Volkswagen reported that a storm last April damaged more than 100 cars at its Chattanooga plant. Auto dealers in the area also said several hundred vehicles sustained hail damage at their lots.
Recalling the hail produced by some of last spring's violent storms, Volkswagen is spending about $5 million on a massive net to protect part of its car-loading yard at its Chattanooga plant.
Officials said the first phase of work will cover about half of its 5,000-space yard with the so-called "hail net."
"It's an affordable solution to what can be a serious problem," said John Saunders, chief executive of USAShade & Fabric Structures Inc. of Dallas, Texas, which is installing the net.
According to VW, hail nets already have been installed at the Nissan assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., and the Honda factory in Lincoln, Ala.
"It substantially reduces the risk" of damage to vehicles, Saunders said.
Mark Indek, a VW construction specialist, said work on the hail net started about five weeks ago at VW's sprawling loading yard, which sits adjacent to the plant's production buildings.
Newly made Passats assembled in the plant are driven to the yard, where personnel install final accessories and ready the cars for shipment by rail or truck to dealers across the country.
Kevin Charlet, VW's manager of outbound vehicle logistics in Chattanooga, said the net, made from fabric, is to be installed at key locations in the yard.
"It will be strategically placed," he said.
For example, the area near where the accessories are put on the cars and locations close to the rail and truck loading facilities will be covered, Charlet said.
"We want to cover the right areas," he said.
Charlet said the hail net should be ready by mid-April, and officials will determine later if a second phase of the project will be done to cover other parts of the yard.
Guenther Scherelis, VW's general manager of communications in Chattanooga, said some Passats sustained damage last April when heavy hail hit the area. None of the damaged cars were sold to customers, he said. Instead, they were used for internal VW purposes such as training, Scherelis said.
In that April storm, the National Weather Service recorded hail from 1 to 2 inches in diameter in Hamilton, Marion and Bradley counties and baseball-size hail in Sullivan County in upper East Tennessee, the worst for the region in at least three years.
Auto dealers in the Chattanooga area reported that hundreds of vehicles parked on their lots were damaged during the storm.
At the VW loading yard, steel poles around 10 feet in height are undergoing installation to support the net.
VW is producing about 35 cars per hour at the plant after recently bolstering production to meet demand. The company also announced it planned to add 200 more workers to its 2,500-member workforce in Chattanooga.