A half-century ago, both Datsun and Toyota decided to sell cars in the United States. Honda was busy with motorcycles at the time.
Rather than do its own distribution, Toyota decided that a far safer and less costly strategy would be to sign up distributors that could use their own capital and would understand the marketplace much better than the Japanese company.
Datsun, now Nissan, decided to go it alone and use its own capital and people to set up U.S. distribution. Obviously, having someone like Yutaka Katayama -- the cordial and energetic "Mr. K" -- to run the United States paid handsome dividends over the years.
As it played out, both companies have a pretty good track record in America. Toyota still has a couple of surviving distributors that continue to do a fine job. Toyota bought out the others over the years.
In 2006, Daimler decided against distributing its Smart brand in America itself. So Daimler struck a deal with Roger Penske to handle the distribution.
This month, Penske Automotive announced that it will add a Nissan-built car under the Smart brand next year, a move that has to make Smart dealers very happy as U.S. sales of Smart's one model have dropped.
Meanwhile, Mahindra's U.S. plan is a mess. What the parent company in India is trying to accomplish is a mystery. Mahindra has terminated (or is trying to terminate) its chosen U.S. distributor, whose owner isn't happy. Neither are the dealers who paid the distributor a franchise fee to sell those diesel Mahindra pickup trucks.
And it's just a matter of time, regardless of the official line, before we see a whole bunch of Chinese brands flooding into this market with big plans to sell lots of cars and trucks. We know they are going to sell those vehicles through franchised dealers. We just don't know how.
It could be either way, distributor or factory. Certainly the Chinese government has a few gazillion dollars worth of U.S. bonds. So the need to conserve cash is not necessarily important.
But distributors can give an overseas company a lot of knowledge and capital that the manufacturer might lack if it tries to set up its own company.
One thing is for sure. However the next wave of importers decides to sell cars in America, there will be a shortage of American talent. But chances are that plenty of U.S. dealers will be eager to take the risk, whether they deal with U.S. distributors or foreign manufacturers.
Regardless of how the companies set up distribution, it's going to be fascinating.