Mitsubishi: vying to be the mouse that roars

Australian carmakers are streamlining operations on the shop floor to prepare for stiff competition ahead. One company to keep an eye on: Mitsubishi. Some observers think the Japanese-owned automaker could emerge as the mouse that roars in the 1980s. Although now the smallest among Australia's five manufacturers, turning out about 50,000 cars locally a year, pundits predict it could bound up the ladder as far as the No. 2 spot, behind General Motors-Holden , by 1990.

The firm's strength antedates Mitsubishi's takeover from Chrysler last May, in which it paid some $91 million ($80 million Australian). In the five years before the sellout, Chrysler invested more than $172 million to make four-cylinder engines and spruce up plant equipment. Now the firm plans to pump another $172 million into plant improvements and model changes over the next few years.

The Mitsubishi takeover mirrors a tilt toward the Japanese in the industry in general. Japanese-controlled companies -- Toyota, Datsun, and now Mitsubishi -- account for about 48 percent of the Australian market compared with GMH's and Ford's 42 percent.

The Mitsubishi plant is a cluster of cavernous brick and concrete buildings in a leafy section of Adelaide. Over the past few years the company has honed manufacturing tasks, which seem to be reaping dividends. Today the firm has cut in half the time it took four years ago to make one car. Its market share has jumped from 8.6 percent in 1979 to more than 11.2 percent today -- and could reach 13 percent by year's end.

Mitsubishi now produces only two car models at the Adelaide plant, the Sygma and Valiant. But eventually the company wants to turn out Colts as well. About 4,000 people work here, of which 800 work are in the assembly plant. They work amid an alchemy of sweat and steel. In one area blue-smocked men hunch over endless racks of fenders while nearby workers weld together the underbelly of a chassis amid a cascade of sparks.

Each day the plant turns out 225 cars. The final products -- red, blue, gray , and yellow hybrids -- are lined up on the acres of blacktop outside. In the glassy cubicles festooning the corporate headquarters next door, management is optimistic. The automobile barons seem to be taking their latest advertising slogan seriously: "Let's get it done i n 81.'

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