Australian vehicle sales in May increased by a stunning 12% over the same month last year – as car makers sought heavy damages from key unions trying to close down local assembly lines, writes Mike Duffy.

It was a good news/bad news scenario as 73,123 new vehicles last month rolled out of showrooms keeping Australia on track for a record year.

But there were no celebrations as Holden, Mitsubishi, Ford and Toyota face up to major disruptions for the fourth time in a year.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union is staging a campaign of rolling stoppages in support of a move to protect workers’ pay and entitlements.

The latest strike is preventing BHP from delivering sheet steel to the four car makers.

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There is concern that strong sales have left dealers with only minimal stock of popular models – a situation expected to frustrate market performance later in the year.

As well, overseas boardrooms – particularly General Motors and Mitsubishi Motors Corporation of Japan – will be monitoring the situation anxiously.

Mitsubishi has committed almost $A1 billion of new investment to its Australian affiliate to build a replacement Magna/Diamante in 2005 and a new large car for domestic and export markets – the US in particular – for release in 2006.

Meanwhile, GM affiliate Holden is agonising over when – or if – to introduce a third shift to allow to grow production to 180,000 vehicles by 2005. GM wants to ship 20,000 Monaro Coupes to America for sale at Pontiac dealerships.

But this can be achieved only with additional capacity which would come with third shift.

With more than 70 workplace bargaining agreements to be settled throughout the components sector, Holden is afraid to commit itself to hiring hundreds of additional workers to staff a third shift.

All four manufacturers are fearful of great damage to Australia’s traditional industrial relations record.

The official VFACTS audit of car sales, released by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, shows Holden continued to dominate the market Down Under in May, with 16,082 vehicles sold for 22% of the national market.

Toyota sold 13,799 vehicles for 18%, Ford recorded 9,807 registrations for 13% and Mitsubishi a disappointing 5,308 vehicles for 7.3%.

The Holden Commodore, as usual, was the No 1 seller with 7,399 sales compared to its nearest rival, Ford Falcon on 4,683.

This took year-to-date sales to 34,182 Commodores – 15,007 more than Falcon’s tally.

The passenger market grew by 2,275 (5.2%) over the same month last year, light truck sales reached 5,024 (up 25.5%) and the heavy commercial vehicle market increased by 573 vehicles (39.7%).

There were mixed results in the passenger segment. Small cars were up 4.7%, medium sized cars sales grew by 20%, sports cars were up an amazing 78% and people movers (minivans) were up 7%. The large car segment was down 3.2%.

Australia’s top 10 vehicle brands year to date:

1 Holden 72,819 22.2%
2 Toyota 60,517 18.4%
3 Ford 42,297 12.9%
4 Mitsubishi 25,706 7.8%
5 Nissan 20,527 6.3%
6 Hyundai 17,061 5.2%
7 Mazda 14,237 4.3%
8 Subaru 11,740 3.6%
9 Honda 9107 2.8%
10 Mercedes-Benz 6396 1.9%