An industry friend told me a story that revealed how some people at global automakers regard Australia’s new-car market, and it’s a viewpoint our local industry learned to capitalise on long ago. But there’s a catch.
My friend, a 25-year veteran of the local car industry, was on a guided tour of a European car brand’s gigantic assembly plant.
Standing on a balcony overlooking the vast operation, one of the guests in the group asked, “Are any of the cars being built here destined for Australia?”
“Yes,” replied the company’s tour guide, an engineer in his 20s.
“We build for all markets in this plant. As you can see, we build cars with the steering wheel on both sides.
“In fact,” he added, “our car-assembly teams say we build ‘left-hand drive and wrong-hand drive’ in this factory.”
The tour group giggled. My friend, however, was annoyed by the comment.
“It just shows you how some of these big car brands regard Australia,” he said to me, his frustration obvious. “Our market’s often overlooked for so many great new models, the ones we’d love to have here.”
It’s a feeling echoed by plenty of new-car buyers, many denied their car of choice because a brand’s product planners decided to make their dream vehicle only in left-hand drive (LHD).
It’s a common decision. Big carmakers are global businesses and they often dedicate specific new models to their major northern-hemisphere markets (like Europe and the USA). This usually means right-hand drive (RHD) versions of these vehicles never make it to the drawing board, usually for cost-related reasons. And this means official Australian new-vehicle importers can’t bring them here to sell.
So we end up missing out.
But it’s a situation that spawned a great opportunity for specialist Australian firms.
When Ford Australia wanted to add the American Mustang to its local new-car catalogue back in the late ‘90s, Premcar, known then as Tickford Vehicle Engineering, got the call-up to make the model series Australian-market ready.
Doing so was no small task.
The right-hand drive conversion program required much of these LHD cars to be re-engineered, including remaking sections of the car’s transmission tunnel.
More than 200 components and assemblies (excluding hardware) were re-designed and remade to make sure each car was built to OEM-levels of quality and safety. It was an exhaustive program and it showed what was possible.
Fast-forward to today and right-hand drive conversion programs are big business. Some major brands have made them part of their regular operations. Full-size US-market pick-ups like the Chevrolet Silverado and Dodge Ram are enjoying life in Australia. So is the Chev Camaro. Ford’s F-150 is heading here and Toyota’s Tundra pick-up is due to land in the coming year or so.
Reconfiguring these LHD US vehicles to meet tight Australian regulations isn’t easy. Don’t think it’s only a matter of scanning some American-market parts, flipping them in a CAD program and then 3D-printing right-hand drive versions before bolting them onto the car.
Re-engineering a car from left- to right-hand drive is a whole mountain-climb, especially when you’re going to put them down a production line and have every vehicle achieve just the three most basic needs: Meet local certification rules, achieve OEM-standard quality, and stand up to a global new-car warranty.
A niche RHD conversion program is all about developing engineering solutions that are fit-for-purpose. Car brands can’t afford anything less.
Durability, robustness, function and quality are non-negotiable and achieving all four of them is the only way to make a niche RHD program successful.
For example, the Premcar Product Development System has a process that ensures the right design direction is set at the very beginning of the program. Working within the program’s constraints (such as time to market and tooling costs, among others), each system on the vehicle that needs changing has its design options scrutinized and evaluated.
The best design strategies for each are chosen. For example, should the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) blower system be redesigned from scratch? Or designed as a hybrid of new parts (where needed) and existing parts re-used from the LHD vehicle?
Another example: There is often a clash between the powertrain and the steering interconnecting shaft. Should we design a new shaft, or design a new exhaust manifold to avoid the mismatch with the powertrain? If we design a new manifold, how do we make sure all the changes to the exhaust gas flow don’t affect the sensitive engine calibration and its emissions levels? Or do we just move the whole engine and transmission to the left? (Yes, that question gets asked and the possible answers are studied). It all becomes awfully complicated, because everything interacts.
Get it wrong at the start and you can either end up down a deep and expensive cul-de-sac, or be forced into facing a late change in the months to come. Either way, it can result in massive program delays and cost blow-outs.
Re-engineering a new car from LHD to RHD requires the same processes when engineering a new car from scratch. Anything less and you’re opening the door to disaster.
History shows it’s the only way to make niche RHD programs successful – for customers, dealers and importers. Get it right and all three of them will be happy.
Miscalculate and botch it and all you’ll do is go from left-hand drive to wrong-hand drive.
And there’s no undoing that.
Bernie Quinn – Engineering Director, Premcar Pty Ltd
About Premcar – Premcar Pty Ltd is a leading Australian vehicle engineering business that specialises in the automotive, defence and aerospace industries. For more than 25 years, global car-makers have made Premcar their go-to partner for the complete design, engineering and manufacture of niche-model new cars, full-scale new-vehicle development programs, and electric vehicle (EV) conversions and manufacturing. As the name behind more than 200,000 new cars and 55,000 new-vehicle engines, Premcar’s body of work is extensive and has delivered technical and sales success for major car brands from Europe, the USA, Japan, China and Australia. Visit premcar.com.
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