KOLIN, Czech Republic - The center of gravity in Europe's auto industry is shifting east. A prime example is Toyota and PSA/Peugeot-Citroen's joint-venture plant, which formally opened here May 31.
The 300,000-annual-capacity plant 60km east of Prague is a symbol. But what it symbolizes depends on one's perspective.
In one sense, Kolin is a prelude to the modern assembly plants coming in central and eastern Europe. Next year, Slovakia to the south will add two similar-sized plants. To the northeast in St. Petersburg, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler are about to join Ford in making cars in Russia's second-largest city. SsangYong also will open a plant in Russia.
That's the macro perspective. But others view growth in the East differently.
For western European automakers, the region offers the chance to:
1. Build cheaper cars so they can better compete with Asian imports
2. Establish themselves in the portion of the European auto market that is still growing.
Asian automakers Kia, Hyundai, SsangYong and Toyota benefit from the low-cost labor, while improving their access to the rest of the EU.
For suppliers, it is a chance to grow rapidly and even an opportunity to gain some geographical concentration.
11 plants within 200km
By next year, 11 assembly plants with a capacity of more than 2 million vehicles will be within 200km of the southern Czech city of Brno.
For automakers native to the region, such as Skoda and Dacia, now is a chance to break out of a long period of stagnation, even if it has meant giving up independence and becoming divisions of western European carmakers.
Earlier this year at the Dacia plant in Pitesti, industrial director and native Romanian Marian Ghita spoke eloquently of his gratitude to Renault. The French automaker had invested enough in the factory that Romanians could prove that they can build cars as well as anyone. "We have proved it," he said with pride.
A common refrain among those who work at any of the modern plants in the East is: Give us a chance, we can make great cars.
Sound familiar? It should.
I have heard it and felt it virtually all my life. Anywhere cars are built, pride is a primary motivator. Work is honorable, but making cars is special.
I grew up in Detroit. My grandfather managed a General Motors parts plant and my dad, uncle and half-brother were also in the industry. My wife's father was a Chrysler manufacturing engineer and as a child she spent Saturdays poking around factories with her dad.
Smells like home
Summers during university, I worked in stamping plants and on the line at Ford Wixom building Thunderbirds and Lincoln Mark IIIs. To my wife and me, the odor of die lubricant smells like home.
I have been through dozens of parts and assembly plants on three continents. Whether it's Martorell, Nagoya, Ingolstadt, Taipei, Bratislava or Saginaw, Michigan, it's always the same.
Car people love their work and want to do better so they look for ways to improve. Away from the job, they delight in spotting a vehicle they helped design, sell, built parts for, or assemble.
That's part of what makes building cars special. You can look at your handiwork and say, "I built that." It's a universal truth that applies in the East too.
E-mail Managing Editor Jesse Snyder at .