LADSON, S.C. -- A curious exercise in automobile manufacturing takes place daily inside the old, 350,000-square-foot Western Star truck plant here that is now owned by Daimler.
This is where Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner Sprinter cargo vans are reassembled after being fully built and tested in Dusseldorf, Germany.
It’s the “chicken tax” at work.
After the Sprinters are manufactured and ready for export, German workers strip out the drivetrains and fuel systems. The disemboweled vans are then exported to the Port of Charleston, S.C., vehicle bodies on one ship, mechanical components on another. After clearing customs, the vans and mechanical parts are transported 19 miles to the Ladson plant.
The reassembly process sounds like a logistical and potential quality nightmare. American workers re-install drivetrains and fuel systems in the exact vehicle they were removed from in Germany. Any nuts, bolts or connectors that have been designed to be torqued down once are replaced with identical items shipped from Germany.
Then, the reassembly line workers reconnect the brakes, refill all the fluids and fully retest the vans before they are cleared for shipping to dealers. The only U.S. content in the Sprinter is the battery.
Daimler has a devised a reasonably efficient system. Between 66 and 74 vans roll off the 17-station line five days a week. Each van requires about 3.5 hours of work to reassemble.
During a recent plant tour, Walther Bloch, Sprinter’s chief engineer, said the quality of the reassembled vans is equal to non-chicken tax Sprinters sold in other global markets. The Ladson plant is on track to ship about 23,000 reassembled Sprinters this year.
The gyrations some automakers go through to avoid the 25 percent tariff on imported trucks seems wasteful and crazy.
But some of it does make sense. For one thing, automakers can import a light truck and test the market without having to commit to a major assembly plant on U.S. soil. And the 90 people here at the Daimler plant are earning good wages reassembling the vans. So, you know they don’t want any repeal of the chicken tax.
Mercedes says the cost to strip/ship/reassemble adds about 9 percent to the cost of the Sprinter, which starts at $36,990 including shipping, so it saves about 16 percent tax on every van.