A Train Runs Through It
By Sam Boni
“Forget the Chattanooga choo-choo, Volkswagen has boarded the bullet train”, wrote Glenn Brooks in ‘Automotive World’ of July 2008. At that time, the German carmaker announced its decision to build a new manufacturing plant in the romanticized, industrial Tennessee town. Volkswagen will invest $1 billion and will employ thousands of people at its new North American plant. Other good news is in store for this area; after more than a decade of talking, the first real step in getting a high speed train connection between Atlanta and Chattanooga is underway.
If not on the bullet train, Volkswagen has been on an express train for years. With the takeover of several faltering automakers, the company added more factories in Europe. Using common components across its different makes, at Audi, Seat, Skoda as well as VW, production costs of many diverse models can be reduced.
North Americans think of Volkswagen as the quintessential German company. The truth is that VWs are better known and more popular in Brazil, China and places other than in Michigan or Quebec. Numerous Volkswagen plants have been built over the years in South America, India, Africa, Indonesia, Russia, China and several other countries. Volkswagen, known for their small cars, ventured onto the Chinese market as early as 1978. Several joint venture assembly and manufacturing plants followed and made VWs the best selling cars in the most populous country on earth.
For production at the North American plant, VW is also in the process of designing America-specific vehicles. Several models of the up-scale Audi brand, which is wholly owned by Volkswagen, are also expected to be fabricated in Chattanooga – as is the case in China. Production start-up is expected to happen in January 2011. Volkswagen expects to sell one million cars in the United States ten years from now, and most will be transported to regional centers by special vehicle-transport trains.
After the imminent take-over by comparatively tiny Porsche, the relatively giant VW Group’s ambitious goal is to “out-sell and out-earn Toyota at a global level by 2018.” —You know Porsche’s success story, but how did the little Beetle company get this far? Sixty years after NOT only blowing hot air from its undersized 24 horsepower air-cooled engine, but conquering the hearts and wallets of the global village with reliability, quality, and good value, Volkswagen has joined the “Big Three”. More than 100 Million ‘Vee-Dubs’ have been produced since the company was resurrected by the British Military from the ruins of World War II.
Many books have been written about the ‘Bug’. Variations include the beautiful Karmann Ghia, the dune-buggy, Herbie the ‘Love Bug’ and of course, the first Porsche cars originated from the Beetle as much as the Beetle originated from Porsche.
Much as before, the new century has several of the members of the VW Group riding a train of success; active in every type of motorsports, from Beetle Cup club racing to winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Audi’s “Advantage through Technology” and Porsche design innovations are not only victorious in motorsports, but also transfer technology to make Volkswagens safer and more comfortable.
One of the newer Volkswagen production facilities presented several special situations. Planning to build a luxury VW, the Phaeton, an appropriate building was decided on: in the middle of downtown Dresden, an 800 year old city. Glass walls were installed to let passers-by watch cars being assembled almost silently, without smoke stacks and on Canadian Maple floors instead of concrete. Unable to truck supplies to the inner city location of the “Glass Manufaktur” (“Transparent Factory”), a special ‘streetcar-train’ was developed, the blue “CarGo Tram.”
When the train of magnetically guided assembly dollies stops on the weekends, occasionally the “culture train” stops by in the form of trained musicians giving a concert, or actors performing a play. Workers can listen to or watch the performances by sitting on the wagon train that carries the fruit of their labor during the week; chairs are placed on the wooden factory floor, where the assembly-line train runs through it during the work week.
A ‘train’ of success stories, made possible by a ‘trainload’ of hard working people around the world, helped the youngest of major automakers go on to their present state; an enviable ‘track’ record. You can’t help but admire an underdog, a company that not too long ago itself was in dire difficulty. Let us hope that the ‘Detroit Three’ recover as completely as Volkswagen. To keep the ‘train’ moving, let’s hope that the auto industry’s recovery ‘stays on track’ and is as enduring and admired in history as Duke Ellington’s standard of American music “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
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