There was an event of great moment last month. It may have seemed then a temporary aberration, but is this month now confirmed.
It happened silently; the tapping of data-entry keys recording new vehicle registrations its only soundtrack.
Perhaps few saw the 'totality' of the moment, of a new picture now described by multiple small shifts.
But it’s there in the VFACTS for March 2013. They show that the transformation of the Australian motoring landscape that has been occurring for two generations is now complete.
And the notion of an indigenous Australian car - uniquely ours, uniquely Australian - is now lost. It’s there, but barely. The Australian car parc is now indistinguishable from a global one.
That neither brand, neither Ford and not even Holden - those once-unassailable symbols of our industry that carried Australian families into a modern age of consumerism and pluralism - can now be found in the top three of new car sales rankings is not just significant for what is, but for what it says about this country.
It describes 'a new Australia'; of a separation from what were once important notions of identity as an Australian, and of old loyalties, but now consigned to a generation past.
Once, Australian roads everywhere were entirely dominated by 'the big three': Holden, Ford and Chrysler.
American companies all - sedans, station wagons and utes - but engineered for Australia, and made by Australians.
They were strong cars, as capable of enduring a life on gravel rural roads as on suburban streets; sedans that could accommodate four kids abreast across a slippery vinyl back seat, and would outlast almost anything.
They were popular because they were Australian at a time when being 'Australian' was important - when the fires of a Pacific and European war had forged an unshakeable sense of national identity, pride and of Australian egalitarian capability.
But these cars were also popular because they provided - then - the best answer to the needs of Australian motorists.
Even the smallest workshop in the smallest country town could service and repair these cars, every mechanic knew his way around a grey or red six, Chrysler's slant six, or Ford's 'super pursuit' 170.
Sure, a protectionist conservative government - with arch-protectionist 'Black Jack' McEwen as Minister for Trade - ensured the local vehicle manufacturers were adequately protected.
Local vehicle manufacturers then sat behind a 35 percent tariff wall; by the end of the 1960s, it had risen to 45 percent, and climbed to an astonishing 57.5 percent for the ten years from 1978 to 1988.
As if that wasn't enough, there were also quotas (quantitative restrictions) buttressing the tariff wall and other equally artificial constructs such as the Australian automobile content plan.
But, protected or not, they were 'our cars', engineered for hard roads and a harsh country, and Australians headed first to Holden, Ford and Chrysler showrooms.
And for post-war new Australians, mostly from the UK, Italy and Greece, a shiny new Holden, Falcon or Valiant in the garage was a symbol of a new life, of financial independence, and of 'arrival'... of being part of this exciting and still-new country.
But consumerism is all about choice.
And an economically powerful, well-travelled and outward-looking population bulge of baby boomers ensured that as quickly as English brands cascaded into a self-destructing British Leyland, so the new brands - Toyota, Datsun, Renault, Volvo, and later Mazda, Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and others - found a market with an increasing appetite for choice and individuality.
Most, in the mid-sixties, were built here - the tariff walls and quotas made sure of that - but as those walls fell, so too did the shift to imports turn a trickle into a stream, and later into a flood.
And those old loyalties, to American brands and to the US, to a partner in war whose blood was spilled alongside the blood of Aussie diggers in our time of peril, were lost with a generation now also all-but gone.
It's hard to imagine now the potency and importance of that relationship with America. And why, of course, the Australian Labour Government under post-war Prime Minister Ben Chifley in 1947 looked first to America and to Chevrolet to develop an 'Australian car'.
The result, the Holden 48-215, the venerable FX, became a sales juggernaut.
GM Holden swept all before it through the next decade to take more than half of the total new vehicle market. Ford’s XK Falcon, arriving in 1960, and Chrysler’s Valiant, were its only real challengers.
Imagine now an Australia as homogenous and predictable. And as proud of itself and its capabilities as it once was.
Consumerism, pragmatism, the rise of the individual, all these things weigh against that old Australia and its unique home-grown industry of family cars.
But that isn’t all that later weighed against it. By 2004, the tariff protection to the Australian car industry had fallen to a tissue-thin 10 percent, and, since 2010, an even thinner 5.0 percent.
To compound the difficulty for local manufacturers, at the same time as Australian tariff walls have been disappearing - they've dropped by 27.5 percent in 20 years - the Australian dollar has been rising.
In April 2004, it was at just 49 cents to the US dollar. It is now at 104 cents to the 'greenback', more than 100 percent higher than its 2004 value.
Apply that shift in numbers to vehicle imports.
In the absence of other factors, imported cars have had a 27.5 percent cost impost removed over the past 20 years. At the same time, the high-value Aussie dollar, at twice its value just ten years ago, has delivered an additional 100 percent bonus to importers.
Perversely, by its policy of not intervening in the artificially high value of the dollar, the Reserve Bank of Australia is, in a cack-handed way, creating an incentive to importers and an artificial market advantage (a ‘reverse tariff’ if you like, one that punishes the local product).
Black Jack would be turning in his grave.
Spare a thought then for their world and how rapidly they have had to adapt to such changing market circumstances and such massive disadvantage.
That they are still here at all is a miracle. Or, let’s give credit where it’s due, more a fact of adept management, quite astonishing flexibility, and yes, enduring products.
Here then is a snapshot of the new Australia: the top ten brands in sales for March 2013. It’s taken five decades, but the Pacific shift is now complete… our top three brands are from the opposite side of the Pacific.
VFACTS Vehicle Sales March 2013: Top Ten Brands
|BRAND||SALES||SHIFT (compared to March 2012)|
|Mazda||9112||- 2.5 %|
And here are the top ten models.
VFACTS Vehicle Sales March 2013: Top Ten Best-selling Models
|MODEL (click each for more)||SALES||SHIFT (compared to March 2012)|
|Toyota HiLux (4X4 and 4X2)||3127||(4X4: -6.9%; 4X2: -26.1%)|
|Nissan Navara (4X4 and 4X2)||2499||(4X4: -8.6%; 4X2: +120.1%)|
|Mitsubishi Triton (4X4 and 4X2)||1992||(4X4: +41.4%; 4X2: -41.1%)|
|Ford Ranger (4X4 and 4X2)||1685||(4X4: +91.7%; 4X2: +23.0%)|
In this top ten, eight cars have been gifted the competitive advantage of a 100 percent revision in the currency in the past ten years; only the Holden Cruze and Toyota Camry compete largely without it (notwithstanding the smaller benefit each accrues from imported parts and components used in manufacture).
Where once Holden exported to 17 countries, now vehicle imports come from plants from no less than 27 countries. Such is the state of our currency.
Australian vehicle imports topped $15billion in 2012.
In this context, Government support for local vehicle manufacturing is less than piddling.
In the world that I occupy, keeping a viable industry here, looking after a world class local manufacturing sector, and looking after Australian jobs – our mates and neighbours, after all – is worth at least a piddling amount.
And, more to the same point, is worth the active support of all levels of Government through vehicle purchasing until the aberration of an artificially high currency, and the advantage it gives importers, subsides with the recovery of the global economy.
A little of that quaint old-fashioned Australian pride in our local industry wouldn’t go astray at the moment. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
TMR Managing Editor
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