Great Expectations - Blackbourn 445

By: Rob Blackbourn

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As well as excellent draftink skills, you need a top-shelf crystal ball to lay out an effective road-map for the future

Last issue’s lead news article about the sale of the former Holden proving ground at Lang Lang surprised me. When Lindsay Fox popped up earlier as potential buyer of this interesting chunk of automotive history I expected his name to end up on the title deeds. Wrong! As reported, Vinfast, an emerging Vietnamese car manufacturer got the keys to the Lang Lang gates. Following the Python line that: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," I found myself thinking that nobody expected this Vietnamese acquisition.

Obviously I wasn’t paying attention – earlier reports had covered Vinfast’s new engineering base in Port Melbourne and its hiring of ex-GM-H, Ford and Toyota people to staff it. Digging deeper I found Vinfast described as "formerly GM Vietnam", plus a report that Vinfast secured control of GM’s manufacturing assets in Vietnam as ‘The General’ pulled out of the country. Vinfast also took over GM’s Vietnam dealer network and Chevrolet distribution rights.

So the Lang Lang acquisition was no isolated decision, rather part of a comprehensive deal with GM in support of Vinfast’s expanding automotive manufacturing operations in South-East Asia.

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Perhaps we should view local engineering-job prospects with Vinfast as a kind of consolation prize after the loss of our car and component manufacturing jobs – a small but undoubtedly valuable consolation prize.

While this latest post-car-industry development is small beer indeed compared with Covid’s severe damage to the overall scheme of things, it’s nevertheless worth considering what a radical final tilting of the Australian automotive-world’s axis the Vinfast move represents.

My reference point for our car industry’s now long-lost trajectory is the late William O Bourke, Ford Australia’s boss in the halcyon days.

Bourke showcased bold and imaginative leadership. Unlike during my brief stint at GM-H where the top-floor ‘suits’ were remote and anonymous, I could recognise Bourke even before I moved to Ford, and when I arrived he was everywhere – in the offices and on the production line. As a fresh young recruit I was gobsmacked to be stopped and greeted by him in a head office corridor with a generous smile and: "I’m Bill Bourke. What’s your name?" When I tentatively grasped his outstretched hand and muttered my name, he replied with: "And Rob, what is it you do for me?" After my response he said: "Rob, it’s been a pleasure to meet you." I was equally stunned when weeks later he greeted me by name as he passed my desk.

His success in taking the fight up to GM-H is legendary. Ford showrooms became exciting places stocked with quality product as the high-octane glamour of his ‘Super-Roo’, muscle-car marketing-style drew punters to the Blue Oval in growing numbers.
Bourke’s sharp intellect recalled more than the names of lesser employees among Ford’s thousands – his presentations to staff were peppered with facts and figures about company performance and trends, delivered without notes, and questions without notice were answered in minute detail.

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When addressing staff at the Christmas-lunch he convinced you individually that he was truly grateful for your contribution during the year, before handing out token gifts as we filed out – cigars for the men and perfume for the ladies…

And yet despite all of the above, Bourke, a man of his time, had significant cultural blindspots. Addressing dealers in 1970 about competition from Japanese imports, the WWII US-military veteran expressed hopes that Australians would not fully embrace cars from a country that was our enemy only 25 years earlier…

Who knows what a resurrected Bill Bourke would make of today’s almost total ‘Hiluxisation’ of the Oz market and Australian automotive engineering now largely becoming a support service to car manufacturing in Vietnam, the country that the US and Australia were at war with during his time here?

 

From Unique Cars, #445, Oct 2020

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