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Blue day for Ford

Death row: Some of the last Ford cars to be built in Australia make their way down the Broadmeadows production line ahead of this Friday’s plant closure.

Ford’s Australian factories just days away from closure after nine decades

Ford logo1 Oct 2016

By RON HAMMERTON

FORD Australia production lines will fall silent forever this Friday, 91 years since the adventure began in 1925 with a consortium of Canadians armed with permission from American automotive pioneer Henry Ford to assemble Model Ts in a disused wool store in Geelong.

Once Australia’s number-one motor manufacturer with a staff of more than 14,000 working two shifts to churn out up to 150,000 vehicles a year from multiple factories in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, Ford Australia’s remaining two plants will grind to a halt after more than 20 years of declining sales of locally built vehicles of all stripes.

Recently, a skeleton manufacturing workforce of just 800 has been building about 80-odd homegrown Falcons and Territories a day for Australia and New Zealand.

About 660 manufacturing employees will get redundancy packages when the lights go out after the final shift this week, while about 80 more will stay on until June next year to help out as the company completes the transition from local manufacturing to full-line importer.

A further 60 will be transferred from manufacturing to Ford Asia-Pacific’s growing vehicle development operation in Australia, joining almost 100 others who have already made the transition to mainly support jobs for the engineers and designers working on global car programs in design and engineering centres in Broadmeadows, Geelong and Lara.

Three years since Ford’s Detroit bosses sounded the death knell for local Ford manufacturing, the closure of the Geelong and Broadmeadows plants marks the beginning of the end for the Australian mass-production car industry.

With Ford gone, just GM Holden and Toyota Australia will be left to carry on for another year before they too bring down the boom on more than a century of Australian automotive endeavour.

As a consequence of Ford’s closure, the most truly Australian car ever mass produced, the Falcon, will die after 56 years as a fixture on Australian roads and racetracks.

Ford expects the decommissioning and sale of its industrial assets in Australia to take up to three years, starting with disconnection of electricity and other services from a multitude of machines to make them safe for removal for sale or scrap.

While rival Holden has sold more than 37 hectares of its industrial land in Melbourne to the Victorian government for a new industrial innovation precinct in Fishermens Bend, the future of the surplus land owned by Ford at Broadmeadows, in Melbourne’s north, and Norlane, within suburban Geelong, remains unclear.

Soil contaminant surveys and other rectification works need to be completed before the properties can be put up for sale in a process that could take until 2019.

Not all of the land will be put under the hammer, with the successful Ford Asia-Pacific Vehicle Development operation not only remaining planted within the Broadmeadows and Geelong complexes but also taking over some facilities such as the former Ford Australia administration headquarters that is now being gutted and refurbished as home for engineers working on the next-generation Ranger, Everest and other vehicles for Ford’s global operation.

This design and engineering outfit that currently numbers a staff of about 1500 will make Ford this country’s biggest automotive industry employer once Holden and Toyota quit manufacturing next year.

Although many of Ford’s suppliers are looking to diversification to save their bacon, Ford’s efforts to help them find exports markets within the Blue Oval’s manufacturing universe have proved successful for about 20 of the 100 “partners”.

As well, Ford is chuffed that its $10 million investment in government job-creation schemes has borne more fruit than expected, with nearly twice as many jobs as expected pledged by employers in the Geelong and Broadmeadows areas.

Rather than a deluge of jobless pouring on to the market with the end of Ford production, many of the eligible workers have either accepted jobs elsewhere or are planning to take up other employment.

From hospital maintenance workers to Victoria Police protective services officers, the former Ford workers are spreading into new fields, often with the help of training and support supplied by Ford and its out-placement consultants.

Others who have worked at Ford for up to 46 years are set to retire, their retirement funds boosted by the promised redundancy packages for all workers being let go.

Ford has made cars at the Norlane factory in Geelong since it was built in the 1920s by Ford Australia – a subsidiary of Ford of Canada in a quirk of history – to take over from the temporary premises in downtown Geelong.

Since 1961, the Geelong operation has concentrated on turning out engines, panels, castings and other components for transport up the highway to Melbourne’ s Broadmeadows assembly plant that was opened with great ceremony by then prime minister Robert Menzies in 1960 with the debut of the first Aussie-built (but American-designed) Falcon, the XK.

Apart from these factories, Ford operated a car plant at Homebush, in Sydney’s west, most famously for the Laser that was for a time Australia’s top-selling small car. That plant closed in 1994.

As well, Fairlanes, Galaxies, LTDs and Ford trucks were also pumped out of the Eagle Farm factory in Brisbane that closed in 1998.

The decline of Ford Australia’s manufacturing fortunes can be traced to the early 1990s when a perfect storm of reduced import tariff protection, recession, industrial unrest, Ford Motor Company indifference to the prospects of Falcon exports and stiff competition from resurgent rivals Holden and Toyota triggered a stumble.

Ford’s workforce was cut from 14,550 to 9600 almost overnight in the early 1990s.

Although Ford’s Australian vehicle production volumes peaked above 150,000 units when the Mazda-based Ford Laser and related Capri sportscar were at their zenith alongside the Falcon and Fairlane, Ford’s market share was already slipping, taking its position as Australia’s number-one car company with it.

In the mid-1990s, Falcon production peaked above 100,000 units for the last time, declining on an almost annual basis since then.

Last year, Ford sold just 8592 Falcon sedans and utes, along with 8902 Territory SUVs.

While that is sad for all concerned, the company took heart in the fact that it shifted more than 30,000 Australian-developed, Thai-built Ranger utes and Everest SUVs in 2015, highlighting the new world order in the new-look auto industry where Australian brains are valued over brawn.

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