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Australian Motor Vehicle Manufacture

Pre-World War II | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s and beyond

1980s and beyond

By the 1980s, only four companies were involved in motor vehicle manufacture in Australia - General Motors, Ford, Mitsubishi and Toyota. All four made it into the 3rd millenium, though Mitsubishi would pull out of Australian manufacture altogether in March 2008 and both Ford and Holden have closed and consolidated plants as the market for their frontline Australian built cars - the Falcon and the Commodore - continued to shrink as Australian motorists increasingly favoured smaller four cylinder cars.


The 1980s were challenging for Holden and the Australian car industry. The Australian Government tried to revive the industry with the Button car plan, named after John Button, the Federal Industry Minister. The plan encouraged car makers to focus on producing larger and more economic volumes of fewer models, and it provided incentives for exports. Holden faced financial challenges as sales of the Commodore and Gemini declined. Competition from Ford intensified when the Laser, Ford's compact car based on the Mazda 323, and an updated Falcon, both proved popular and became sales leaders in their classes. Other Australian manufacturers; Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi Motors were gaining market share. When Holden released the Camira in 1982, things started to look better. However, after a short run of good sales, numbers faltered; buyers considered the 1.6 litre engine to have inadequate power, and the car's reputation was tarnished by below average build and ride quality.

In 1985, Holden's parent, General Motors, reorganised and recapitalised the business. At this time, the engine manufacturing and car manufacturing divisions were separated. The engine manufacturing business was successful, building four-cylinder GM Family II engines for use in cars built overseas. Holden became the source of engines for the Vauxhall Cavalier and the Opel Ascona built in Europe. In the same year, the Barina supermini was launched, becoming Holden's first truly small car. A rebadged Suzuki Swift, it allowed Holden to broaden its market appeal.

1985 Holden Astra (LB) SLE hatchback, a re-badged Nissan Pulsar

Holden began to sell rebadged Nissan Pulsar hatchbacks as the Holden Astra in 1985, as a result of a deal with Nissan. When Nissan released a new model Pulsar (with an Astra clone) in 1987, it was powered by the GM Family II engine that powered the Camira. This arrangement ceased in 1988, when Holden entered a new alliance with Toyota. The joint venture formed a new company: United Australian Automobile Industries (UAAI). In 1989, Holden began selling rebadged versions of Toyota's Corolla and Camry, as the Holden Nova and Apollo, while Toyota sold the Commodore as the Toyota Lexcen.

Toyota's adaption of the Commodore was named after Ben Lexcen, the designer of Australia II, which won the 1983 America's Cup, wresting the trophy from the United States for the first time in the competition's history. This badge engineering scheme did not resonate well with buyers, even though rival Ford had been successful with its Laser and Telstar models, which were face-lifeted versions of Mazda's 323 and 626, respectively. In 1995, UAAI was dissolved, and Holden was able to source product offerings from GM rather than from other manufacturers in Australia.

Holden introduced the VK Commodore in 1984, with significant styling changes from the previous VH. The next update for the Commodore appeared in 1986 with the VL, which had new front and rear styling. Controversially, the VL was powered by the Nissan RB30 3.0 litre six-cylinder engine and had an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. The change to the Nissan engine was necessitated by the legal requirement that all new cars sold in Australia after 1986 had to run on unleaded petrol.

It was not feasible to convert the six-cylinder engine to run on unleaded fuel, and the Nissan engine was chosen as representing the best engine available. However, because of the changing exchange rates over the life of the VL, the cost of the Nissan engines doubled. The final phase of the Commodore's recovery strategy involved the all-new 1988 VN. The VN was significantly wider than before, and brought Holden's mainline family car back to the size of the Kingswoods of the 1970s. The VN Commodore was powered by the American-designed 3.8 litre Buick V6 engine.

GMH Plant, Elizabeth, South Australia

The consolidation of car production at Elizabeth, South Australia, was completed in 1988, but some assembly operations continued at Dandenong until the mid-1990s. The company changed throughout the 1990s, increasing its Australian market share from 21 percent in 1991 to 28.2 percent in 1999. Besides manufacturing Australia's bestselling car, which was exported in significant numbers, Holden continued to export many locally produced engines to power cars made elsewhere. In this decade, Holden adopted a strategy of importing cars it needed to offer a full range of competitive vehicles.

In August 1997, Holden introduced the all-new VT Commodore, the outcome of an AU$600 million development programme that spanned more than half a decade. The new model sported a rounded exterior body shell, improved dynamics, and many firsts for an Australian-built car. A stronger body structure increased crash safety. A revived Monaro, based on the VT Commodore, attracted wide attention after being shown as a concept car at Australian auto shows, and it drew a large waiting list after production began. The revived Monaro was released to the Australian market in October 2001 and ceased production in 2005.

Holden's market surge from the 1990s reversed in the 2000s. In Australia, Holden's market share dropped from 27.5 percent in 2000 to 15.2 percent in 2006. From March 2003, Holden no longer held the number one sales position in Australia, losing ground to Toyota. On 11 December 2013, Holden announced that it would cease vehicle and engine production in Australia by the end of 2017. On 20 October 2017, the last existing vehicle plant, located in Elizabeth, was closed as the production of the Holden Commodore ended.
  • GMH in Australia: Fishermans Bend

  • The last Ford Falcon rolls off the Ford Broadmeadows production line, 7th October 2016


    Ford's XD Falcon, introduced in 1979, bore many external styling resemblances to the European Ford Granada, but was slightly larger and less luxurious. Improved body reinforcing allowed many reductions in component weight to be made, improving performance and braking. The Fairmont Ghia replaced the GXL. Initially, as with the first Commodores, quality and fuel consumption concerns dogged the XD. The 1980 introduction of the Alloy Head improved fuel consumption of the ageing OHV six cylinder engine, an engine with its roots in the 1950s.

    Government pressure, the fuel crisis and more stringent pollution controls began to curtail the development of high performance cars. All these factors, and the success of Ford's compact, the Ford Laser, which was little more than a re-badged and lightly re-styled Mazda 323, brought Ford to a crossroads over the future of the Falcon. Though it was the sales leader in the 6-cylinder and V8 class, sales of those cars were falling as consumers opted for the more economical 4-cylinder family sedans. Ford had seriously considered replacing the Falcon with a model from "Project Capricorn", which would have seen a front-wheel drive car based on a stretched Mazda 626. A four-door version of the European Ford Scorpio, which at the time had only been designed as a five-door hatchback, was also proposed and progressed as far as the clay model stage.

    As the fuel crisis eased, Australians moved away from the downsized Commodore back to the traditional full-size Falcon. In 1982, for the first time in more than a decade, the XE Falcon eclipsed its Holden rival in terms of sales. Ford Falcon remained number one seller in Australia until 1988, when Holden returned to the full-size Australian sedan design. V8s remained absent from Ford's Australian showrooms between 1983 and 1991.

    The XF Falcon sedan and wagon sold between October 1984 and February 1988 (modified to run on unleaded petrol from January 1986), with the Utility running through to March 1993. It remains Ford's best-selling Falcon model to date; over 278,000 XFs were built. The XF Falcon was replaced by the redesigned EA series in 1988. The XF commercials (utility and panel van) continued unchanged due to there being no EA series versions, but over time would gain the EA series engine updates.

    As a result of an AU$700 million development the Ford EA Falcon, introduced in 1988, bore a passing resemblance to the European Ford Scorpio. However under the skin, it remained an entirely Australian design, and is credited as the first Falcon model to employ wind tunnel testing. The EA was also only produced in sedan and station wagon body styles, with the previous-model (XF) utility and panel van continuing in production. The EB, ED, EF and EL were subsequent model facelifts/upgrades of the design.

    The radically redesigned Ford AU Falcon was released in 1998. The gamble on radical styling, which had worked with the Ford Focus, did not particularly endear the AU Falcon to its buyers. Ford attempted to address the AUs in its Series II (April 2000) and Series III (November 2001) updates, which brought minor styling changes, such as the abolition of the unpopular 'waterfall' shaped grille on the base model Forte. The BA and BF were all upgrades of the basic AU vehicle.

    In 2009, the parent Ford company, seeking to avoid the Chapter 11 bankruptcy that had already befallen General Motors and Chrysler, began abandoning overseas projects. Around July 2009 Ford Australia had received permission from Detroit to add a new small car to its Falcon production line. On 23 May 2013, Ford Australia announced that it would stop making cars after 88 years due to uncompetitive manufacturing costs and lacklustre sales. The carmaker's annual financial report, for the previous year, showed a loss of A$141m dollars after tax for the 2012 financial year. This followed a loss of A$290m in 2011 and a total loss of A$600m over the preceding five years, as a result, 1,200 staff would lose their jobs.

    From 1972 to 2016, Ford Falcons were fully Australian designed. Ford had two main factories, both in Victoria: located in the Geelong suburb of Norlane and the northern Melbourne suburb of Campbellfield. The Ford Discovery Centre, a museum of the history of the Ford Motor Company in Australia that was also located in Geelong, closed in 2015; the site is now been occupied by Deakin University. As well as the Falcon, Ford Australia also produced the 4WD Territory, which ceased in 2016. Production of the Falcon ended with the closure of the Broadmeadows (Campbellfield) and Geelong engine and panel stamping plants. The Geelong factory produced its last Australian-made straight-six and V8 engines on 26 September 2016. Assembly at Broadmeadows ended on 7 October 2016.

    The last Mitsubishis roll off the production line


    The Mitsubishi takeover of Chrysler's manufacturing operations in Australia led to the introduction of a number of new models - all imports, the most notable of which were a pair of 2-door coupes - the Scorpion and its big brother, the Starion.

    Production of the popular Sigma and Colt range of vehicles at the Tonsley Park plant in Adelaide continued under the Mitsubishi name until the late 1980s, when production was switched exclusively to the Magna, and later the Verada lines. Several model refreshes during the 1990s kept the Magna and Verada updated; however, by the early 2000s, it was clear that the Magna/Verada line had aged considerably. A minor facelift to the Magna/Verada line in 2003 failed to lift sales.

    Approval for construction of a new vehicle was gained from the parent company and funding was provided to re-engineer the Tonsley Park plant with the result that a new vehicle, the Mitsubishi 380, was delivered to the market in late 2005. The Mitsubishi 380, the successor vehicle to the Magna, raised hopes that the vehicle will be successful, buoyed partly by the sales success that the Magna experienced when it was launched as a new line in 1985 and partly by the fact that the Australian automobile market is one of the few developed markets in the world currently experiencing growth. However, it sold poorly since its introduction, which necessitated the lowering of production volume to as little as 50 cars per day and further reductions in the workforce. The plant was eventually closed down completely in March 2008.

    Toyota manufacturing plant, Altona, Vic.


    In the 1970s, AMI Toyota began investing in an engine and stamping plant to consolidate its position as a high local content vehicle manufacturer. In 1988 Toyota's local operations were unified to form Toyota Motor Corporation Australia and work began on restructuring and strengthening the group as a major step towards achieving international competitiveness and building vital export business. Toyota consolidated vehicle production in 1994-95 at its new world-ranking Altona plant in Melbourne which, by 2005, was producing more than 500 cars every day at the plant. The first engines were built at the Altona plant in 1978. Three years later, the plant began volume production of body panels.

    Toyota had begun the decade with the 4th generation Corolla and 6th generation Corona as its frontline products. The new 5th generation Corolla arrived in 1984 and saw the model go front wheel drive for the first time. Midway through the 1984 model year, the rear-drive Corolla Coupe and Liftback were offered with a new dual-overhead cam, 16-valve version of the 1.6-litre four rated at a robust 124 bhp. This DOHC engine, along with the front-drive Corolla's five-speed transaxle, also served as the drivetrain in the mid-engine MR2, which came to Australia in early 1985. All Corollas were front-drive for 1987; the all wheel drive Tercel used a solid axle rear suspension with coil springs, while the rest used struts all around. The 4WD wagon was sold from 1988 to 1994 and had different bodywork to other Corollas.

    The longest-running Toyota Corona model was the rear-wheel drive seventh-generation (T142) model, which began production in 1981 and was manufactured locally by Toyota Australia until 1987, even though by that time a front-wheel drive version (originally called the Toyota Corona FF and marketed in some countries as the Toyota Carina) had already been released elsewhere. The Corona was eventually dropped in Australia in favour of the larger Camry, but in New Zealand, Toyota continued to offer versions of the Corona, assembled locally at Toyota's plant in Thames, New Zealand. The Camry replaced the Corona on the Port Melbourne assembly line, and continued to be built there until 1994 when Toyota's vehicle production was transferred to the company's new $420 million facility at Altona. In 1988, Holden entered a new alliance with Toyota. The joint venture formed a new company: United Australian Automobile Industries (UAAI). Under the alliance, Holden began selling rebadged versions of Toyota's Corolla and Camry, as the Holden Nova and Apollo, while Toyota sold the VN Commodore as the Toyota Lexcen until 1992. In 1995, UAAI was dissolved.

    In 1994, all vehicle manufacturing operations were moved from Port Melbourne to Altona. The last vehicle produced at the Port Melbourne plant was a Toyota Camry and the first vehicle produced at the Altona plant a Toyota Corolla. Port Melbourne continued performing minor operations for TMCA. In 2005, the ten-millionth worldwide Toyota Camry was built at TMCA's Altona plant. The complete closure and end of all Toyota production operations at the Port Melbourne plant took place in May 2006. All manufacturing was shifted to Altona.

    In February 2014, it was announced Toyota would cease manufacturing vehicles and engines in Australia by the end of 2017. The decision was based on the unfavourable Australian dollar making exports not viable, the high cost of local manufacture and the high amount of competition in a relatively small local market. The company consolidated its corporate functions in Melbourne at the end of 2017 when its Sales and Marketing operation relocated from Woolooware Bay, Sydney. Head office (CHQ) remains in Port Melbourne and the Altona plant retained for other functions including a Centre Of Excellence and vehicle proving facility known as the Autodrome. The Toyota Altona plant is set for a new lease on life, with a plan launched to develop a green hydrogen transport hub on the site in Melbourne's west.

    Australian Motor Vehicle Manufacture: Pre-World War II | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s and beyond

Holden Monaro CV6

The last Ford Falcon

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