By Peter Robinson
The large, leather-bound journal, embossed H.C. French, contains typed single-space pages detailing Hubert French’s 1923 investigation into why sales of the Model T Ford were sliding in Australia.
Ford’s Australian archive contains two such documents, one recording French’s 600-mile drive from Sydney to Melbourne, the second his drive from Sydney to Brisbane, 700-miles away. On each, French, who had been sent out by Ford of Canada, made contact with local distributors and dealers.
“Since my arrival in Australia the word Distributor has come to mean nothing more nor less than a bunch of easy-living, luxury-loving and opulent Directors,” stated French’s written report to his bosses, “whose only thought is to squeeze more profits out of the business without a vestige of thought of the future welfare of the Ford Motor Company.” French recommended two strong measures: dumping the distributors and setting up company assembly operations.
On July 1, 1925, the first Australian-made Model T rolled off a temporary assembly line in Geelong, Victoria. Hubert French, the man who made Ford Australia happen, was managing director of the new company.
But now French’s documents and letters, including his reports that describe Australia’s early automotive history, are slated to be packed up and shipped out of the country. Ford is now preparing to move them from the basement of its old Australian headquarters in the Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows. Their destination: The Henry Ford, the automotive museum near its headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., where the company is establishing a new central, global archive.
Some Australian automotive enthusiasts, especially historians and writers (including this one, truth be told), are taking this like a kangaroo kick to the gut. They’ve asked the country’s Federal Department of Communications and Arts to step in and stop the shipments. The department has wide-ranging responsibilities, but its cultural-preservation efforts are typically focused on Aboriginal art and language as opposed to corporate records.
“Ford is very proud of our history and invested significantly in a new, advanced archive to better preserve all of our collections in one space that is a vast improvement compared to all of our facilities around the world,” the company has stated. “The point of building such an archive is not to hide material away, but to preserve it and help make the information more accessible for the future.”
As car controversies go, this doesn’t approach the level of lethal exploding airbags or deadly defective ignition switches, to cite two recent safety scandals. But Ford’s move comes at an especially sensitive time for its Australian operations, and indeed for the entire Aussie auto industry.
Ford is shutting down its car-manufacturing operations in Australia on October 7. What’s more, Toyota and General Motors have announced they’ll end their Australian production next year. The moves will mark the end of Australia as an auto-making nation. The cost of producing cars in the country has gotten too high compared to other Asian production centers, including India and China.
Australia has a proud automotive culture, connected with the rest of the world but also distinct. Between 2004 and 2006 the local GM subsidiary, Holden, produced the reborn Pontiac GTO, which suffered the dismal fate of most sequels despite excellent performance and product quality. And today’s Chevy SS is a rebadged Holden Commodore sedan, with a zero-to-60 time of 4.7 seconds.
The nation’s rural landscape also has produced a strong affinity for pickup trucks built on car platforms, called “utes” in local parlance.
Ford, which Ford will keep some engineering and design operations in Melbourne, says the decision to remove the local archive isn’t related to its manufacturing shutdown. The company notes that it’s also centralising its archives from Germany and England in a new archive facility in the new Dearborn global archive.
The company adds that it will digitize much of the Australian material so it’s available online to researchers, film-makers, academics, economists, enthusiasts and journalists. One person close to the process says that some documents that are deemed confidential are being destroyed before the rest get shipped to Dearborn.
Besides local historians and journalists, the process has riled several former senior Ford Australia executives. They’re the people who are seeking government action to stop the move. The group — led by former product planner Peter Fry, with support from ex-chief engineer David Ford and ex-director and vice president of design and engineering Ian Vaughan — argues that the material is of immense historic and national value and should remain in Australia.
The Department of Communications and Arts says it hasn’t yet received a formal export application from Ford for its Australian archives, and thus “cannot make a determination about an export permit until a formal application has been lodged.”
Ford’s archive includes minutes of board meetings; engineering and styling Black Books detailing individual local model development; Hubert French’s letters and communications; wartime correspondence; Ford publications (Ford News), employee records and repair manuals for local models; a near-complete selection of local press kits; and hundreds of hours of celluloid film and video footage.
The issue is whether remote, digital-only access to the Ford Australia material will substitute for local access to the original documents. To this writer, anyway, the answer is no.
Research involves delving into archives to find new material, as anybody who has written a nonfiction book will confirm. Nothing beats the productivity of in-person ‘browsing’ through archives, something that would be virtually impossible for local researchers if the archive is removed from Australia,
The chief architect of Ford’s Australian archive was the company’s late PR-man Adrian Ryan. In November 2011, former Ford Australia CEO Bob Graziano, paid tribute to Ryan, when he opened the current archive.
“Adrian was instrumental in ensuring that not only did we collect the material but that we storied it appropriately too,” Graziano said. “He did his absolute best to keep the pressure on Ford, right until his last months, to find a proper location to store the archive. We believe he would be chuffed (i.e. pleased) to see the archives treated with the respect they deserve.”
Sydney-based Peter Robinson is a long-time Australian automotive journalist who edited Wheels magazine for 16-years before moving to Italy where he continued to work as the magazine’s European editor while also writing for Car & Driver, the UK’s Autocar and Japan’s Car Graphic. He is the author of “Autobiography: The inside story of Holden’s all-new VE Commodore.”