A little over 20 years ago, just before Titanic ran in theaters and the world was introduced to Harry Potter, the Mercedes-Benz W163, dubbed "Job1," rolled off the assembly line at Vance, Ala., launching the M class.
It was a risky experiment for Daimler-Benz: its first manufacturing plant outside Germany, building an entirely new product and its first wholly manufactured SUV.
Mercedes production boss Markus Schaefer said the idea, hatched by former Mercedes boss Juergen Hubbert, was considered "crazy."
Worse, Alabama lacked an automotive industry at the time. After bleeding tens of thousands of jobs in traditional manufacturing sectors, particularly in the textile industry, the state's economy was saved by Mercedes' decision to pour $300 million into the site and create 1,500 skilled jobs.
"Mercedes was much more than just another investment," said Steve Sewell of the state's privately funded economic development lobby group. "We knew this would be the cornerstone for Alabama's economic development effort."
Since then, the Vance plant has expanded its surface area sixfold. Now, the new body shop alone — at 1 million square feet — is so cavernous, the entire original plant could fit within it. With over 310,000 vehicles manufactured last year across four different model lines, it is one of the company's largest plants in the world.
Meanwhile, the state has become a powerhouse. It now counts Honda and Hyundai as manufacturers, and Sewell thinks Alabama has a good chance of landing a new Toyota-Mazda plant given that Toyota already produces engines in Huntsville.
Daimler's Schaefer said, "This plant changed Mercedes." It also changed his life. Like Daimler r&d chief Ola Kaellenius, Schaefer went on to bigger and better things after serving as head of the Vance site.
Why did Mercedes pick Vance? Recounting to workers a story he was told by Hubbert only a week earlier, Schaefer said the team had been scouting the region for a possible site when it arrived in Tuscaloosa County on a Sunday.
"They stopped in front of a church, stepped out of the car and were listening to the bells. They looked at the woods, and it somehow reminded them of the Black Forest," Schaefer told hundreds of assembly line workers in September. Hubbert told him, "We felt at home at this moment."