MAK­ING THE RAM RHD

Motor Equipment News - - FRONT PAGE - Story and pho­tos by Damien O’Car­roll

De­spite be­ing a truly Chrysler USA-ap­proved ve­hi­cle of­fered through all of Fiat Chrysler’s deal­er­ships in New Zealand, the right-hand-drive Ram 2500/3500 mod­els now on sale here ac­tu­ally leave the fac­tory in Mex­ico in left-hand drive form.

They are then shipped to Aus­tralia where the con­ver­sion to RHD process takes place. Ex­cept con­verted is far from the right word to de­scribe the process each Ram goes through.

In fact, both Fiat Chrysler and the com­pany they have part­nered up with to of­fer Rams in RHD form stren­u­ously avoid the “C” word al­to­gether, pre­fer­ring to use the term “re­man­u­fac­ture” to de­scribe the process be­fore be­ing of­fered for sale in Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

And hav­ing wit­nessed it first hand, I can’t help but agree with them.

The “them” I re­fer to here is, of course, Fiat Chrysler’s Aus­tralian dis­trib­u­tor Ateco Au­to­mo­tive and a com­pany you may have heard of pre­vi­ously – the Walkin­shaw Au­to­mo­tive Group.

Walkin­shaw is well known for be­ing the com­pany that takes or­di­nary Com­modores and turns them into fire-breath­ing HSVs in a process that no-one would ever call “mod­i­fy­ing”.

And it is a sim­i­lar (but even more in­volved) process that Walkin­shaw takes the LHD Rams through upon their ar­rival in Aus­tralia.

New com­pany

Ateco and Walkin­shaw have part­nered up to form a new com­pany called “Amer­i­can Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles” or ASV for short (no­tice a sim­i­lar­ity there?) that is re­spon­si­ble for the re­man­u­fac­tur­ing process at Walkin­shaw’s Mel­bourne head­quar­ters.

While the fa­cil­ity is cur­rently home to the production of HSV ve­hi­cles and the re­man­u­fac­ture of Rams into RHD form, it has pre­vi­ously been the site of Aus­tralian man­u­fac­ture for Volk­swa­gen in the 1960s (yes, Bee­tles!) and the as­sem­bly of Nis­sans un­til they closed it down in the 1990s.

So it is an ap­pro­pri­ate site for this so-called “re­man­u­fac­tur­ing” process to take place, but what ex­actly is re­man­u­fac­tur­ing any­way?

Well, it all started back in 2013 when Ateco ap­proached Walkin­shaw with the idea of con­vert­ing Rams into RHD form. The idea, how­ever, was far more in-depth and com­plex than a mere con­ver­sion, with Walkin­shaw tak­ing on the task of en­gi­neer­ing the whole process.

This in­volved sort­ing ex­actly what could be reused from LHD form, what could be mod­i­fied, and what needed to be made from scratch.

This saw Walkin­shaw in­vest more than AU$2.8-mil­lion on tool­ing for the re­man­u­fac­tur­ing process, in­clud­ing more than AU$1-mil­lion with Aus­tralian plas­tics man­u­fac­turer Soc­co­bell to pro­duce an all-new RHD dash­board.

The Rams ar­rive at the ASV fa­cil­ity di­rect from the fac­tory in Mex­ico with lit­er­ally 0km on the clock. They are all built specif­i­cally for Aus­tralia, with op­tions such as a lo­calised RHD ver­sion of the Chrysler Ucon­nect touch­screen in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem in­stalled (ac­tu­ally the same unit used in RHD Jeep Grand Chero­kees), as well as a speedome­ter that reads in km/h.

Once they ar­rive in Mel­bourne the Rams un­dergo what ba­si­cally amounts to a re­ver­sal of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process in Mex­ico.

Cab off

First the cabin is re­moved from the chas­sis and sent down a sep­a­rate production line. The chas­sis, com­plete with engine and tray ,rolls down to the area where the LHD steer­ing box and as­so­ci­ated hard­ware are re­moved and the ap­pro­pri­ate RHD me­chan­i­cals in­stalled.

The steer­ing box is pro­vided by the same fac­tory that builds the LHD ver­sion for Chrysler in the USA, and is an ex­act mir­ror im­age of the orig­i­nal.

More than 400 new parts are used in the re­man­u­fac­tur­ing process, with the new parts ei­ther be­ing de­vel­oped and en­gi­neered by ASV in Aus­tralia or OEM parts di­rect from FCA.

While all the me­chan­i­cal work is be­ing done on one side of the as­sem­bly line, the cabin un­der­goes some ex­ten­sive re­man­u­fac­tur­ing of its own on the other par­al­lel line.

First off, it is stripped out en­tirely, with the dash­board head­ing off to be stripped in a sep­a­rate area.

While this is be­ing done, the fire­wall is re­moved, with new RHD fire­wall sec­tions be­ing welded into place, com­ply­ing with full Chrysler fac­tory stan­dards.

New dash

The dash­board rep­re­sents the largest sin­gle in­vest­ment ASV has made in the re­man­u­fac­tur­ing process, with the en­tirely new dash be­ing fit­ted with a mix­ture of un­changed parts from the LHD dash (the touch­screen and a num­ber of in­ter­change­able an­cil­lar­ies), parts that have been mod­i­fied to fit (mostly plas­tic parts be­hind the dash, such as duct­ing) and en­tirely new parts.

Dash sup­plier Soc­co­bell has been a long-time OEM sup­plier to Toy­ota Aus­tralia, pro­duc­ing the dash­board for the Au­rion, so they know what they are do­ing here and it re­ally shows, with the dash be­ing ut­terly in­dis­tin­guish­able from a fac­tory-made item.

In­ter­est­ingly enough, ASV chose not to change around the lo­ca­tion of the power out­let and the USB port and, in do­ing so, has made the Ram more er­gonom­i­cally sen­si­ble than the LHD ver­sion, with the USB port now be­ing closer to the driver.

Once the fire­wall has been in­stalled, the in­te­rior is re­in­stalled and the cabin re­joins the chas­sis at the end of the as­sem­bly line. Once it is reat­tached a tech­ni­cian takes the newly-RHD Ram for a short fi­nal sign-off drive be­fore it is ready to be sent to a dealer. ASV has yet to have a ve­hi­cle fail to make it through this fi­nal sign-off, which is a tes­ta­ment to the strin­gent process each ve­hi­cle goes through.

Fly­ing colours

While it wasn’t re­quired, ASV chose to crash test a RHD Ram to ver­ify the en­gi­neer­ing. This was done to ANCAP stan­dards and it passed with fly­ing colours.

The end re­sult of all this – and ASV’s stated aim – is a ve­hi­cle that is in­dis­tin­guish­able from a fac­tory-pro­duced one, apart from the steer­ing wheel now be­ing on the other side of the ve­hi­cle, that is.

This, along with the fact that Fiat Chrysler is of­fer­ing it along­side all of its other ve­hi­cles at all deal­er­ships, with com­plete fac­tory back­ing, ser­vic­ing and war­ranty, means that the Ram is ev­ery bit as good (and ac­tu­ally prob­a­bly even bet­ter, due to the metic­u­lous na­ture of ASV’s process) as a fac­tory-pro­duced RHD one would be.

But the best part of all this? It seems that other Rams – in­clud­ing the smaller 1500 and the heav­ier duty vari­ants of the 2500 and 3500 – share a largely sim­i­lar struc­ture to the 2500, so wouldn’t prove to be too dif­fi­cult to re­man­u­fac­ture in RHD.

ASV cur­rently pro­duces 40 Rams a month, but has the ca­pac­ity to pro­duce far more. A RHD 2500 Pow­er­wagon in full off-road trim in? Yes, please…

Com­pre­hen­sive work in­volves lift­ing cab off chas­sis on ded­i­cated as­sem­bly line.

Brand new LHD Ram utes are re­man­u­fac­tured to fac­tory RHD spec in Mel­bourne.

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