Manufacturing decline not always as analysed

Posted on June 18th, 2016 in Economy,Ford,Holden,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I have just finished reading a book on the manufacturing decline that has occurred over the last 60-odd years in the UK. It’s called The Slow Death of British Industry and is subtitled A Sixty Year Suicide 1952 – 2012. It covers, decade by decade and industry by industry, the decay in making things in what was once a great manufacturing country.

The industries it covers include car manufacture, ship building, aircraft design and construction – and also more obscure industries like pharmaceuticals. It describes the companies that fell by the wayside, were absorbed by others, or ended up being split into so many entities that their whole reason for existence simply disappeared…

Companies like Dorman Long (builder of the Sydney Harbour Bridge), Parsons (the inventers of the steam turbine) – and car brands like Wolseley, Triumph and Jowett.

The book catalogues in excruciating detail the union bloody-mindedness, the inept management, the worthless interventions of government, the confusion in direction and execution.

And visiting Britain’s wonderful technological museums (as I have done) where you can see Concorde; the SR.N4 hovercraft; the remains of one of the crashed Comets; the beautiful Jaguar E-type; the fastest steam locomotive in the world (the Mallard); the world’s first code-breaking electronic computers; the Sinclair electronic calculator – it makes this whole story of UK manufacturing success and decline come alive.

But there are some things missing in the analysis. They’re the same things missing in many analyses that occur here in Australia of our similar (but smaller scale) decline in domestic manufacturing.

Firstly, quoting massive reductions in the share of employment that manufacturing comprises in the economy is to miss the point that such changes have occurred in all first world countries. For example, that’s the even the case in countries like Germany and France that are often cited as manufacturing powerhouses we should be emulating.

In much the same way as primary industry (farming and mining) once dominated employment, these days, tertiary (service-based) industries now create most employment. That decline in the share of employment held in manufacturing jobs is exactly what you’d expect with greater mechanisation, use of robotics and so on. We wouldn’t want to be hand-building all our cars, one at a time, as was once done. Productivity would be terrible and cars would be unaffordable. So, of course machines will replace people, manufacturing productivity will improve and employment in the sector will decrease as a proportion of total employment.

Secondly, ignored is that the decline in local manufacturing is based entirely on a reduction in demand for those goods. If the pubic, the buyers, choose not to buy locally made goods – and instead buy imports – then of course (unless they are competitive in exports), local manufacture will decline.

In other words, to be brutal about it, uncompetitive domestic companies go broke. They may be uncompetitive in technology, in branding, in price, in innovation – in all cases, consumers vote with their wallets.

So we hold a major collective responsibility for manufacturing in our country declining. The person who blames the Federal Government of Australia for the loss of car manufacturing in this country – that is, the loss of Toyota, Ford and Holden – often has a Nissan Patrol in their driveway, or a Honda, or a BMW. The person who complains that the last Australian-built washing machine recently came off the production line is the same person who has never bought an Australian-made washing machine.

Thirdly, and as an extension of this idea, globalisation, free trade agreements and geographical shrinking of the world through information technology has increased the flexibility with which consumers can make choices. I source electronic modules on eBay from China; they’re bought from either the manufacturer or wholesaler of these products. I can remember when some such modules, able to be sourced only from local retailers, cost me over ten times as much and would take a month to be delivered.

I can very much empathise on a technological history level with the loss of once great companies, once great manufacturing enterprises.

But that’s a completely different perspective from saying that we should all have paid more for inferior goods– and so on a societal level have had a lower standard of living – to prop up manufacturing companies that had become uncompetitive.

I think that in the future, commentaries on the decline of manufacturing will appear to be as relevant as those that bemoan the fact that most people no longer till farms for a living.



Hybrid taxis

Posted on March 30th, 2014 in Hybrid Power,testing,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I recently spent some days in Darwin teaching people in government how to write clearly. It’s a long time since I’ve been in Darwin, and the growth and increasing affluence of the city was plain to see.

But the thing that fascinated me more than anything else in Darwin was the proliferation of Toyota hybrid taxis. The Prius, Prius V and Camry hybrid just dominate the taxi fleet.

Watching the few non-hybrid taxis sit there in ranks, waiting for customers with the car engines running to keep the air-conditioned cabins cool, it struck me how Toyota hybrids have a clear fuel economy advantage in these conditions.

And what’s that? Well, they can have the air con compressors and cabin fans operating with the engine switched off – until the HV battery gets low in charge, anyway.

One Prius taxi I went in had a dash displayed fuel economy of 7.5 litres/100km (horrendous for a Prius) but with the car being driven abysmally, and with all that time stopped with the air on, that was probably a pretty good figure compared with a conventional drivetrain.

(Yes the HV juice that runs the air con still needs to come from the petrol, but an engine is less efficient at idle than when driving the car, so overall, the fuel economy would benefit with the hybrid approach. Not to mention the battery juice achieved through braking regen.)

When I was in Germany a few months ago, there were many Prius taxis in the ranks – oftentimes, as many of the hybrid Toyotas as there were Mercedes and Volkswagens. I don’t think that fuel economy in those cool German cities would be a stellar advantage to the hybrids over diesels, so that brings up another taxi advantage. The Prius driveline is basically bulletproof – the engine, power split converter and electronics give extraordinarily little trouble. (That’s not just lucky – Toyota went to enormous pains to ensure that hybrids wouldn’t get a bad reputation through poor reliability.)

Taxi operators are among the hardest economic heads operating vehicles – they will use a car only if there is an overall economic benefit. So compared with other manufacturers, the taxi purchase / maintenance cost equation must be highly competitive for the Prius.

Wouldn’t it be funny if one of the greatest advances in car technology in the last 80 years – hybrids – ended up entering the mainstream through the back door of taxi use?

Old but fun

Posted on December 2nd, 2013 in AutoSpeed,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

So the other day I was in Adelaide for three days. Usually, I would hire a car, but this time a friend offered me something to drive.

The car was a 1998 Toyota Starlet, 2-door base model.

How base? No clock, no tacho, wind-up windows, manual (not power) steering. But equipped with a 4E-FE 1.3 litre DOHC EFI engine and 5 speed manual trans. I reckon the car’s worth about $1500.

Within moments of picking it up, I loved it!

What did I love about it?

Firstly, it was – to use an old term – so nippy! It was super responsive to the throttle, and I’d guess most of its city nippiness came from what seemed to be very low gearing. (No tacho, so I couldn’t tell for sure.) So, you see a hole in traffic to lane-change into – and pow!, you could be filling it.

And the car was small! You get so used to the apparently inexorable growth in dimensions of cars that you actually forget what a small car is like. The Starlet was small enough that a Toyota Echo alongside in traffic seemed huge. The Starlet wasn’t a joy to park (the manual steering being quite heavy at low speeds) but in traffic, and for that matter on winding roads, the small size made it a delight.

And the vision! I’ve written before about the stupidly small window area being used in current cars, and the Starlet was simply nothing like that – it showed how it could be done. Big rear glass, large side glass, thinner pillars….good vision everywhere.

I even got the opportunity to punch it along a tight country road – and again I thought it a lot of fun. On its tiny 165/70 tyres it did well, and the steering weight in that situation was perfect.

OK, OK – it sure as hell is a car I wouldn’t want to have crashed in. And its NVH was bloody awful – it was quite wearing to drive long distances.

Would I want to drive an old Starlet all day, every day? Not on your life!

But jumping into an old, basic car startlingly showed strengths that are being lost in current cars: throttle response, size, vision….and maybe just even just the element of fun.



The Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way

Posted on May 26th, 2012 in diesel,Economy,Global Warming,Hybrid Power,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I think the new Prius C is indicative of Toyota having lost its hybrid way.

I write that with a rather heavy heart: anyone who has read my stuff over a long period will know that I previously embraced and relished hybrid technology.

The first hybrid I ever experienced, around the year 2000, was an NHW10 grey-market Japanese import Prius – it blew me away with its refinement, quality and fuel economy.

Back in 2003 I new-car-tested a hybrid Honda Insight – we did 3,500 kilometres in four days. The fuel economy? Just 3.6 litres/100km. The original Insight is the most fuel-efficient car ever sold in Australia.

In 2004 I tested an NHW20 Prius over 5,400 kilometres in seven days; I then called it one of the most fascinating cars you can buy.

As a magazine tester of new cars (a role I no longer play) I also drove two models of the Honda Civic Hybrid, and the hybrid Lexus GS450H, Lexus RX400h and Lexus 600hL.

I own a first gen Honda Insight, and for years I owned an NHW10 Prius that I first supercharged, and then turbocharged.

But I’m not wedded to hybrid technology.

My current main car is a mildly-modified 2008 Skoda Roomster 1.9 turbo diesel. It gets fuel economy in my use that varies from the high-fours (in litres/100km) to about 6 litres/100km. And that from a relatively old and low-tech diesel design.

I haven’t driven the current model Prius, but I’ve experienced a Camry Hybrid- and wasn’t much impressed. The fuel economy wasn’t outstanding, and the car drove with an uninspiring feel.

But with the release of the Prius C, I thought that things might be very different.

The lightest (1120kg) and cheapest (AUD$23,990) hybrid Toyota sold in Australia, the Prius C has an official fuel economy rating of 3.9 litres/100km. That’s the same as its big brother Prius – but surely that must be a quirk of the testing system… with the C’s smaller size and mass, and lower total power, surely there’d be a benefit to real-world fuel economy?

And boasting a host of advanced technologies – including a new inverter, motor and battery – you’d expect that this to be as good in fuel economy as a hybrid Toyota gets.

Well that might be the case – but unfortunately, these days, it just isn’t good enough.

Today I visited a Toyota dealership. It wasn’t with just prurient intent: if the car did what it was supposed to, I was quite prepared to buy one.

The presented i-Tech model (a higher trim level that costs $26,990) was OK inside, although definitely nothing outstanding. The interior room was alright (a tall adult could sit [j-u-s-t] behind a tall driver); the digital instruments were clear; the seats comfortable; the load area pretty small (and the rear seats fold to give a pronounced step in the floor); and the double-DIN upgrade nav looks like it should cost only about $400 through eBay.

But hey, it’s a small car that isn’t priced at luxury levels.

On the road, with three adults and a seven-year-old in the car, the transmission refinement was good, the steering welcomingly much heavier in feel than previous Toyota (and Lexus) hybrids, and the power was – well, a bit disappointing. The last Prius I drove, now an old-model NHW20, could on green lights wheelspin its way across intersections – the current Prius C had not remotely enough low-down torque to do that. But, again, it was OK – but definitely not scintillating.

But the fuel economy? Oh dear.

In a gentle drive, about a third through urban conditions and the rest on 80 and 100 km/h freeways, the car massively disappointed. It started off at about 6 – 7 litres/100 (not a problem; it was a cold start) and then gradually dropped to about the mid-Fives. With the ultra-economy mode then engaged, it continued to drop – reaching a low of 4.6 litres/100 and then rising finally for a trip average of 4.7 litres/100 for the 20-odd kilometres.

Well, isn’t 4.7 litres/100 really good?

Only if you have no better comparisons…

My 1999 (read that again – 1999, that’s 13-year-old technology!) Honda Insight in similar conditions would, I’d guess, be in the mid-Threes – but that’s in a car that is much smaller (only two seats) and is also much lighter. So in many respects it’s not a fair comparison.

But what about my Skoda Roomster? It weighs about 200kg more than the Prius C, has much better performance, vastly more interior space – and like the Prius C, has 5-star crash test safety.

Since we’d taken the Roomster to the dealer, I immediately drove exactly the same road loop just undertaken in the Prius C. We didn’t have the salesman aboard, but apart from that, the conditions were as identical as it was possible to make them – same speeds, same roads, same traffic.

And the fuel economy of the Roomster? It came in at 4.9 litres/100km.

Seeing those figures: 4.7 for the cutting edge, small, 2012-model hybrid Prius C, and 4.9 for the much larger, old fashioned 2008-model diesel Roomster, suggests to me that in the real world, plenty of current small diesels will match the fuel economy of the Prius C.

For me, the Prius C could not be justified in any way as a replacement for my existing car – the Roomster.

And so then you wonder – for whom would the Prius C be justifiable over other fuel-efficient cars? After all, why buy a car that is demonstrably far more complex, and has a battery pack that will one day fail, when the raison d’etre of the hybrid – fuel economy – is no longer stunningly better than the others?

The above statement really indicates that Toyota has lost its way: that the hugely innovative and technologically incredibly brave step that occurred with the release of the NHW10 Prius at the end of 1997, the move that saw car makers the world-over stare in disbelief and then turn towards hybrids – well, that technology is now more about selling cars on a gimmick rather than through demonstrable real-world advantage.

What a bloody shame.

New DIY Electric Car Opportunities

Posted on January 22nd, 2009 in Driving Emotion,Electric vehicles,Honda,Hybrid Power,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

People who have been into modified cars here in Australia have for decades known of the incredible bargains that can be had from Japanese-importing wreckers.

Because of the speed with which Japanese drivers discard near-new cars, the drivelines – or even complete front halves of cars – can be bought amazingly cheaply. Engines and gearboxes boasting late model technology, for less than the cost of having an old clunker rebuilt. It’s simple – buy a locally-delivered car and then install a new Japanese-import driveline having much greater performance. Over the years I’ve done this twice – and both times got a tremendous car for the money.

And now there’s a whole new and exciting Japanese-import field opening up.

Because Japanese manufacturers have led the world in the creation of hybrid petrol/electric cars – the first was built over 10 years ago – and because many were sold locally in Japan, hybrid car parts can now be sourced out of Japan at the same ridiculously low prices.

I’ve driven the latest auto transmission technology – and I prefer the old!

Posted on January 13th, 2009 in Driving Emotion,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I think that the people responsible for the design and evaluation of cars sometimes lose the wood for the trees.

I am as much as an automotive technology aficionado as anyone I’ve met. I love technology like stability control, radar cruise control, telematics and hybrid petrol/electric drivelines. I look forward to pure electric cars, to better aerodynamic technology and to exotic materials use.

But I think that all new technologies must be assessed within the paradigm of what is currently cutting edge, and not just adopted because in just one or two respects they are advantageous.

I’ve recently driven two high performance cars with transmissions that are clearly, in important aspects, inferior to what is currently available.

The twin clutch SST transmission in the Lancer Evo MR can be lumpy in urban driving, and (worsened by the over-large turbo, high mass of the car and small capacity of the engine), has terrible lag off the line.

How can some get it so wrong?

Posted on October 6th, 2008 in AutoSpeed,Driving Emotion,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

Whenever I have nearly finished writing a new car test, I have a quick look at what other testers have had to say about the car.


Sometimes I find points that I have overlooked – and I am not too proud to re-examine the car and see if I agree with that other perspective. Other times, I find comments that I completely disagree with – and I never change the test to match what a majority might be saying.


I always wait until my test is near-complete before looking at other tests; it’s the same logic that means I usually drive a car and decide what I think it is worth before looking up its exact price.


So when I’d just about finished writing the test on the Toyota Aurion AT-X, I did a quick web browse.

Coming hybrids

Posted on June 25th, 2008 in Economy,Honda,Hybrid Power,Toyota by Julian Edgar

…from the most successful hybrid car makers in the world –

The current Prius technology is a decade old – so expect a big jump in new models.

Honda, despite always having far better petrol engines in their low-cost hybrids than Toyota, have been left well behind by Toyota – so expect an even bigger jump!

Interesting times ahead.

The giants finally stir

Posted on May 21st, 2008 in diesel,Driving Emotion,Economy,Ford,Holden,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

In August last year I wrote:

Read it again.

Less than a year later:

–  Mitsubishi manufacturing in Australia has gone broke

– Holden has said that within 2 years it will release diesel, hybrid and possibly four cylinder turbo versions of the Commodore. The company may also build smaller cars in Australia.

– Ford has released a ‘going on as the same’ FG Falcon, and then – oops, gosh, the world has changed! – announced a diesel engine version within 2 years.

– Toyota has said that they’re eager to build a Camry hybrid in Australia.

I wrote then :

The local manufacturers – especially Holden and Ford – need to show with locally developed product in the showroom that they can produce cars that appeal to more than Ford/Holden performance car enthusiasts, that they not only understand but also actively embrace the significant social change that is now occurring. Otherwise the Australian car will continue down the road to anachronistic irrelevance – it’s already on that path and accelerating as fast as its powerful and thirsty engine can take it….

At last, at last, Holden and Ford are stirring. Hopefully it won’t be too late.

Your Favourite Car Maker

Posted on May 8th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,Ford,Honda,Makes & Models,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

The other day, on learning that I am an automotive journalist, someone asked me what is my favourite make of car.

I must admit the question rather stumped me. It did so for two reasons: firstly, I can’t see how any impartial automotive journalist could ever admit to having a favourite amongst car brands, and secondly, I am not even sure how anyone can logically have a favourite car maker.

I’ve owned cars made by Alfa Romeo, Audi, Austin, BMW, Daihatsu, Holden, Honda, Rover, Saab, Subaru, Toyota – and many others. I’ve driven cars ranging from Rolls Royce to Porsche to Ferrari. I’ve also driven many Mazdas, Mitsubishis, Volkswagens – and so on.

And really, despite brands developing their images based on specific advertised criteria, I have to say that the idea that certain brands have certain attributes is largely a myth.