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GM could be next target for RHD transplant

High Sierra: GM vehicles such as the GMC Sierra appear to be ripe for the picking by Australia’s first full-scale right-hand-drive conversion specialist, American Special Vehicles.

Chevrolet and GMC vehicles loom as prospects for full RHD treatment

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Ram logo19 Nov 2015

GENERAL Motors appears to be the next logical candidate for full-volume right-hand-drive vehicle conversion in Australia by the fledgling American Special Vehicles (ASV), as long as ASV proves itself with its Ram pick-up roll out that started this week.

ASV – a joint venture between independent importer Ateco Automotive and Walkinshaw Automotive Group – launched its locally engineered right-hand-drive Ram in Melbourne, with a hint that there is likely to be more where that came from.

ASV executives said other manufacturers were closely watching the Ram project that involves re-engineering the Mexican-built trucks for right-hand drive conversion while also achieving full Australian Design Rule (ADR) certification for unlimited Australian sales through a national dealer network.

The vehicles are rebuilt on a dedicated production line in Melbourne, using parts and construction methods to OEM (original equipment manufacturer) standards.

Exports also beckon, with the South African market the likely first destination after the planned roll out in New Zealand in the second quarter of next year.

ASV says it has to first make sure the Ram roll-out is a success, in both engineering and sales terms, before it can contemplate other models and other brands.

One of the keys to the Ram program has been the support of Ram’s parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), which is not only supplying new Asia-Pacific specification vehicles at wholesale prices directly from the factory – making the project financially viable – but also helped with crucial ADR homologation paperwork as well as parts and warranty back-up.

The door to FCA’s headquarters in Detroit was opened by Fiat Chrysler New Zealand – Ateco chairman Neville Crichton’s import and distribution company across the Tasman.

Similar factory approval would need to be received from other manufacturers, should ASV wish to add fresh brands to its RHD conversion business.

That’s where Walkinshaw Motor Group’s links with GM via Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) might provide the key to gaining access to vehicles such as the Chevrolet Silverado pick-up and Tahoe SUV or GMC trucks such as the Sierra.

Niche sportscars such as the Chevrolet Corvette might also be in the frame, as long as the business case adds up and that Holden does not do it first.

Most of these vehicles are already imported and converted by existing Australian RHD conversion companies who acquire them from North American dealers, but only in small numbers and rarely with full ADR homologation.

HSV has worked hand in hand with GM via Holden for almost 30 years, with HSV taking Holden’s Commodore and Caprice and turning them into potent sports sedans.

HSV uses Chevrolet Corvette engines and other high-end GM components in its cars.

Although Holden’s local manufacturing is scheduled to end in late 2017, both Holden and HSV have publicly stated that they expect their relationship to continue into the import era.

The opportunity for mass RHD conversion by companies such as ASV has arisen from the reluctance of some companies – especially the American Big Three – to commit to right-hook development because of the small volumes involved in an industry geared to massive production.

GM vice-president of global design Ed Welburn told GoAuto at the Dubai motor show last week that designing and engineering cars for right-hand drive “remains a challenge”.

Walkinshaw Automotive director Ryan Walkinshaw – son of TWR and HSV founder Tom Walkinshaw – said that engineering a vehicle for RHD could cost a motor company $50 million, while a smaller operation such as ASV could achieve a similar result for somewhat less, although still millions of dollars.

“We pride ourselves on being a business that welcomes challenges and welcomes things that put our expertise to the test, but this (the Ram project) was one of those times when we really demonstrated we are capable of doing it,” he said.

“So, it has given us a lot of confidence going forward as well.

“We are a rare thing in Australia today – a car company that is growing at a time when car manufacturing for other companies is shrinking.

“That’s a really good feel-good story and hopefully it is the start of a lot more.

“We have to do a good job first. We have done that with design and engineering (for Ram), and now we have to prove that we can sell them and hopefully that is attractive to other manufacturers as well, potentially.”

Mr Walkinshaw and ASV executives would not be drawn on which companies might be taking an interest in the Ram project.

Ford’s F-Series pick-up has been one of the most popular right-hand-drive conversions by smaller operators in Australia since it was discontinued as an official Ford import from Brazil in 2007.

Whether ASV would or could take on Blue Oval products under the same roof as Holden Special Vehicles – even though Mr Walkinshaw is at pains to point out ASV and HSV are completely separate operations – might be problematic.

A spokesman for Ford Australia said he had not heard of any plan to introduce mass-scale RHD conversion of Ford products in Australia.

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