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Ram trucks headed Down Under

Sheep’s clothing: The Ram brand will make its debut in Australia in September, and the 2500 and 3500 variants are set to be the most popular.

Australia to get heavy-duty Ram utes this year via Fiat Chrysler NZ conversion deal

14 Apr 2015

BIG, tough, full-size American-built Ram pick-up trucks are coming to Australia in September this year, with Fiat Chrysler New Zealand striking a deal to import and convert the hulking utilities to right-hand drive for the Antipodes.

While Ram pick-ups are currently converted to RHD by a number of operators in Australia, the deal struck between Fiat Chrysler NZ and the Ram brand’s global parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is for full Australian volume compliance.

This means the vehicles will meet all relevant Australian Design Rules (ADRs) and that there will be no limits on the number of trucks the importer can convert and sell in Australia, whereas if the company was granted low-volume compliance it would be restricted to 200 vehicles per year.

Fiat Chrysler NZ is an independent joint-venture company set up two years ago by former Fiat Chrysler Australia CEO Clyde Campbell and Ateco Automotive owner Neville Crichton, with the entity responsible for distributing many of FCA’s brands including Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Fiat and Alfa Romeo.

In an interview with GoAuto this week, Mr Campbell said he is confident there is a market for the big Ram pick-ups in Australia and that negotiations were underway with prospective dealers.

He would not confirm that the Walkinshaw Group in Melbourne has been contracted to handle the conversions, as media reports have suggested, saying only that Fiat Chrysler NZ would be responsible for the operation.

The factory-run FCA Australia is not involved in the conversion deal, but has an interest in the program given its dealer network is expected to be heavily engaged.

Mr Campbell highlighted his own personal experience as a reason to set up the Ram business.

“I’ve always believed in vehicles of this size and nature as having a genuine place in our culture and I guess it comes from having a farm of my own and looking at things that farmers might use them for, then saying: ‘Well, there is not much else that can do what these things do,’” he told GoAuto.

“From a towing perspective, there is nothing that can do what the super-utes do.” Mr Campbell questioned the quality of some RHD conversion outfits in Australia, adding that the increasing number of operators presented an opportunity to start a new outfit with support from FCA in the US.

He also claimed Fiat Chrysler NZ would be the only Ram converter that has the backing of the manufacturer.

“Being an authorised general distributor for Fiat Chrysler network (in New Zealand), obviously it suits me to have only authorised product in the market. So where there are converters operating, you have such wild and varying standards that it’s not good for the brand,” he said.

“I have got a large capital commitment on the brand the brand needs to be good otherwise my bank manager’s not happy. I had a look at the product out there and said: ‘Gee, if someone was to do this properly, it could be a good proposition’.

“And by properly, I mean don’t use any fibreglass. I don’t know any converters that don’t have a fibreglass-free car.” While the new operation has only received approval in the past year, Mr Campbell said he was pushing for RHD production for Ram trucks as far back as 2010 when he was the CEO of what was then Chrysler Group Australia.

“As soon as I left the employ of the organisation to become the general distributor here in New Zealand, where I am now, I immediately said ‘I think there is an opportunity here’ because the converters are selling nearly 1000 vehicles a year across both countries.” FCA Australia president and CEO Pat Dougherty has previously stated that he is actively pushing the US to change its left-hand-drive-only policy for the next-generation Ram, due about 2018.

However, Mr Campbell said this has been accounted for in the business case for local conversions.

“We have always borne that in mind in terms of economics of business case. We have a great working relationship with Pat and his team and all the guys at Auburn Hills (Michigan HQ). We know they are actively looking towards the next-gen Ram truck for factory right-hand drive – it hasn’t had a business case completed or passed for it yet.

“Ultimately they are the manufacturer and at this stage we are their appointed representative in Australia for Ram. We have a very close working relationship with them, albeit that nothing is forever.” The trucks to be sold in Australian will be sourced from factories in Warren, Michigan, and Saltillo in Mexico.

Media reports have suggested that the Walkinshaw Group will be responsible for the conversions, but a spokesperson from the Melbourne-based operation told GoAuto this week that the company had “no comment” on the matter at this time.

Walkinshaw – the British-owned company founded by former Scottish racing champion Tom Walkinshaw and now controlled by his son Ryan – turns out Holden Special Vehicles (HSV) models at its production facility in Clayton, south-east of Melbourne, and manages the distribution of Indian brand Tata via its Fusion Automotive subsidiary.

Mr Campbell said the conversions would be done in-house with a number external agencies involved, and it would likely be in Australia, although this was yet to be confirmed.

“We will be conducting the conversion. We will certainly use a number of external engineering firms to get us to where we want to be but for all intents and purposes it will be a Fiat Chrysler NZ-converted product,” he said.

While he did not name any engineering firms specifically, there is a chance Walkinshaw could be involved as it shores up new business in the lead up to Holden’s withdrawal from local manufacturing in 2017.

While FCA Australia is not involved or linked to the venture in any way, Mr Campbell said the network could eventually include some retail sites that already sell Fiat Chrysler products, although not exclusively, and that dealers were yet to be appointed.

“Obviously where it makes sense for both parties, that would be the preferred route, but we have got to look on that at a case-by-case basis together with Pat (Dougherty) because obviously he doesn’t want to give up workshop capacity, for example,” he said.

“So it has to be a dealer that can prove we can do this without impacting his business and do the job I want them to do. We are in the early stages of that. We haven’t ruled anybody out but we haven’t appointed anyone either.” Mr Campbell said Fiat Chrysler NZ has not got a specific target in mind for volume, but added that it would be “quite conservative”.

He said the model range was yet to be determined, but that it would feature a number of variants from the Ram truck range that includes the light-duty 1500, all the way up to the heavy-duty 5500, but with initial focus on the 2500 and 3500.

The 1500 has a 500kg carrying capacity, which means it would not necessarily be competitive against high-selling one-tonne utes, such as the Toyota HiLux, Ford Ranger and Holden Colorado. Last year, more than 170,000 4x4 and 4x2 utes were sold in Australia, which is seen globally as a lucrative market for light-commercial vehicles.

Mr Campbell also said Fiat Chrysler NZ is not targeting a specific market or buyer, but acknowledged the appeal of Ram trucks to the mining sector, as well as buyers utilising horse floats, boats and other heavy-duty towing, given the 3.5-tonne towing capacity on some variants.

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