Nine Automakers for the Rest of the World
Here are nine international automobile makers generally not known to North Americans, building cars and trucks for consumers who clamour for their products.
Like actor Abe Vigoda – who was the subject of so many premature obituaries that a website was created to track his living status – the demise of the automobile has been greatly exaggerated.
There are hundreds of automakers around the globe cranking out new cars and trucks, manufacturers such as tiny AC in Britain and Zanella in Argentina, in spite of Bob Lutz, the former vice chairman of General Motors who predicted the automotive era will soon sputter to an end. Consider that worldwide automobile production grew from 54.4 million units in 1997 to 97.3 million in 2017 – almost doubling in two decades.
Here are nine international automobile makers generally not known to North Americans, building cars and trucks for consumers who clamour for their products. Unlike Mr. Vigoda, who eventually died of natural causes in 2016 at the advanced age of 94, these automakers intend to be around for decades to come.
As part of the giant Indian conglomerate Tata Group, Tata Motors has become a growing concern with its passenger cars, commercial trucks, buses, construction equipment and military vehicles. It made headlines in 2008 for two very different reasons: it purchased the British premium brands Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford and, paradoxically, it unveiled the planet’s cheapest car, the Nano, with a launch price of $3,000.
The twin-cylinder Nano was intended to appeal to motorcycle and scooter owners who desired a (slightly) safer way to travel. To save costs, the Italian-designed minicar featured one windshield wiper, skinny 12-inch tires, three lug nuts per wheel and no airbags. The Nano was groomed for export to poorer markets in Asia and Africa, while the better equipped Nano Europa had been destined for sale in developed countries.
Despite the hyper-low price tag, the Nano failed to sell in big numbers. Fortunately, Tata had the resources to establish a fulsome range of contemporary front-drive cars and crossovers. Models like the Tiago and Tigor subcompact cars and Hexa and Harrier crossover SUVs have won big market share in India and in the region, making Tata competitive with Maruti-Suzuki and Hyundai, India’s other big auto retailers.
Best known for its open two-seater sports cars, Britain’s MG (short for Morris Garage) also produced sedans and coupes of dubious quality, but Britons loved them anyway. Arguably, the MGB roadster was the automaker’s most famous product, exported around the world from 1962 to 1980. Financial woes and labour strife forced the U.K. government to nationalize the ailing English car industry to form British Leyland, which amalgamated several brands, including MG, Austin, Rover, and Triumph.
MG got short shrift in the new organization and almost disappeared – until product planners introduced the MG F, the first all-new sports car since the MGB. The F was a thoroughly modern mid-engine design that was intended to compete with the popular Mazda Miata and Lotus Elan roadsters. It sold well between 1995 and 2011, encompassing two generations of the car.
Today MG Motor is the property of SAIC, one of China’s big state-owned auto manufacturers. SAIC continued with MG production at the Longbridge factory near Birmingham, though the aging MB F was eventually replaced by a line of MG hatchbacks and sedans that were partially built in China. Assembly at Longbridge ended in 2016 and it became an administration centre. As a legacy brand MG continues to sell its innocuous cars in the U.K. to this day.
As Japan’s foremost builder of kei cars – the smallest class of vehicles allowed on Japanese highways – Daihatsu started out making three-wheeled motorcycles and scooters that could carry passengers and cargo through crowded city streets. Its first serious car was the 1963 Compagno, which offered numerous body styles including a sedan, convertible, pickup truck, and minivan all built on the same rear-drive chassis.
The Compagno went on sale in the United Kingdom in 1965 as the first Japanese car to break into the market there. It was around this time that Toyota took an interest in the company and became a major shareholder. The Charade was Daihatsu’s first attempt at a “large” compact car – what North Americans call a subcompact – when it debuted in 1977. The front-wheel-drive Charade became an overnight success and was named Japan’s Car of the Year for 1979.
The Charade and Rocky 4X4 were marketed in the U.S. between 1988 and 1992 before unceremoniously exiting the market due to dismal sales (the pair never made it to Canada). Daihatsu withdrew from the European market in 2013. The automaker became a wholly owned subsidiary of Toyota in 2016 and subsequently inherited a wide range of kei and Toyota-based models to fill its showrooms in those countries where it does business – which is mostly Japan and southeast Asia.
Originally a saddle maker in South Australia, Holden took up upholstery and then vehicle body assembly as a contractor to Ford, General Motors, and others. GM bought the company outright in 1931 and gave Holden the task of building bodies on a variety of imported chassis. After WWII, GM granted the company the opportunity to create a wholly Australian car, which barely differed from a mainstream Chevrolet of the time. Still, the Holden sedan captured more than half the Australian market in the 1950s, and it was exported to 17 other countries, including Sudan and South Africa.
Consumer tastes changed in the 1960s, prompting Holden to design sportier models such as the HK, which featured Holden’s first V8, a Chevy engine sourced in Canada. The energy crisis in the 1970s saw Holden tap GM’s German subsidiary, Opel, for smaller designs. The Commodore was loosely based on two Opel designs, but with a larger front clip to accommodate a V8, which Australians preferred.
In an effort to stay profitable, Holden increasingly turned to GM’s South Korean asset, Daewoo, to source cheaper models with Opel engineering intact. By the 2000s, Holden had lost its sales leadership to Toyota and other import brands. Despite rich subsidies from the Australian government, Holden closed its last manufacturing plant in 2017, electing to import its cars from Opel in Germany and GM plants in Canada and the US.
While entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin never brought the Serbian-made Yugo hatchback here, Canadians grew familiar with it from the advertisements and road trips to Florida. And the jokes. Like Lada, the Yugo started life as a Fiat, an outdated design whose stampings the Italian automaker was happy to dispatch to its Adriatic neighbour. In 1986 Yugo America began selling the cars at the low, low price of $3,990 for the base model equipped with a 1.1-L engine and four-speed manual transmission.
Unfortunately, the Yugo’s U.S.-market emissions controls never performed properly and the government curtailed Yugo sales in 1992. At the same time, civil war in Yugoslavia prompted the United Nations to impose sanctions forcing the automaker to withdraw from every export market. Zastava, the parent company responsible for the Yugo, soldiered on after NATO bombers damaged its main auto plant in 1999, forcing it to retool for the new millennium.
The Florida, a thoroughly modern front-drive hatchback that was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro in 1987, was revived. It was to be superceded by the Zastava 10, a rebadged Fiat Punto built under licence. After acquiring a majority stake in Zastava in 2008, Fiat continued production under the Fiat Punto Classic name until 2013, with exports to other Eastern European states. Zastava filed for bankruptcy in 2017, allowing Fiat to assume the assets. Today the Serbian assembly plant lives on building the Fiat 500L.
SAIC Motor, formerly Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation, is China’s largest automaker and one of its oldest, with roots that extend back to Chairman Mao’s regime in the 1940s. Originally an outgrowth of Shanghai’s municipal government, a cooperative agreement with Volkswagen in 1984 allowed it to build contemporary cars with foreign technology by assembling the knockdown kits provided by VW.
Unsatisfied with building cars from kits, the local government was motivated to establish a component supply chain in Shanghai. The first joint model, the VW Santana (Passat), started with 6 per cent locally produced parts, but by 1995 local content had risen to 89 per cent. SAIC got its second big boost when it inked a big joint venture with General Motors in 1997, which allowed GM to reintroduce Buick to the Chinese market, an automobile brand linked to China’s Imperialist past.
Today SAIC is a powerhouse in its native China and in various markets around the world. It sells vehicles under its own brands, including Maxus, Roewe, Yuejin and MG, as well as Baojun, Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Volkswagen, Skoda and Wuling on behalf of its partners. Roewe is the company’s luxury brand, with a range of compact and midsize cars and SUVs that provide all the amenities of a premium brand like Lexus. Some Roewe models wear MG badges for sale in the U.K., where it’s a legacy brand.
Established in 1983 as the national automobile manufacturer of Malaysia, Proton relied on Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors to provide the fledgling automaker with products it could build and sell. Proton’s first model was the 1985 Saga, essentially a rebadged Dodge Colt (Mitsubishi had similarly supplied North American Chrysler dealers with the front-drive subcompact). The car was an instant success, prompting the automaker to export the low-priced Saga to the United Kingdom, which like Malaysia, required right-hand-drive vehicles.
Australia, New Zealand and Singapore likewise became export markets as well. The Waja, launched in 2000, was Proton’s first locally designed model, but it still had a Mitsubishi engine under the hood. One model of note was the Satria GTi hot hatchback, which is widely considered the best Malaysian car ever produced, in part because of the extensive work sports car maker Lotus did in tuning the suspension and other components.
England’s Lotus Cars had been involved in the development of handling elements of all Proton cars launched since 1996. Proton grew to like Lotus so much that it bought the company, completing the transaction in 2003. More recently, Proton sales fell on hard times and the Malaysian government looked for a suitor and found one in China’s Geely, which purchased controlling interest in 2017. With that, Proton is expected to see an increasing presence of Geely models in its lineup.
After refashioning the aging rear-drive Fiat 124 sedan into an automobile worthy of the Soviet
workers’ paradise, Lada began exporting the Signet 1500 to Canada in 1979, where it sold in decent numbers thanks to its fire-sale sticker price. But by the mid-1990s sales died off as Canadians embraced inexpensive Hyundai models, and Lada balked at the incoming OBD II emissions standards.
Lada continued to sell in parts of Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean, where buyers appreciated the cars’ cheap pricing, simple functionality, and uncomplicated repairs. Its cars – especially the rough-around-the-edges Niva 4X4 utility – proved popular as police cars, taxis, and a range of public service and civil defense vehicles.
Today Lada is a brand under the new Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance, and its lineup of contemporary front-drive cars feature enough tech to meet European safety and emission standards. The Granta subcompact and Vesta compact hatchback deliver the goods to buyers in sophisticated markets like Austria, Germany, and Hungary. Remarkably the old Niva 4X4 soldiers on virtually unchanged and is now assembled in such exotic locales as Kazakhstan, Jordan, and Uruguay.
Unlike SAIC, a Chinese state-owned powerhouse, Geely began humbly as a refrigerator maker with money borrowed from family members. The privately held company quickly began acquiring other assets, including a motorcycle manufacturing business and a light-truck factory. It was given permission to start automobile production in 1999 with the Geely HQ, which was little more than a badge-engineered Daihatsu Charade. The most curious early Geely was the BL (“Beauty Leopard”) sports coupe, which gained notoriety for being the first car with a karaoke machine installed.
Geely may be best known to North Americans for its rapid acquisition of some established automotive brands, including Volvo Cars in 2010, London Taxi Company in 2013, and Lotus Cars in 2017. It also purchased shares in Malaysia’s automaker Proton, Sweden’s Volvo Truck, and Germany’s Daimler, which owns Mercedes-Benz.
Ever entrepreneurial, Geely founded a “lifestyle” company in 2016 called Lynk & Co, a new automotive brand that shares Volvo’s Compact Modular Architecture platform. The focus of the brand is on connectivity, and it’s spurned convention by adopting a direct-to-consumer sales model (like Tesla) in most markets, targeting young urban professionals. Lynk & Co has launched three models to date, aptly named 01, 02 and 03, and has plans to open stores in five European cities in 2020 – its first venture outside of China.