Unlikely hero in Australia’s dying car industry
An unlikely success story has risen out of the ashes of the Australian car industry.
American Special Vehicles, a Melbourne-based automotive company that employs a number of ex-Ford, Holden and Toyota workers, is making a killing converting full-size RAM trucks to right-hand drive.
The company finished its 5000th conversion this week and is outselling established brands such as Peugeot and Jaguar as ute-loving hungry Australians scramble for a slice of American pie.
But RAM, part of the FCA group which includes Chrysler and Jeep, had to be coerced into allowing American Special Vehicles, a joint venture between the Ateco Group and Walkinshaw Automotive, to re-manufacturer machines originally built in Michigan.
David Smitherman, general manager of strategy at the Ateco group, said the brand's success coincided with utes becoming the best-selling cars in the country.
"We'd been to the states many times and saw these massive trucks and thought they would be a good fit for Australia," he said.
"We always thought this was a mass production opportunity, not a cottage industry.
"We've really boosted the Australian manufacturing segment in some pretty tough times. We are employing Australians, we are investing in the country and we are getting manufacturing know-how back in the country."
The first RAM trucks hit local showrooms in 2016, three years after the Ateco Group approached FCA to make a $100 million investment in its trucks.
Smitherman hails the milestone as "an Australian success story" employing former line workers and suppliers to the local car industry.
Some of the 400 parts needed to convert a RAM to right-hand drive are produced locally, such as new dashboards produced by the same people who supplied the Altona plant which produced Toyota's Camry.
The most popular RAM, a 5.7-litre V8-powered ute, costs about $110,000 drive-away.
Top models are closer to $180,000 and can tow almost seven tonnes - roughly twice as much as popular utes such as the Toyota HiLux or Ford Ranger.
Mr Smitherman said RAM is struggling to meet demand in Australia, outselling the likes of Mini and Porsche last month.
"We're creating a whole new segment in the Australian motoring landscape," he said.
"The numbers are quite staggering from a production point of view.
"In July last year we were producing three trucks a day, now we're producing 17 to 20 trucks a day."
Guy Hungerford, day shift supervisor at ASV, said the company has "been able to employ a lot of Toyota workers and Ford workers" by expanding to three shifts to meet demand.
Fernando Carvajal worked for Holden Special Vehicles in its postmillennial heyday before leaving the car industry and returning to work for RAM.
"It means a lot to me," he said.
"It's like coming home."