Some Australia Day thoughts on our automotive industry

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (20)Australia Day is charged with evocative images from all parts of our culture. Patriotism is always at the core, but for most of us it means a public holiday filled with barbeques, mates, beers and probably the Triple J Hottest 100 countdown. Unlike our American friends with their Independence Day, we don’t often celebrate Australia day with brash displays of nationalism; rather we simply get on with a day off the best way we know how.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (16)If you’re at all interested in cars an early morning blast through the hills is a great way of celebrating our land, which is how I ended up in Strathalbyn for breakfast. A poster in the cafe advertised an all Australian car show taking place there; nothing new, but there was one line that had me hooked. ‘For cars built or assembled in Australia’. Assembled in Australia – that’s something different. It’s not normally something that AGR would attend, but why not?

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (5)It was especially poignant because the last 12 months have been tough on the Australian car industry, what with the announced closure of local manufacturing for Holden, Ford and Toyota. Of course the loss of the industry is unbearable on the people it directly affects, more so here in Adelaide than anywhere else, but on a macro level I think it’s been a long time coming. As much as we long for the glory days of the 60’s and 70’s, the world is a very different place now. We’re so much more interconnected than we were and these days it is impossible for such a resource intensive industry to survive solely in such a small and competitive marketplace.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (18)In the early days our Holden’s and Ford’s were just re-hashed designs to make American or English cars more suited to local conditions. Back in the day most existing cars were, essentially, pretty crap and nothing imported would have lasted in our harsh terrain. That’s an obvious business opportunity. But then the world caught up in terms of durability, so the government had to legislate in such a way as to keep an industry by encouraging manufacturers to assemble locally. Deregulation of the auto industry in the early 90’s was meant to make local manufacturers more eager to compete with the imports but they lacked the resources to do it properly. And when other countries can build cars so much cheaper than we can, we’ve been doomed to failure for the last two decades.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (2)But this is only one side of our car industry, and this Australia Day car show really highlighted a problem. I mean nothing against the organisers of the show – it was a fine day out. But when you mention the term ‘Australian car industry’, people think of Holden or Ford.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (7)They might even think of the Leyland P76.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (11)Mention Australian motorsport and they’ll jump straight to Bathurst.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (9)And inextricably linked to Bathurst is that other ‘B’ word.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (3)But there’s a whole other side of the industry that I think has been largely overlooked, and I think that this is where our future lies. Did you know that the in-car race camera to broadcast live footage from car to your television was invented by ATN-7 engineers Geoff Healy and John Porter for the 1979 Bathurst 1000, where it sat inside Peter Williamson’s Celica? Or that electronic data logging, telemetry and engine management software as we know it was pioneered by some guys in a back shed of Melbourne calling themselves MoTeC? They also invented the temperature compensating lambda sensor, too.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (13)Variable ratio rack & pinion steering, the baby capsule, the orbital engine and the ‘Roberts Diff Lock’ selectable locking differential are all Australian inventions. Every reader of this website would surely be familiar with Sir Jack Brabham as the only man to win a Formula 1 World Championship in a car designed and built by himself and its Repco V8 engine was advanced and world class for its time. Holinger Engineering and PPG make some of the best racing sequential dog engagement gearboxes in the world for rally and high stress environments, and Adelaide based Supashock are designing world class suspension for a huge range of motorsport applications ranging from tarmac rally to international GT racing and a Bathurst win in 2014.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (10) What’s left of Holden’s design and R&D staff are currently working on concept cars that will change the shape of American motoring and one look at the Effigy shows they know what they’re doing. And that’s not even considering the skunkworks of military companies building APV’s and designing new composites to withstand incredible blasts while reducing weight and improving conditions for the troops contained within.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (15)This is a roundabout way of proposing that we need a new type of Australian car show next Australia Day. Instead of looking back to the Ansett’s and the HQ’s and the XW’s, lets look back to the innovative race specials built in home garages, to the baby capsules and the early days of green-screen data logging.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (14)But this hypothetical show should not just look back, it should look forward for the long term. It should accept that the game has changed in terms of building cars here, but that it doesn’t sound the end of the industry. What else can we do? That’s a question for policy makers and industry movers and shakers and it’s out of our hands.

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (8)Every movement is sparked with individual action, so I guess a little Australia Day expo focusing on the truly world class elements of our industry, past and present, would be a good place to start. Maybe we can get planning for January 26, 2016?

AGR_AustraliaDay_15 (4)Thanks for reading my half-baked ideology. Happy Australia Day, folks!

Words and photos by Andrew Coles

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