Remember when American pick-up trucks were considered nothing but oversized oddities in Australia? These lumbering giants loomed large on roads clogged with comparatively tiny car-based utes, and had usually been converted to right-hand drive in the kind of questionable backyard labs that wouldn’t look out of place on Breaking Bad.
No longer. Any vacuum left by locally built workhorses has been comprehensively filled (and then some) by American-built pick-ups, with trailblazers from Ram and Chevrolet now set to be joined by a stream of new and gigantic metal – all with names so macho they’d get Rambo excited – from Nissan, Toyota and Ford.
These jumbo dual-cabs haven’t just grown a market segment, but uncovered a whole new one, somehow revitalising Australian automotive manufacturing along the way.
Cars aren’t made here anymore, sure. At least not from scratch. But someone has to convert these vehicles from American-spec left-hookers to right-hand drive, with the Victorian facility responsible for Ram and HSV now home to more than 160 Australian workers. That number is growing all the time, too, with the factory introducing 24-hour shifts to meet a backlog of almost 500 orders.
The point is that big utes suddenly mean big business, and this bubbling pool of buyers hasn’t gone unnoticed by other manufacturers, with as many as four new players either studying, or in the process of introducing, their own large dual-cabs in Australia.
And while they might all look a little different, and wear a different badge, they all subscribe to an identical formula: huge engine, huge dimensions, a huge thirst for petrol, and enough under-foot grunt to shift tectonic plates.
Nissan is one brand with its eye on the pick-up prize, with plans to launch the just-updated Titan in Australia “as soon as possible”. While local executives have been pushing for a factory-delivered right-hand-drive large ute, that window is understood to be closing, if it’s not already shut, and so a Ram-style conversion program is currently being investigated.
And given Nissan has just dipped a sizeable toe into those localisation waters, with the launch of the Premcar-tuned Navara Warrior, it’s something that will happen sooner rather than later.
“There are really two options for us. The first is that the factory would produce right-hand-drive vehicles for our market, but that’s not the case at the moment,” Nissan Australia boss Stephen Lester tells Wheels. “The second is that we work on local conversion and homologation.
COMING SOON TO AUSTRALIA: Toyota Tundra vs Nissan Titan
“And if we can make Titan happen, it will more than likely happen with conversion. We’re already down the path of finding who can do that for us, and we’re working as fast as possible, because I’ve said before that I’d like the Titan here ASAP. Right now we’re working with Premcar on the Warrior. So if right-hand drive can’t happen we can look to conversion, provided the truck market is still growing.”
One company that knows plenty about local conversion is HSV, given Holden’s traditional tuning arm now has nothing in the way of homegrown product to work with. Instead, engineers there are already hard at work moving the steering wheel of the comparatively slow-selling Camaro and bigger Silverado pick-ups, the 2500 and 3500.
Yet in the same facility – though under a different company name and on a separate production line – Ram engineers have struck gold converting the smaller 1500 dual-cab, which is selling like a towering slab of American hotcakes. The brand had sold almost 2000 units to the end of September, with more than 80 percent of those sales represented by the V8-powered 1500.
If you think that would be a sore point for HSV – which has so far been limited to converting the bigger utes, despite a smaller Chevrolet Silverado 1500 being offered in the USA – you’d be exactly right.
But while it’s yet to be officially confirmed, it’s a problem they’ll soon be solving. Wheels understands that the brand will next turn its attention to the Silverado 1500 – in fact, the team’s engineers have already made research trips to the States – with HSV keen to hit buyers where they’re shopping.
We know, too, that Toyota is desperate to fill what might be the only gap in its bulging Australian product portfolio, and could well be one of only two manufacturers to introduce its large dual-cab entrant – the giant Tundra – as a right-hand-drive vehicle direct from that car’s US manufacturing facility.
While technically still “under study” by Toyota’s Australian arm, its US cousins have made no secret of just how keen they are to see the next-generation Tundra, due around 2021, go global, with the brand’s entire dual-cab family to be built on a new and international-friendly platform.
“We’re working on our next-generation Tundra, and I can’t wait to show it to you,” says Toyota’s North American group vice-president and general manager, Jack Hollis. “I would love to see that car go global. We have a great relationship with Australia – the company there does fantastic work.”
And finally there’s Ford, producer of not just the best-selling dual-cab in America, but the most popular vehicle on the planet, the F-Series pick-up. That, too, is ready for an update – expected to arrive next year – and key among the changes will be the capacity for it to be manufactured in both left- and right-hand drive, with executives holding up the global success of the Mustang as its case in point.
For its part, Ford in Australia says the Mustang’s success “blew our minds away”, and should the F-150 be offered with its steering on the right, then it would “absolutely bring one in”.
“If customers go that way, we’d absolutely bring one in. We’ve had full-size pick-ups here before, when they were available in right-hand drive,” says Ford Australia’s marketing manager, Danni Winter.
“We always research before we bring a product in. We did that with Mustang, and even though we researched it, it still blew our minds away, how much we were able to grow the sports segment overall.”
The American invasion, then, has only just begun.
The big Yank utes slated for Oz
Chevrolet Silverado 1500
- Engine: 6.2-litre V8
- Outputs: 313kW/623Nm
- Load capacity/Towing: 1021kg/4218kg
- Likelihood for Oz: All but confirmed. Expect in Q1
- Engine: 5.0-litre V8
- Outputs: 295kW/542Nm
- Load capacity/Towing: 1483kg/5261kg
- Likelihood for Oz: 50:50. Next-gen due in 2020
- Engine: 5.6-litre V8
- Outputs: 298kW/560Nm
- Load capacity/Towing: 875kg/4381kg
- Likelihood for Oz: All but confirmed. Expect this year
- Engine: 5.7-litre V8
- Outputs: 284kW/544Nm
- Load capacity/Towing: 784kg/4626kg
- Likelihood for Oz: 50:50. Next-gen due in 2020/21