Gov. Phil Bredesen
Volkswagen’s planned $1 billion plant in Chattanooga is an ambitious drive to boost market share in the United States and reconnect with car buyers, company officials say.
While VW Beetles, Rabbits and microbuses are iconic images to baby boomers, the vehicles aren’t so familiar to younger generations.
“We’re launching new products,” said Stefan Jacoby, chief executive of VW Group of America. “We’re committed to connecting with American customers.”
Mr. Jacoby said the company wants to triple sales to 800,000 VWs and 200,000 Audis in the U.S., and the Chattanooga plant scheduled to open in 2011 is key to that effort.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield this week talked about VWs they owned and their emotional ties with the vehicles.
Gov. Bredesen recalled that a generation ago he and his wife, Andrea Conte, came to Tennessee in a VW Rabbit with their possessions in the back of the car.
“I didn’t have a job; Andrea did. I was going to make my way in Tennessee,” he said. “To stand here literally a generation later as governor to welcome not the car but the company to Tennessee is a great personal privilege to me.”
Mr. Littlefield recalled owning both a VW “bug” and a “bus” stretching back to more than 40 years ago.
“Some of the finest family memories we have had are tied to VW,” he said.
However, Volkswagen has a lot of work ahead of it to equal and surpass its past success in the U.S. In the 1960s, the company had 7 percent of the American market based largely on the Beetle, while today it has only 2 percent.
Aaron Bragman, an auto industry analyst for Global Insight, said VW is taking square aim at Toyota Motor Corp., which has been growing its sales and footprint in the United States and worldwide.
“VW wants to be a global player,” he said. “They have to have a local (U.S.) plant.”
Staff Photo by D. Patrick Harding
Fielding Clark, a member of the Scenic City Volks Folks, at his home with his 73 Thing. Clark has been a VW enthuisist for as long as he can remember and has been in possession of about 130 in his lifetime so far.
Volkswagen initially is looking to build 150,000 cars a year at the Chattanooga plant, Mr. Jacoby said. He said VW will produce a midsize sedan similar to the Passat but targeted at American drivers.
“We will, of course, offer conventional gasoline engines which will have significantly improved fuel consumption,” Mr. Jacoby said. “We will also offer hybrids.”
In addition, VW will try to develop America’s market for diesel-powered cars as it has in Europe, where it is the biggest automaker by production.
“We are one of the worldwide technology leaders with diesel engines,” Mr. Jacoby said.
To highlight his arrival in Chattanooga, the VW official rode into the city Tuesday with Gov. Bredesen in a diesel-powered Jetta that averages about 39 miles per gallon.
Gov. Bredesen quipped that “the car was fine, but I wasn’t sure about having someone (with me) who is used to driving on the Autobahn.”
HISTORY OF VW BEETLE
* 1930s — Beetle prototypes developed in Germany
* 1949 — Car first comes to U.S.
* 1960s — Beetle helps VW capture 7 percent of U.S. market
* 1970s — Beetle popularity begins to fade
* 1998 — New Beetle produced
* 2003 — Last original Beetle comes off assembly line in Mexico
Source: Edmunds.com, Wikipedia
Fielding Clark, a VW enthusiast and member of the Scenic City Volks Folks club, said he owns five vintage Volkswagens.
The oldest is a 1963 slide-back sunroof Beetle, or what he termed “a Love Bug replica.” The Ringgold, Ga., resident now is restoring a 1972 Super Beetle convertible for his daughter.
He said people who own old VWs have “bug fever.”
“It’s not a car; it’s a cult,” Mr. Clark said.
Mr. Clark said he hopes VW can grab a bigger stake in the U.S. market.
“They’re the biggest carmaker in Europe,” he said. “I can’t see why they can’t do it here.”
Staff writer Dave Flessner contributed to this story.
Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...