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Exclusive: Holden turns first sod on new chapter

Heavy metal: GM Holden’s existing body shop is set to be superseded by an all-new facility now being built in South Australia, opening the door for a new generation of vehicles.

Billion-dollar new-model program revs up with work on new Holden body plant

7 Jan 2013

GM HOLDEN has quietly broken ground on a new state-of-the-art body shop at its South Australia factory in readiness for a new generation of locally made cars based on global platforms.

The first of the new models is due to roll off the production line in 2015 as part of a billion-dollar investment by General Motors in Australian manufacturing, supported by a $275 million commitment in federal and state government funding.

The need to replace the current body shop – which was significantly upgraded to accommodate Cruze small-car production in 2010 – indicates a major shift in construction methods for the new vehicles that is confirmed to include the next-generation Cruze in the second half of 2015, followed by a second model, possibly a Cruze-based SUV, to replace the homegrown Commodore in about 2018.

The ground-works, on existing factory land next to the assembly plant at Elizabeth, come as Holden Vehicle Operations fine-tunes production preparations for its heavily revised VF Commodore that is due to be unveiled next month ahead of a June showroom debut.

GoAuto understands that production line changes for the new VF Commodore and derivatives such as the Statesman and Ute are scheduled to be completed during a shutdown around Easter, which falls at the end of March this year.

The VF and current Cruze will continue to be built in tandem at the existing body plant, at least until the new body shop is ready to start production. Even then, there might be some overlap, with the existing plant possibly operating simultaneously with the new facility to produce VF.

The new Commodore will feature a host of weight-cutting measures, including aluminium parts such as bonnet and boot lid, to enhance fuel consumption and performance.

However, the central monocoque and other major structural elements will continue to be fashioned from steel, welded together in the existing body shop, mostly by robots.

This body shop was originally built for the start of VE Commodore production in 2005, running in parallel with the previous shop for a time as VZ models such as the Crewman, Cross8 and Adventra were phased out.

While this current body shop can accommodate changes for the new VF, Holden has taken the decision to start over with a new body plant for its next breed of models that should see local production through to at least 2022.

Apart from logistical advantages, the move indicates the new-generation cars might have fresh platforms that cannot be easily handled by existing systems, even with an upgrade.

Although no details of the new vehicles have been forthcoming, they might even involve new-generation materials such as aluminium or composites in the main structural core of the vehicles, and even Volt-style range-extender powertrains.

Work on the new production facility was confirmed today by GM Holden director external communications Craig Cheetham, who said it was being done in the background as Holden prepared to launch VF.

He said the plan was to have the new body shop ready to start production ahead of the new models due from 2015, thus avoiding any production disruption in the model changeover.

“When they bring in the first of the new-generation cars, they will be able to just switch it on without any interruption or delay to production,” he said.

As GoAuto reported exclusively last year, Holden has already laid out its plans for the future models with the federal government as part of its requirement to qualify for a share in government co-investment funding.

The company’s chairman and managing director Mike Devereux subsequently confirmed at the Sydney motor show in October that the next all-new Cruze will be built here from the latter half of 2015.

As for the second model, Mr Devereux was not prepared to confirm that Holden would build a Cruze-based SUV to replace the Captiva, but underlined the importance of choosing a model line that is represented by the 10 best-selling vehicles in Australia.

The decision to invest in the new models is a vote of confidence in Australian manufacturing by Holden, which this year will export a left-hand-drive version of the VF Commodore, badged Chevrolet SS Performance, to North America.

Mr Cheetham played down reports that Holden might cut production of the current VE Commodore after the factory comes back on stream after the summer break.

Union officials have suggested that falling sales of VE Commodore in its run-out will force Holden to schedule ‘down days’ in the first few months of this year to ensure inventories of old cars do not get out of control.

While Mr Cheetham did not rule out any such move, he said no decision on adjustment to the production schedule had been taken.

Unions have also hinted that Holden might retrench workers after suffering a 25 per cent drop in Commodore sales and 13.7 per cent fall in Cruze sales in 2012.

However, Mr Cheetham pointed to a total of 270 job cuts and production line adjustments at Holden last year when the company switched to a one-shift operation at Elizabeth, saying Holden had already taken action to bring production in line with demand.

Run-out plans for the VE2 Commodore this year have been complicated by the need to reveal VF-based race cars ahead of racing seasons in both the United States and Australia.

The VF-based Chevrolet SS will spearhead the American manufacturer’s NASCAR race program from February, while the Australian version, the Commodore, will do the same for Holden in the Aussie V8 Supercar series.

This means that publicity surrounding these programs has well and truly alerted the car-buying public to the fact that a new model is in the wings, causing many potential buyers to hold off.

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