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Left for a change – really means business

I get to fly quite a lot with this role, I’m not skiting about it as most of the time it’s a bit of a pain; what with getting to the airport early, parking (and the massive fee that comes with it) plus time away from the family. I’m not unappreciative about it either, it can very easily be viewed as a perk of the role – But as most of the journeys are around NZ or across to ‘Greater NZ’ (aka Australia) I unfortunately seldom get the chance to ‘turn left’ at the plane door and travel Business Class. So I was doubly excited when Ateco invited me to Melbourne to learn more about their ASV factory AND told me I’d be flying up front.

ram_2500_nz_0016I had the pleasure of ‘climbing’ behind the wheel of the new RAM 2500 last month, it was quite the experience. Yes, it’s a mammoth truck and almost too big for NZ roads plus with its seemingly unnecessary near 7 tonne towing capacity and 1,084Nm of torque; it could be said that it’s borderline overkill – however, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The ride was enormous and yet the feeling of trucker comradery (with its Jake brake and height) was bigger still. To top it off, it was the obvious attention to detail and trouble that ASV had put into turning the left hand drive Yank Tank into a Right Hand Drive Australasian spectacle that was the icing on the cake. So having the opportunity to go the factory and gain an understanding of the process involved brought the full mechanical geek out in me – and the Air NZ Business Class ticket (just quietly) brought out the inner snob.

ASV (American Special Vehicles) is a joint venture between Ateco Automotive Pty Ltd (the guys that bring us mouth watering marques such as Fiat, Chrysler, Jeep, Alfa Romeo and Maserati) and Walkinshaw Automotive Group (the guys that bring us the hair raising HSV).

These two Australasian automotive giants have put their combined skills and heads together to bring us a (not a converted but) RE-MANUFACTURED RAM TRUCK.

asv_ram_productionline_0005Let me explain.

RAM Trucks broke away from Dodge in 2009 and are manufactured in Mexico (heavy) and Detroit (light) at a rate of 350,000 per year. As these volume numbers would attest, RAM trucks are evidently very desirable – but they are only produced in Left Hand Drive. Ateco saw the gap in the Australaisian market for a truck that had all the usability of a ‘smaller’ ute but had the advantage of size and vast towing capability – this is a gap that the RAM more than easily fills and in turn puts it in a virtually unassailable position. However, there was just that tiny issue of being left hand drive.

Now; Left to Right conversions are not a new thing and there are many overseas vehicles that have been ‘adapted’ to run on Australasian soil but ASV wanted their RAMs more than simply converted, they wanted them seamlessly homogenized into our RHD world. So (with WAG’s expertise) they went back to the drawing board – or blueprints at least – and basically re-manufactured

asv_ram_productionline_0004Before we were walked through the re-manufacturing process, ASV joint C.O.O John Di Berardino gave us the facts and figures involved in undertaking an exercise such as this. As you would expect, RAM trucks are very protective when it comes to producing their vehicles and this was the first time they have worked on this type of venture (no pressure then). Over 2 years and 30,000 man hours went into getting this project off the ground, coupled with $2.8M in tooling, setting up a parts OEM, a Sales dealership, a fully trained service department… and that’s essentially before the first truck has even arrived. Make no mistake, this is not something ASV have gone into blindly!

Filled with a greater understanding of the behind the scenes work, it was time to put our High Vis vests on. The production line is very hands on but also runs like clockwork, it has to, over 400 parts have to be exchanged and reworked. First up, the Cab is separated from the chassis (a remarkably easy job – 6 odd bolts and some tubes and cables) then both take different routes down the line. The main focus for the chassis is to move the steering column from left to right and that means moving the steering box – a project that (although the solution looks simple enough) took some real design creativity and some highly specialised casting and fitting, plus some serious strengthening and stabilising.

ram_2500_nz_0089The Cab needs a little more attention. It is virtually gutted. Seats, dash and carpets all removed exposing the bare metal below. The floor panels are re-formatted, bonded and welded. The Seats are stripped and swapped around, then there’s the huge Dashboard to convert. The frame was redesigned to mirror the LHD which sounds easy enough (ahem) but there were heaps of major and minor changes that needed to be addressed and formed (not botched with fibreglass and a nail file). ASV are proud to say that there are virtually zero enhancements made to the RHD RAM’s – they are (nearly) as pure as the ones leaving the factory in Mexico but they have added a territory specific radio and speedometer.

The cabin and chassis are reunited and double/treble checked (possibly un-necessary as there are PCP – Process Control Plans every step of the way) before starting up and given a small test run to be sales ready. It takes 3 days to re-engineer a RAM truck and with 28 new employees in the manufacturing plant they are able to produce up to 40 trucks a month, no mean feat since this is such a ‘hands on’ process.

Although unnecessary and unrequired (for this size of truck), for added peace of mind  ASV crash tested the RAM in RHD configuration and it conforms to Australian Design Rule 69/00 (Full frontal crash) – they showed us the battered shell of a 2500 – I couldn’t help but wonder what the wall that it hit looks like!

ram_2500_nz_0034With HSV and ASV at the same site in Melbourne, they are arguably Aussies 3rd biggest car manufacturer and we’re told that RAM sales have been good right off the bat (I guess if the US is anything to go by, so they should). The support network is currently 30 dealers in Aus and 13 in NZ so don’t be surprised to see a RAM truck on a driveway near you soon (rest assured, you won’t be able to miss it).

It was a very informative trip that highlighted whether it’s turning from right to left at the plane door or turning Left hand drive to Right, both options mean business.

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