Australian Motor Vehicle Manufacture: Tonsley Park, SA
Chrysler Australia Ltd was established in June 1951 when the Chrysler Corporation acquired Chrysler Dodge Distributors (Holdings) Pty Ltd, a company which had been formed in 1935 by 18 independent distributors.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Chrysler made a substantial investment in Australian manufacturing facilities. It consolidated assembly from other state capitals to its expanding operations in Adelaide. Vehicle production for Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales was in Adelaide from 1953 and Perth and Brisbane assembly ceased in 1954. The company had several facilities at Finsbury in Adelaide's northwest. The trim shop (car seats and interiors) and steel pressings (chassis components) produced components which were sent to Keswick for assembly. Chrysler also had an aircraft division which manufactured components for Canberra bombers, Jindivik drones and Winjeel trainers.
Chrysler opened a new assembly plant at Clovelly Park (named Tonsley Park at the time in 1964 and an engine foundry at Lonsdale in 1968. These new facilities replaced facilities at Keswick, Mile End and Finsbury. Chrysler recruited both local men and young single men from interstate to staff the growth. During this time, Chrysler Australia established its position as the third of the "Big 3" Australian motor manufacturers behind General Motors-Holden and Ford Australia.
In 1965 American car manufacturer Chrysler took over Rootes Australia and acquired that company's Melbourne, Australia, manufacturing and assembling facilities. In 1967 Chrysler's Lonsdale engine plant opened and the company gained third place in the national sales chart, with 13.5 per cent of the new vehicle market. Local content kept rising in leaps and bounds. It went from 1962's minor assembly work on the R and S Series to 65 per cent in 1965 and an average of 95 per cent in 1967.
The mid 1960's were halcyon times for Chrysler Australia because the company could not satisfy demand despite regular increases in production. By this time it was the eleventh largest company (of any kind) in Australia and the second largest exporter of cars. 1969 was Chrysler's best year with 42,654 Valiants sold.
The demand for its product forced Chrysler to expand its manufacturing base in Australia, and led to the establishment of the Tonsely Park motor vehicle manufacturing plant in Adelaide's south. Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies commissioned Chrysler Australia's Tonsley Park plant on 2nd October, 1964. Chrysler's Valiant models were manufactured there from 1964 to 1981.
Initially, Chrysler Australia assembled North American Chrysler passenger cars and trucks. Its most popular car in the 1950s was the US sourced badge engineered trio: Plymouth Cranbrook, Dodge Kingsway and De Soto Diplomat, each based on the 1954 US Plymouth. A coupe utility variant was also developed by Chrysler Australia and this was marketed in nine different versions; the Plymouth Cranbrook, Savoy & Belvedere, the Dodge Kingsway Custom, Kingsway Crusader & Kingsway Coronet and the De Soto Diplomat Custom, Diplomat Regent & Diplomat Plaza. The Plymouth sedan was a popular choice for taxicab usage however the rise in popularity of the Holden during this decade led to the decline of this range of cars.
In 1957, Chrysler Australia consolidated each of the badge-engineered marques in one car—the Chrysler Royal. This was a facelifted version of the 1954 Plymouth, and it was to continue in production until 1963. The Royal was an automotive curiosity. Starting life as a side-valve 6-cylinder manual, with 3-speed manual column gearchange, it was progressively modified, with the addition of US sourced engineering features such as power steering, the push button "Powerflite" automatic transmission and an OHV V8. On the styling front US "Forward Look" style tailfins were grafted on the rear of the car, while the front end gained dual (vertically stacked) headlights. These changes failed to arrest the slide in sales, as General Motors-Holden came to dominate the Australian market, and the Royal was viewed as being outmoded and expensive. Production ceased in 1963.
The saving grace for Chrysler at this time was the French Simca Aronde—a popular 4-cylinder compact car which Chrysler Australia assembled from CKD kits at their Forestville factory. Local engineers developed an Aronde station wagon unique to Australia, with a then-novel wind-down rear window and tailgate. (Chrysler USA had acquired an interest in Simca in 1958, the basis for sourcing of this car). The assembly and marketing of Simca Aronde and Vedette models by Chrysler Australia was announced on 1 July 1959.
In both 1958 and 1959 Chrysler Australia released Plymouth Belvedere, Dodge Custom Royal and DeSoto Firesweep models which were imported from the US in CKD form and assembled at Chrysler’s Adelaide facilities. The Plymouth was fitted with a 318-cubic-inch V8 engine and the Dodge and de Soto models featured a 361-cubic-inch V8. Assembly of the three models was discontinued in 1960 and they were replaced by a single model, the Dodge Phoenix, which was produced by Chrysler Australia through to 1973.
Beginning in 1962, Chrysler Australia assembled the American Plymouth Valiant, marketed as the Valiant by Chrysler. By 1963, they had developed a local version, the AP5 Valiant, with distinctive styling giving the car a separate identity from the US Plymouth and Dodge variants. The reason for developing different styling was concern that the local manufacturer could not afford to make substantial styling changes as quickly as in the US. Hence, a modified appearance would minimise the risk of accusations that Australia was selling "last year's model".
Through the 1960s, Chrysler expanded the Valiant range, with 2-door hardtop, long wheelbase (VIP) and sporty (Pacer) variants. Also, in 1966, with the Chrysler USA acquisition of the British Rootes Group, Chrysler Australia took over the Rootes Australia as well as the operation of their Port Melbourne factory. The principal Rootes model sold in Australia was the Hillman Hunter and this car became a steady seller for Chrysler until 1973. The Valiant was a good seller, but never quite gained the level of market acceptance as its major competitors—the Holden and the Falcon.
By 1970, however, Chrysler's success as a car manufacturer in Australia had peaked and the company looked to the release of its two-door hardtop, the Charger, for a change in fortunes. Based on the 1971 VH Valiant but built on a shorter wheelbase, with a clean, sporty look; it was 130 kg lighter than any Valiant sedan, but it still had room for five. A $2800 base model allowed high production runs, lowering the cost of the sportier models. The Charger was marketed brilliantly by Chrysler - their clever advertising campaign used the slogan "Hey, Charger" and the image of a hand giving the two fingered "V for victory" sign. Right across Australia, people shouted 'Hey charger" and gave the victory signal every time one drove by.
Not prepared to rely on the Charger alone to lift its fortunes, as the Charger was released, Chrysler Australia entered into a partnership with Mitsubishi, the Japanese heavy industries manufacturer its US parent, the Chrsyler Corporation, had just bought into. Chrysler Australia began assembling first Mitsubishi's Colt Galant, then the Sigma, at its Tonsley Park plant, which ensured that the production lines would remain busy. The Galant wore a Valiant badge and succeeded brilliantly in Australia, giving Chrysler the share of the small-car market it had failed to win with the Simca and Hillman. By 1976, when the CL model was released, Valiant sales were on a downward slide while Mitsubishi model sales were on the rise.
The CL Valiant was intended to be a whole new model, an intermediate sized car based on the Plymouth Volare / Dodge Aspen which had been big sellers in the US. Unfortunately cost cutting measures enforced upon the manufacturer saw the VL ending up as little more than a re-worked VH. Industry insiders read the move as the writing on the wall for the marque and rumours abounded that the CL would be the last Valiant. It wasn't; the 1978 facelifted CM, the last re-working of the VH design of 1971, would be the last of the prestigious lineage of Valiants. By 1977, sales of Valiants had slumped to 17,500 units, which was just 40% of the sales figures achieved eight years earlier.
When the CM hit the showrooms, sales of the Mitsubishi sourced Chrysler Sigma significantly outstipped the Valiant. There was no Charger, Utility or Panel Van in the CM range, only two sedans and a wagon. The facelift was kept to a minimum to save money. The last Valiant was manufactured on the Tonsley Park assembly line on 28th August 1981, not by Chrysler Australia but by Mitsubishi Motors Australia Limited, which had taken over Chrysler Australia's operations and placed its own top-selling 4-cylinder Sigma as its frontline model. The Sigma's replacement, the all-new Magna, was introduced in 1985.
Mitsubishi was very much the white knight, taking over the struggling car and engine plants. More than a quarter of a century later, however, on March 28, 2008, the company closed the Tonsley Park plant after producing more than one million vehicles, most for the domestic market. About 500 workers walked out of the gates for the last time with another 430 to leave over the next 12 months. The remaining staff were kept on to dismantle and decommission the assembly operations and stockpile spare parts. Of the last four cars produced on March 27, two were donated to charities and one went for permanent display at the National Motor Museum at Birdwood in the Adelaide Hills. The final car was auctioned among Mitsubishi's 200 dealers across Australia with all proceeds also going to charity.
In almost 28 years of vehicle assembly, there were a number of success stories, not least of which was the original Magna, launched in 1985. But although it employed as many as 5000 people at one stage, the company largely failed in all its efforts to have Australian buyers embrace the brand as one of their own. For the most part, Mitsubishi remained a Japanese company building cars in a foreign land.
Its often conservative approach to vehicle design, development and marketing at times frustrated motoring enthusiasts and was at odds with some of its key rivals. It tried desperately to shrug off its cardigan image in recent years, putting a more sporty face to its most recent models.
Mitsubishi also tried to get an export program underway to underpin its domestic sales but was frustrated, usually by circumstances beyond its control. In the end, as a manufacturer, it succumbed to more than a decade of constant speculation about its future - much of it self-inflicted pain - and to a sudden and significant slump in sales of large cars, prompted by escalating petrol prices.
Ironically, it was the previous oil shock of the 1970s that gave Mitsubishi the impetus to consider building cars locally. As a brand, the company's connection with Australia stretches back to 1960, when the first Colts were imported privately. Mitsubishi itelf entered the Austrralian market in 1966 with the local release of the Mitsubishi Colt 1100 3-door hatchback. As oil and petrol prices soared, Chrysler looked for alternatives to traditional six and eight cylinder cars that were the staple of domestic vehicle production at the time. With the Colt selling so well, Chrysler opted to build the four-cylinder Mitsubishi-designed Sigma, a car undeniably better than most of its direct competition. By the time Mitsubishi took over the Chrysler operations, the Sigma was a major seller in Australia as it paved the way for a new era of mid-sized cars made both locally and imported.
But into the 1980s it became clear that cars were once again upsizing and Mitsubishi followed the trend with the introduction of the first Magna in 1985. The car was an instant hit, despite the front-wheel drive and four cylinders not quite matching its rear-wheel drive six-cylinder rivals from Ford and Holden in both size and power.
In 1990, Mitsubishi dropped the Colt as its second locally-produced car and by 1993 Magna production had jumped to more than 50,000 vehicles. It was to peak in 1998 at more than 58,000 after the company secured an export deal to ship the car not only to the United States, but also the Magna wagon back to Japan. Total exports were forecast to go as high as 25,000 vehicles a year, including 16,000 to the US - sales that would add $750 million annually to the company's balance sheet. But the car never took off in America and was also given little support in Japan, the export program dying with less than a whimper.
Then, in 1998, the company was hit by the first of what would become a decade of damaging reports of its imminent demise. A decision to delay new tooling for the factory was a sign, some said, that Japan was keen to close the Australian operations. A reprieve was won the following year after 300 jobs were axed through voluntary redundancies and in 2000 Tokyo officials agreed to a $180 million cash injection to bolster the company's fortunes.
On Friday May 21 2004, Mitsubishi Motors Limited released its much anticipated restructuring plan saying that it would close its Lonsdale Plant within eighteen months, resulting in the loss of 650 jobs. The plan also included a reduction in the Tonsley Park assembly plant workforce of 350 through voluntary separation packages. Magna production remained reasonably strong over the next few years, with a surprising 46,000 cars rolling off the assembly line in 2002. Then, in 2004, Mitsubishi in Japan was rocked by a series of embarrassing recalls and cover-ups and was crippled by rising debts and a collapse in US sales. The crisis sparked a global restructuring and it appeared the Australian operations would face the axe.
However, with strong financial support from the South Australian and federal governments, Mitsubishi Japan had a last-minute change of heart and agreed to invest $600 million at Tonsley Park to build a new car. In 2004 the plant underwent major renovations. But there was a price to pay, as the company decided to close its engine plant at Lonsdale with the loss of about 650 jobs and also cut 350 positions at Tonsley Park. A scaled-down Australian factory survived but was on notice to produce about 30,000 cars each year, considered the minimum number to remain a viable operation.
The last Mitsubishis roll off the production line
But when it hit the market in 2005, the 380 model was less than an instant success. The motoring media agreed the new model was a good car, even presenting it with a series of awards, but by now the buying public was looking for smaller cars as petrol prices escalated. Mitsubishi president Rob McEniry admitted the company was caught out by this shift, but said that when the 380's development and design were locked away, large car sales in Australia were still close to 200,000 a year. By the time it hit the market they'd gone into freefall, dropping to just 130,000 in 2006. In that year, Mitsubishi produced less than 10,000 cars in Adelaide, a level that left the Australian management and their Japanese superiors with little choice but to pull the plug for good.
Valiant AP6, the first Chrysler model to be manufactued at the Tonsley Park plant.
Chrysler Australia had difficulty meeting demand for the AP6 (above) that was built at a maximum rate of 200 cars per eight hour shift. Customers had to wait up to 4 months to get their hands on a new AP6. Prices ran from $2500 to $3650.
The Colt Galant, the first Mitsubishi to be manufactured at Tonsley Park