Building a RAM 2500 Laramie for Australia (Sponsored)
We hit the factory floor to learn how a RAM 2500 Laramie is built for Australia… is this the future for Aussie auto manufacturing?
IT’S NO SECRET that building complete cars in Australia has no future. Ford is already gone as a local manufacturer; Toyota has named the date it will turn off life support and Holden won’t be far behind. And while that’s awful news, it doesn’t necessarily mean this country doesn’t have an automotive future. No, it won’t be an industry as we knew it, but there are still chapters to be written.
And one of those chapters will concern operations such as American Special Vehicles (ASV) a joint venture between Melbourne-based Walkinshaw Automotive Group and Ateco Automotive, the importer of RAM Trucks into this country. Just as the British motor industry rose from a post-Thatcher, post-industrial train-wreck to re-emerge as a series of high-end, cottage-industry car-makers and modifiers, ASV is pointing the way for our industry.
Specialist importer Ateco Automotive has been distributing motor vehicles in Australia and New Zealand for decades. It now has the distribution rights for RAM Trucks for both Australia and New Zealand. Walkinshaw’s experience in modifying cars as part of its Holden Special Vehicles business, meanwhile, means it knows a thing or two about making wholesale changes to new cars and making them work. The third member of this triangle, RAM Trucks, is a division of the Chrysler family. The joint venture company, then, was set up in 2014 as a way of converting left-hand-drive RAMs (the only variety built by RAM Trucks) to right-hand-drive so they could be sold new in Australia and New Zealand.
ASV started converting RAMs back in late 2015, but work on the project began about 15 months before that in mid-2014 with the design and development taking place. The US factory still takes a keen interest in the operation and even sent a team of engineers and suppliers to Clayton last year to see how it all worked. That relationship will be strengthened further when RAM sends a pre-release MY2018 truck to Clayton mid this year for re-engineering development to begin.
The actual conversion process begins with each shipment of RAM Trucks being taken to ASV’s Clayton facility in Melbourne’s east where the first step is to separate the body from the chassis in a process ASV refers to as de-marrying. That consumes the first two hours of what is a two-day process, but the move saves many hours in the big picture as it allows far greater access to the truck’s sub-assemblies and cabin structure. Twenty-three full-time positions were created in the establishment of ASV and those workers currently are capable of turning out about 500 conversions a year with that figure expected to rise.
One of the big challenges in converting the trucks was to arrive at a finished article that feels and drives like the original left-hand-drive version. The secret there was to use as much of the original vehicle as possible. Of course, that only gets you so far when you’re re-engineering intrinsic systems such as steering, for instance, but ASV took the pragmatic approach when new parts did need to be sourced. That approach amounted to, where ever possible, using the original equipment manufacturer.
In the case of the steering system, that meant approaching the US-based original manufacturer of the RAM’s steering box and nutting out a deal that saw the OE maker turn out a batch of mirror-image, right-hand-drive steering boxes. As well as arriving at a unit that looked and felt factory, it also meant that it could be fitted to the original factory chassis rail with less modification. Perhaps even more importantly for ASV, the right-hand-drive steering box carries the full certification and validation of the OE manufacturer, saving plenty of time at this end.
Even then, it wasn’t that simple. The original left-hand-drive RAM’s left chassis rail, for instance, had the fittings to accept the steering box. The right-hand chassis rail did not. That’s where ASV’s in-house modifications come into their own. By developing a jig and a powerful electro-magnet to hold everything in place, the right-hand chassis rail can be drilled and welded to accept the right-hand-drive steering box. The finished job not only has all the structural integrity of the RAM’s original steering set-up; it also looks like the factory item reflected in a mirror.
That mirror-imaging process extends to the firewall which needs to have sections cut out and new pressed panels welded in. This is where Walkinshaw’s experience as a car manufacturer in its own right (HSV) comes in. By tapping into suppliers with which it has an existing relationship, ASV was able to source a company that could press the new panels which are then welded into place at Clayton and allow the correct mounting and placement of critical components such as the brake master cylinder.
The dashboard was another component that needed to be made from scratch and one that ASV was able to source locally. In fact, the entire dashboard is made by a Melbourne company that currently makes the dashboards for locally-built Toyota Camrys. Making dashboards for RAM Trucks will not fill the void left when Toyota ditches local manufacturing in October this year, but it’s a start and, again, points towards a possible future for manufacturing in this country. Other local suppliers to the RAM conversion project include makers of wiring looms and metal tubing for the relocated air-conditioning and braking systems.
Where it can, ASV re-uses as much of the original vehicle as possible. That includes the steering column, braking hardware including the master-cylinder, suspension and as many interior fittings as can be salvaged. Those include the air-conditioning hardware, most of the switches and controls and even the gauges are saved and re-calibrated to reflect Australian ADRs. A big part of the conversion is changing the lighting from a layout that works in the US to a set-up that will comply with relevant Australian Design Rules. Even the seat-belts must be replaced with units that satisfy local design-rule requirements.
Of course, not only did those components and systems have to be developed, engineered and then manufactured, they also had to be validated locally as well as independently homologated to ensure they met each and every government requirement. There’s no short-cut to that process either, and a large chunk of the project’s budget was swallowed by this homologation procedure.
The final step in the development process for ASV was to hurl a perfectly good truck into a solid barrier in the name of crash testing. Interestingly, this was not a homologation requirement, but a move that ASV volunteered to carry out. While a computer simulation would have been sufficient for many operations, in ASV’s case, the company standpoint was that relying on a computer simulation alone was not good enough and that it was an acceptable alternative to a real-world coast test..
The RAM Trucks are not inexpensive vehicles, nor are they a volume seller in the context of the broader Australian car market. But they do fill a niche for those who need to tow big loads or simply want a slice of Americana. And as a hint as to how the local automotive industry might look in a few years, they, and the outfit that makes them, could be some kind of a blueprint for the future.