was a good – even great – industry for our country but, unfortunately, low build volumes (by world standards) and high manufacturing costs are two factors that helped bring about its demise. The industry’s relatively small size and resultant inability to keep abreast of changing buyer needs, along with effectively zero tariffs, killed off what began when the first 48-series ‘Humpy’ rolled off the production line at Fisherman’s Bend, the start of Australia’s volume car manufacturing era.
Over the years – in reality perhaps rather belatedly – both Holden and Ford made improvements to their product that created cars equal to or even, by many a measure, better than anything imported from Europe, the home of car design. Wherein lay one of the nails in their coffin. Every car manufactured in Australia had generous incentives paid to the US and Japanese parent companies. A change of political direction a few years ago decreed an end to such subsidies by 2017.
Where we erred was in our inability to move quickly enough to changing buyer demands. We produced large six- (and eight-) cylinder cars for a large country, cars that could cope for hours on end with high temperatures and long distances, frequently on pretty ordinary road surfaces. Oil scares and huge fuel price hikes turned many buyers to smaller, more fuel efficient cars.
Buyers found these cars more capacious and far better driving than in the past, not only offering fuel savings but also handling our road network quite ably. On top of that, registration costs were lower and they had improved dealer networks. Those who’d bought smaller were generally satisfied with the move they’d made; they stayed, even though by then we’d become somewhat blasé about higher fuel prices, too.
Two other elements encroached further upon large car sales: Utilities and SUVs. Once considered work vehicles, they now play the comfort and safety game and dominate the market. The top ten sales for August 2017 tell the story: Toyota HiLux, 4287; Ford Ranger, 3588 (both are utes); Toyota Corolla, 2948; Hyundai Tucson, 2206; Mazda 3, 2163; Hyundai i30, 2143; then the two Australian-made cars, Toyota Camry, 2107, and Holden Commodore, 2071; Mazda CX-5, 2048; and Toyota’s venerable Land Cruisers, 2036.
I understand SUV love. I owned two Mitsubishi Pajeros in which I did a lot of on-road and off-road kilometres, but at my age I could no longer justify maintaining a vehicle of that size. My Berlina is 6 years old and has done an entirely reliable 120,000km. Despite huge rivalry between Holden and Ford – especially on the race track on Sundays – I did not badge buy. I road-tested a Falcon G6E but found the GM-H product suited me better, mainly its pinpoint steering and comfortable seats. It was not blind brand allegiance, but ‘bum factor’.
I’m sad our automotive manufacturing industry is at an end. To me the subsidies paid, even though they supported overseas boardrooms, maintained far more than the mere production of motor cars: They sustained tens of thousands of skilled jobs on the production lines and in the supply industry (50,000 even now) and provided skills training and apprenticeships, now gone for all time. Therein lies the saddest loss from the shut-down: Skilled tradespeople.
Perhaps it was unsustainable but the demise of the industry somehow lessens our pride and our stance as a manufacturing nation, and for that I am especially dismayed.
Note: This is only a brief personal appraisal. A whole lot more brought about the demise of our car industry, but it would require more than 600 words to tell.