A country that once built cars: A sad goodbye to a manufacturing industry

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Moving on: Holden engineers are being offered new opportunities abroad, as well as outside the company. Sacked Ford workers leaving the Broadmeadows plant at the end of their last shift. Photo: Penny Stephens

杭州桑拿

Ford Australia’s Broadmeadows plant has stopped running. Photo: Supplied

To my mates and me, the acrid fumes from the automotive paint and subsequent baking booths merely provided enough cover for our most daring stunt yet – smoking cigarettes right under the nose of one of our most reviled and authoritarian teachers.

With those hydrocarbons swirling about, who knows how dangerous this really was?

This was the 1970s and, not for the first time, we were being led around the sprawling Chrysler-Mitsubishi factory by our technical studies teacher and a company guide.

As they shouted over a cacophony of noise and the occasional shower of sparks, explaining the various stages in the automotive production line, we took advantage, whenever they weren’t looking, to lug on the illicit fags held cupped and lit in our lumber-jacket pockets.

If memory serves, on the production line that day in the Tonsley plant on Adelaide’s southern industrial fringe, were the first of the jointly badged Japanese-Australian vehicles. They may have been the Valiant Gallants, or Colts and Sigmas, or perhaps the bigger Valiants in the ’70s – in sedan and station-wagon and utility format – and the racier Valiant Charger, a Dodge-derived, yet only half-successful, foil to the Falcon GTs and Holden Monaros.

As teenage boys, we were pretty well all car nuts, linking our aspiring vehicle ownership with the freedom and independence we naturally craved.

Among my crew, a number of mates fully expected to wind up in the plant as soon as they were old enough – assembling crankshafts, spot-welding panels, fitting exhausts or perhaps installing windscreens.

These were realistic, attainable, goals born of visible horizons.

As for our car plans, we coveted only Holdens, Fords, and Valiants.

The production line was just that. We’d seen most of it before anyway. After all, for me, this was (I think) my third school excursion to the giant car-making complex.

I guess it was a default choice for teachers – an easily arranged local sojourn from the two schools I attended, situated as both were, just kilometres either side of the factory.

Car making formed the axis point of much employment and interconnected economic activity in the city’s south. A nascent wine-making industry in the nearby Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale was talking off but that was largely a rural pursuit.

Towards Adelaide’s northern outskirts, lay Holden’s Elizabeth plant. These major employers, Holden and Chrysler-Mitsubishi, were the bridge pylons of the SA economy during the heyday of Australian manufacturing.

And they seemed every bit as permanent as the city itself.

It was a similar story across the border in Victoria where legendary manufacturing plants like Ford’s Geelong and Broadmeadows sites and GM Holden’s Fisherman’s Bend – where Ben Chifley had greeted the first “FX” Holden rolling off the production line in 1948 – were household names.

Not long after this however, Chrysler, which had long been the financially weaker of the three Australian-American big boys, folded and the Tonsley plant became a solely Mitsubishi affair turning out some pretty gormless marques like the front-wheel-drive Magna.

This trailed the rise of the Japanese car industry, noted for smaller, cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars. But even this was a mere way-station on the road to oblivion.

On Friday, the last Holden Cruze rolled off the production line in Holden’s Elizabeth plant and Ford ceased its manufacturing operations altogether at its Broadmeadows and Geelong sites.

The Falcon, a staple of Australian roads, winner of countless head-to-head races against Holden, and apple of many a young Australian’s eye, will also die.

Holden will continue making some vehicles, as will Toyota, but by this time next year Australia will be a country that once built cars.

Thousands of people will have been tossed out of work – 600 by Ford last week alone.

Some will have re-trained and started new careers already. Others will keep looking for months and perhaps pick up some hours.

Many will not work again, as was the case for about a third of the car-workers turfed out of Tonsley when Mitsubishi finally wound up in South Australia in 2008.

As Labor’s Kim Carr, a tireless defender of the Australian car industry, said on Friday, the two areas where Ford is shutting manufacturing are notable for joblessness rates well above the national average – as high as 22 per cent.

“Youth unemployment is harder to gauge, but on some estimates it is as high as 40 per cent in Melbourne’s north-west,” he wrote.

“Many of the Broadmeadows workers are also older and from non-English speaking backgrounds, which makes job hunting harder even at the best of times.”

Given that the entire sector had to be propped up by taxpayers to defy the allure of cheaper labour in China and Thailand, its demise has been coming for a decades.

That doesn’t make it less significant.

I guess the idea of taking kids to a local manufacturing plant seems pretty curious today. But then, like many people, I now drive a German car.

Mark Kenny is chief political correspondent.