Bulgaria Makes Another Attempt at Car Production – with Chinese Help
By Andy Bannister
Economic reality has hit home since then, with considerably more troubles nearer at hand to contend with, but that doesn’t mean the challenge from the east has gone away.
With its market so far less affected by the slump, and the domestic industry not dependent on exports to western countries, China seems to be continuing its policy of cautious advance in the hope of securing its place in the global motor industry’s new world order.
Bulgaria, one of the few European Union countries without a car plant currently, is one such example. The Balkan state, which has been growing fast and is soon to adopt the euro as its national currency, is being targeted by China’s largest SUV maker, Great Wall Motor.
Great Wall plans to invest 80 million euros in a new car plant at Lovech, northeast of the capital, Sofia, according to an announcement by the Bulgarian government this week. The factory could become operational as early as next year and will employ 1,500 staff.
A big balance of trade deficit means Bulgaria needs to increase its industrial production, and the government is eyeing the success its northern neighbour, Romania, has had with Dacia exports (soon to be joined by a new Ford plant).
Great Wall, which hit the headlines recently over allegedly pirating a small car design based on the Fiat Panda, is best known for its rugged and unsophisticated pick-ups – such as the Sailor and the Wingle – and related SUVs. The most successful is the Hover, which is even offered in a bizarre stretch-limousine version.
The company already assembles vehicles in Ukraine and has had some success in Russia. It has appeared at big motor shows including Paris and has even racked up some modest EU sales in Italy, a country which has developed an early appetite for Chinese vehicles.
Bulgaria has a fairly poor track record thus far in car making, so Great Wall will be hoping not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Lovech was for years the home of an assembly plant for the Russian Moskvich car, made in Bulgaria for local consumption under the Rila name until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It lasted as long as it did principally because under communism there was no effective competition and motorists were glad to get their hands on any vehicle, however slow or inept.
After the country embraced capitalism, the ill-starred Rover company in England entered an agreement to build its Focus-sized Austin Maestro hatchback and van at a new venture called Roda Car, in Varna, on the Black Sea coast. It was opened in 1995 in a blaze of publicity by the British Ambassador.
Unfortunately for Rover, the Maestro – which was a weirdly old-fashioned design even at its original launch in 1983 – was not a car the Bulgarian public took to. Even government agencies preferred to choose Czech-made Skodas or Korean Daewoos instead.
The plant closed within the year and only 2,200 cars were made. Most of the Bulgarian production ended up being exported to countries as far afield as Jordan and Argentina, and a fair proportion of leftover Maestro kits were reassembled later one-by-one in the UK and snapped up by nostalgic buyers after a slice of British automotive history.
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