It's a Small (GM) World, After All Holden makes a number of cars from their Zeta platform, including models for Australia and the Middle East. It might look like Motown, but this is actually a Holden plant in Elizabeth, Australia. By Michael Stahl, Contributor Date posted: 02-18-2008 While half of America eagerly awaits the sight of the very first 2008 Pontiac G8 in U.S. showrooms, literally half a world away we're watching a parade of them in various stages of undress. We've seen car assembly plants before, and this particular General Motors example is surprisingly little different. The incongruity stems from the fact that these U.S.-bound Pontiacs are on the line at Holden's plant in Elizabeth, a town on the flat, dusty plains north of Adelaide in South Australia. And right behind this orange, fully kitted 2008 Pontiac G8 GT that might soon be strutting the streets of Manhattan or Milwaukee, comes a bone-basic, steel-wheeled Holden ute likely to lob in outback Innamincka. The plant that commenced production of the 2008 Pontiac G8 in mid-December might be on the doorstep of the South Australian desert, but there are no kangaroos hopping among the panel presses. Indeed, after US$479 million of investment in the past three years, Elizabeth could be almost anywhere within the parallel universe that is General Motors. The Lion's Share The production process reflects GM's worldwide engineering. A unique robot finesses the dash into the car through the windshield opening. It's a year of anniversaries for GM, and Holden's Elizabeth plant is no exception. When it opened 50 years ago (exactly 10 years after Holden commenced local manufacturing), Holden could boast of an assembly plant in each of Australia's five mainland states. Mind you, it needed such resources. In 1958, Holden's share of the Australian new vehicle market briefly topped 50 percent. With increasing competition and a steadily falling market share, Elizabeth had become Holden's sole assembly plant by 1988. Holden's corporate headquarters (along with its Family II four-cylinder and High Feature V6 engine plants) have remained some 400 miles away in the neighboring state of Victoria. Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd. (MMAL), the only other local car manufacturer based in South Australia, makes for an interesting (if sad) contrast. Originally established by Chrysler in 1966 for the local manufacture of the Valiant, it was taken over by Mitsubishi in 1981. A succession of locally modified, midsize models failed to excite the market and various export plans (including the U.S.-bound Diamante) floundered. Finally, on February 5 this year, MMAL announced that it was quitting local manufacturing altogether. Increasingly Ex-portant The small-block Chevy is now an international proposition. Every car goes down the assembly line with its own build sheet that specifies its equipment. Which leaves only Ford, Holden and Toyota now building cars in Australia. Last year Toyota exported close to two-thirds of the 144,000 Camrys that it built in Australia; it's the Middle East's biggest-selling model. Holden has also enjoyed success in the Middle East, along with deals in New Zealand, Brazil and the United Kingdom, and last year it exported a total of 36,000 cars from a production of around 145,000. With thanks to the Yanks, the Pontiac G8 will drive Holden's exports to 50 percent of a similar production total this year. Meanwhile, Ford has all but missed the export boat, aside from nits-and-lice numbers of the current Falcon going to right-hand-drive markets like New Zealand and South Africa. It faces an anxious wait until the export-friendly Focus comes on line in 2011. Two-Way Traffic The green Holden ute goes down the same assembly line as the Pontiac G8. It's not as easy to install a sunroof as you might think. Contrary to reports in the U.S., Holden sources say that the half-billion dollar investment in Elizabeth — with an equal sum spent on developing the new Zeta platform — was locked down before the G8 deal was certain. A left-hand-drive VE Commodore was always in the model mix for the Middle East. While long-wheelbase Zeta-platform models are already being built in China, and the shortened Camaro will be built in Oshawa, Ontario (Canada), the Aussie operation considers itself the heart of Zeta production. GM manufacturing supremo Gary Cowger said as much during a visit to Elizabeth last November. It's not like the air at this Holden plant is normally thick with American accents, either. Elizabeth has just two implanted Americans: Human Resources Director Joe Piechocki and General Assembly Area Manager Marcos Purty. Purty, who moved to Australia in January from GM's truck plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says the Elizabeth plant has long been singing the GM song. "There was definitely no imposing of any standards," he says. "Coming here from the U.S., it's the same systems, the same processes and the quality of the vehicle is great. It's actually a pleasure to be here looking at how we implement our GMS [Global Manufacturing System] strategy...and all that pre-dated G8." Purty says an international feel pervades the place: "Everyone's speaking globally. The buzz in here is, I wanna build the best car, period. No matter whether it stays here in Australia or goes over to the U.S. or to China. I feel that, I see it, I hear it." Aussie Innovation Pontiac badging and big bumpers. Finally, the body and powertrain grow closer The Zeta platform is heavy on manufacturing design; it's a vastly easier car to build than Holden's preceding VT-VZ Commodore family. This is evident from the first stage of the body assembly, where the subassembly known as the WIFE — walk-in front end — presents an open-fronted engine bay. The FEM (front-end module), comprising radiator and bumper supports, is attached later. A claimed Australian first is the method of installing the instrument panel, wherein a robot twists it in through the windscreen aperture. It looks like a large-scale wriggling of a magician's hand — and it wriggles differently for left- and right-hand-drive vehicles. Robots and humans alike scan each car's "broadcast sheet," a build description attached to the front fender. There are a few other ways to spot a partly dressed G8 on the line. For example, the G8 has hood nostrils, the left-hand-drive apertures in the firewall and beefier bumper supports. Pontiacs are also likely to be less colorful. Both G8 (V6) and G8 GT (V8) offer a palette of six exterior colors. Their closest Commodore cousins, the SV6 and SS V8, add three distinctly Australian out-there hues in Morpheus Purple, Atomic Green and Crunch Passionfruit. And the patchwork parade of disparate wheelbases, body styles, mechanical and trim levels isn't just to show off the Elizabeth plant's flexibility. General Assembly operators have a task time of 76 seconds, so model specs are intentionally staggered to even the work flow. If you're curious about the specific differences between the 2008 Pontiac G8 and the Holden Commodore SS, here are the details from the Holden people: Body structure changes for FMVSS (U.S.) and CMVSS (Canada) legal requirements, plus corrosion protection against salted roads in snow/ice road conditions Interior safety and restraint system upgrades for FMVSS and CMVSS regulations, particularly details to protect the "unbelted occupant" Significant electronics and software upgrades for OnStar, active occupant-sensing airbags, engine active fuel management Revisions to electronic stability-control calibrations for snow/ice conditions Engine performance upgrades and fuel-economy measures including active fuel management V8, and Euro IV-specification exhaust for the V6 Pontiac styling — the body fascias and hood Sixes and Eights As always, mating is complicated. Almost ready to get the wheels on. Of the 620 cars being built per day, a look along the line suggests around 1 in 4 is a Pontiac. The plant's current engine ratio is about three V6s for every V8 — but that's more a reflection on the Commodore's V6/V8 sales ratio of around 4.5 to 1, rather than any projection of G8 versus G8 GT. While nobody's saying how many G8s will be built this year, the plant's current configuration of two shifts in Body Shop and three in General Assembly means a capacity of 145,000 cars per year — half, it's said, for export. Subtracting current export markets, this suggests the U.S. will get around 30,000-35,000 Pontiacs this year. The big unanswered question is whether a left-hand-drive Holden ute (a.k.a. Chevy El Camino) will go Stateside with them; we certainly looked hard for one, in vain. And Bob Lutz has quite firmly nixed the VE Sportwagon, which comes on line for Australia in the first half of next year. The Bottom Line The glass goes in. Just like the sign says, every car gets a run on the engine dynamometer. Holden says that the Sportwagon, like the G8s, will be absorbed into the plant's current capacity of 145,000 units. Uhh? Meaning, a new model variant will be added — and exports have doubled — with no increase in overall production? Therein lies the extent of the market freefall of traditional, large passenger cars in Australia's domestic market, as buyers flock to smaller models and compact SUVs. But large passenger cars are all that Australia makes. As illustrated by official VFacts registration figures, in 2005, Holden and Ford each sold just over 96,000 of their locally made Falcon and VZ Commodore. (The Elizabeth plant worked three shifts to produce a record 165,000 cars.) In 2006, local sales fell to around 77,000 for each brand. But in 2007, Ford slumped to 67,000 units, while Holden's VE helped buoy local sales only to 74,000 units. All of this in an overall market showing strong growth. Only Toyota's all-new and aggressively marketed Camry/Aurion has reversed the trend in the local market. But Toyota has also made starkly clear the message for Holden and the 3,500 workers at Elizabeth: Exports aren't just sexy, they're survival. So it's not just Pontiac that is looking to the 2008 Pontiac G8 for its survival. There are a lot of people in Elizabeth, Australia, who are also hoping for the revival of the muscle-bound, rear-wheel-drive American sedan. Think of it as a bit of Motown among the mulga shrublands. It's all done but the final nuts and bolts. Outward bound, headed for Motown.