Isuzu laments missing link

By: Steve Brooks


Despite dominating the Australian truck market for more than 30 years, Isuzu Australia insiders still yearn for a model capable of adding heavy-duty leadership to its light and medium-duty mantles. However, it continues to be a long and frustrating wait as operations chief Andrew Harbison reveals in this frank interview

Isuzu laments missing link
Isuzu Australia’s Andrew Harbison. Still looking and waiting for a heavy-duty contender

 

As director and chief operating officer of Isuzu Australia, Andrew Harbison has plenty to be pleased about. Heaps, in fact. Record sales in 2021 and the very real likelihood of an even bigger result this year as the Australian market continues a raging torrent of demand for new trucks.

And all the while, Isuzu’s domination as Australia’s most prolific supplier of trucks grows ever more entrenched.

There is, however, a highly visible void in the Isuzu stable and it nags at the humble yet sharply competitive Harbison like a lingering lurgy. The void, obviously enough, is the absence of a true prime mover model, made even more evident by the recent withdrawal of the lacklustre Giga and more significantly, the debut of impressive new heavies from ambitious countrymen Fuso and Hino.

For the most part, Andrew suppresses the underlying frustration, maintaining a measure of carefully cultivated corporate composure. Every now and then though, blunt conversation about Isuzu Australia’s heavy-duty hopes causes disappointment to seep to the surface and occasionally, very occasionally, flares to riled frustration at the ongoing inability to take the fight to Isuzu’s Japanese foe, and anyone else for that matter.

Our meeting was largely a ‘spur of the moment’ thing and over a quiet beer away from the office, Andrew Harbison’s fierce competitive streak swamped the otherwise calm and carefully considered company man. Patience, it seems, is wearing thin.

UD’s high quality Quon. Isuzu now owns UD but Quon remains part of Volvo Group Australia’s stable. Strange!

First things first though, he conceded the recently retired Giga was not the right truck for a broad assault on the Australian heavy-duty market.

Heavy and lacking the performance and fuel economy of rivals, Andrew confirmed, "The best year we ever had with Giga was around 200 units, which isn’t many and on average, we sold about 150 units a year.

"You couldn’t break it, but it was an old truck."

So, with Giga’s departure from the model range and no replacement anywhere in the foreseeable future, could this be the end of Isuzu Australia’s heavy-duty ambitions?

The response was immediate. "No, not at all. Absolutely not," he fired back.

"Yes, we’re very much in the hands of our parent company in terms of what product we’re able to get but I am as fiercely driven as ever to achieve what’s possible.

"I’d really like to have a decent heavy-duty product where we can have a real crack at that market. Give it a real shake."

But if that was the question to stir the competitive embers, the next one threw fuel on the fire: Are you envious of Fuso with its 510hp Shogun and Hino’s new 700-series heavy-duty models?

"Absolutely. It pisses me off." It was, by any measure, an uncharacteristic outburst which, more than anything else, demonstrated the depth of dismay at Isuzu’s ongoing inability to produce a suitable heavy-duty contender for its supremely successful Australian operation.

On show in Japan, Isuzu’s new Giga is an impressive improvement over its predecessor but lacks a suitable powertrain for the Australian market.

Pausing for a moment, a primed Andrew Harbison continued, "We are the market leader with a significant lead in both light and medium-duty product. We have a sophisticated, established and highly professional dealer group to support and maintain that leadership.

"So yes, with those assets it’s a real shame we don’t have a competitive offering in that (heavy-duty) market against those competitors."

Quiet for a few seconds, he continued, "I could give you any number of reasons why Isuzu is so strong in the overall market but that doesn’t change the fact that when a direct competitor has a product we can’t offer, of course I’m upset that we don’t have anything to compete in that (heavy-duty) market.

"It’s a market we could do very well in."

Well, if Fuso and Hino can come up with strong heavy-duty models, why doesn’t your parent company supply a product that will allow you to compete, specifically in the prime mover class?

This time, Andrew Harbison appeared to choose his words carefully.

"The world of Isuzu Motors is going through an enormous amount of change," he explained. "We have a president (Masanori Katayama) who has been in the chair for a number of years and it has taken some time for his skill and knowledge, and wisdom, to start to shine through.

"Isuzu is a big ship and I think he is starting to turn it around, embracing new opportunities."

Soon after, a thoughtful Harbison declared, "The Volvo and UD tie-up is clearly something that will hopefully offer us something in the future."

Does that mean you wish you had UD’s Quon in your stable now, particularly given its recent success for Volvo Group Australia (VGA)?

There was an undeniable hint of caution in his response and at first, an apparent desire to change tack. "Isuzu has a very good product in the new Giga in Japan," he enthused, "but a big part of Isuzu Australia’s success is that we won’t take a product that won’t meet market expectations (and) the Giga in its current form in Japan does not have the powertrain suitable for our market."

Gone and easily forgotten. Isuzu’s original Giga failed to fire in the Australian market

Yet given the much-publicised relationship between Isuzu and engine giant Cummins, it seemed reasonable to ask Andrew Harbison if there was still the touted possibility of a 12 litre Cummins X12 engine being engineered into the new Giga for our market particularly.

"The honest answer is, I don’t know," he said before adding, "There’s certainly an opportunity but I think the answer to that question is somewhere in the Isuzu and UD tie-up."

Again though: Does Isuzu Australia wish it had Quon in its stable? After all, Isuzu now owns UD, not Volvo?

"Now you’re being provocative," Andrew replied with a wry grin before commenting, "Isuzu obviously has a picture where the future product is going to come from and UD is certainly part of all that, and I think the future technology for the next generation of (heavy-duty) product will be a combination of Isuzu and UD.

"However, the decision on who will distribute that product in Australia (Isuzu or VGA) is made above my pay grade."

Nonetheless, it was a decisive Andrew Harbison who insisted, "I’ve certainly voiced my opinion and I believe Japan has listened, and there’s no doubt in my mind Isuzu Australia could do a very, very good job of distributing a UD heavy-duty product."

Following Volvo’s sale of UD to Isuzu, is he disappointed that Quon stayed at VGA rather than transferring to Isuzu Australia?

"Like I said, those decisions are made above my pay grade but I know the Japanese play a very long-term game and sure, I’d like to see UD come home to Isuzu (Australia) at some stage in the future. Sooner rather than later.

"Unfortunately, I can’t give you a timeframe," Andrew continued. "It could be tomorrow or it could be a couple of years. The Japanese will decide the timing but I genuinely believe that ultimately, the Australian market will have an Isuzu/UD heavy-duty product."


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Asked what level of success could be achieved with the right heavy-duty product supported by Isuzu Australia’s extensive marketing and dealer strength, an adamant Andrew Harbison asserted, "We could deliver another thousand trucks a year, and I don’t say that with any arrogance.

"It is what I genuinely believe we are capable of doing, particularly looking at the success we’ve already achieved in the light end of heavy-duty with our 6x4 and eight-wheeler models.

"We have a very good relationship now with many fleets and whilst I’m not naïve enough to target linehaul-type applications, there’s no reason we couldn’t generate some very significant results in other areas."

Gathering his thoughts for a few moments, a convincing Andrew Harbison concluded, "Our target is to be number one in every market.

"That hasn’t changed and with the right product, we’ll make it happen.

"Absolutely!"

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