When 70 truck owners and operators from Europe got together last month to shop for heavy-duty trucks, they hopped on a plane and flew to the United States.
The truckers - from Holland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland - stopped first in Nashville, Tenn., to tour a Peterbilt Motors Co. plant. Then they continued to Las Vegas for the 1997 International Trucking Show. There, they kicked the tires, crawled in sleeper cabs and inquired about engine reliability.
Many were just looking. But others, like Detlef Knapp, were in the market for trucks that could range deeper into Eastern Europe, the Baltic nations and Russia. Knapp, owner of Detlef Knapp Transporte of Bretten (Golsh.), Germany, operates a fleet of 15 trucks that haul bulk chemicals, fuel and tar all over Western Europe.
European truckers chasing new business in Russia, where roads can be primitive and weather extremely cold, need conventional trucks with sleeper cabs and reliable engines, said Hans Fischer, a former truck driver who brokers American-built trucks in Europe.
Fischer, who drove trucks from Europe into the Middle East for 12 years, prefers Peterbilt trucks with diesel engines from Caterpillar Inc. Drivers can depend on Peterbilt quality, he said. And with a Caterpillar engine, truckers can get parts and service in places such as the Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
EYES ON ASIA
Fischer liked what he saw at the Las Vegas truck show. With the right equipment, he predicted, European truckers could haul goods all over Asia. 'In five years, everyone will be going to China,' he said.
Some European truck manufacturers have a 'take it or leave it' attitude toward customers, Knapp said. He said North American truck and trailer manufacturers do a better job of tailoring products to fit customer needs.
The visit by European truckers to the United States was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which tried unsuccessfully three years ago to put together a similar trip. But new markets opening in Eastern Europe and Russia have spurred a 'sudden huge interest' in American trucks and trailers, said Paul Warren-Smith, a Commerce Department trade official based in Frankfurt.
'The transportation industry in Europe is about to undergo a tremendous change, especially in trucking,' he said.
HURDLES IN EUROPE
Peterbilt, a division of Paccar Inc., would like to sell more trucks in Europe, but faces several big hurdles, said Gabriel Pepino, president of Paccar International in Kirkland, Wash.
Customs duties can add 20 percent to the price of new Peterbilts in Europe, he said. Trucks also have to pass inspection under Europe engine emission standards, adding costs. Narrow roads and laws limiting rig lengths have shifted the market to cab-over vehicles, rather than the long-nosed conventional models Peterbilt makes. And the company would have to build a dealer network from scratch.
'The cost of entering the market is pretty stiff,' Pepino said.
But Paccar is finding a way to enter new markets in Europe, Russia and the Far East, even if it can't do it with a lot of Peterbilts.
In November, the company acquired DAF Trucks NV, a Dutch maker of Class 6-8 trucks already operating in Eastern Europe and Russia. Also in November, Paccar announced a joint venture to make Class 8 trucks in Xuzhou, China, with Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group Inc.
Truck traffic between Western Europe and Russia has been growing for about four years, said Jim Martin, manager of Caterpillar truck and bus engines for the Russian market.
Caterpillar, which entered the Russian market in 1929, has 18 service centers there. The company sees good growth prospects in Russia, but probably not until 2000 and beyond.
It has been slow going. Financial problems at Russian truckmaker Zil led to the termination in September of a 3-year-old marketing partnership the company had with Paccar and Caterpillar.
Russian commercial truck production collapsed, from an output of 750,000 vehicles in 1989 to a projected production of 140,000 units this year, he said.