Paul Gover, chief reporter Carsguide, recalls when the Blue Oval’s factories were local landmarks.
When the lights go out at Broadmeadows for the last time it will be more than just a factory shutdown. It will be a deeply emotional day for everyone who has ever had any association with Ford Australia, from the humblest assembly line workers up to the great and the good – not always the same – who have occupied the corner office at the company headquarters on Sydney Road.
However, sad as it is, it’s also sad that it has happened before. It wasn’t that long ago, in the 1990s, that Ford Australia had successful assembly plants at Homebush in Sydney and Eagle Farm in Brisbane. There was also a wide spread of suppliers across the country who delivered parts and expertise to the Blue Oval brand. Even Albury has played its part, thanks to the Borg Warner gearbox factory that was bolted into the production plan for the Falcon.
The crumbling wreckage of Ford’s Brisbane factory still survived until a few short years ago, a long time after the final run of the old-school Fairlanes that were built there in the 1980s. The last remnants of Ford’s Eagle Farm presence is in the industrial wasteland near the airport and the site is still visited by the friends of Ford who want to see for themselves the spot where history was written from the 1930s.
At Homebush, the former Ford factory building has been converted into modern offices and it’s ironic that one of the tenants is Sime Darby Motors, the importer of Peugeot and Citroen cars. The building is home to the GT Café, where a group of former Ford workers catch up from time to time. Just across from the original redbrick factory, on the same site where Ford once operated, is the shiny new base for Kia Motors in Australia.
So Brisbane and Sydney both reflect the changes in Australian motoring since Ford Australia was established in the 1920s as a subsidiary of Ford Canada. It was a time when there was plenty of local assembly work, fitting bodies to chassis – the way Holden got going – and pushing T-Model Fords out the doors to help put Australia on wheels.
Driving one of those original Tin Lizzies, something I’ve done a couple of times, shows just how tenuous things were in the early days of motoring. The cars were flimsy at best and not easy to handle, but could be hooked up to power a water pump – using one of the back wheels – as easily as driving to work in the big smoke.
I only visited Eagle Farm once when it was working, for the press preview of a Fairlane in the 1980s. The building looked typically Ford, with the same basic design and bricks and paintwork that’s still familiar at Broadmeadows and Geelong. But falling import duties, and a new post-1984 plan for the Australian motor industry that meant cutting models and complexity, emphasised the need to centralise production for ensure greater efficiency at Broadmeadows and the closure of the Homebush factory.
The Parramatta Road site survived for much longer, because it was the base for smallcar production. In my time that mostly meant the Cortina and Escort, which were largely assembled from parts produced in Britain and shipped down under; and the Laser, which was the local spin-off of the Mazda 323.
Homebush was a bustling operation in the 1980s and it was considered such a threat that Toyota Australia – under the direction of livewire marketing boss Bob Miller – managed a surprising piece of ambush marketing. It bought the rights to an advertising billboard on the rail line that ran alongside the factory, so Brand T could push its message in FoMoCo heartland.
The Ford workers in Sydney and Brisbane were just as committed and passionate as the ones today in Geelong and Broadmeadows, as well as the ones who will keep their jobs in engineering and development in Melbourne and at the proving ground at Lara.
The full history of Ford at Homebush begins on March 31, 1936 and ends in September 1994, when the Laser went out of production. In between was the RHD conversion (pictured below) of the first Mustangs sold in Australia.
It was a long run and a good one, and the site survived for a long time as a distribution base for Ford in Sydney, but eventually the economics meant it was sold and re-developed into a business park. And that’s the irony, as car-making was a great business in Australia for a very long time. Ford help lay the foundations for our motoring culture in the days of the T-Model, long before the Falcon arrived in the sixties to convert families across the country to the Big Aussie Six and spark the rivalry with Holden which will only be extinguished when the last Commodore comes down the line in Adelaide next year.
The rivalry between the two companies has been as bitter as any football feud – think Collingwood-against-Essendon in Melbourne, or St George-against-South Sydney in Sydney – and that’s down to the people as much as the cars. But it’s the cars from Ford, and the proud history of local assembly in factories that are already just a page in the history books, which has sparked the passion and excitement through the years.
It could have been a Fairlane from Eagle Farm or a Cortina from Parramatta Road – once the beating heart of the motoring world in Sydney – but it was a car built with pride and passion by people who felt they were making a difference and making Australia better.
It’s been the same, too, at Broadmeadows and Geelong and that’s something we’ve already known but been reminded about – many times – in recent times while talking to the people of Ford.
They are the unknown soldiers who fought for Ford and helped create something special on the roads of Australia. And now Broadmeadows and Geelong are going the same way.
It’s sad, desperately sad and disappointing, but at least there are still reminders of the factory days and the cars they created to keep us cheering for the Blue Oval.