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Mercedes Workers Celebrate 'Made In USA' Milestone

Thu, 06/19/2014 - 10:07am
Patrick Rupinski, The Tuscaloosa News

VANCE, Ala. (AP) -- The first Mercedes C-Class that bears the claim "made in the USA" ceremoniously rolled off the assembly line at Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Vance on Wednesday morning.

The four-door silver sedan, dubbed Job One, is the first customer-ready C-Class made at the 17-year-old auto plant. It and like vehicles from MBUSI will head to dealers' showrooms in coming months and are expected to go on sale with other 2015 Mercedes models in late summer or early fall. The exact date and its base price have not been announced.

"We have seen a lot of excitement in the new C-Class," said Greg Peeples, general manager of Leigh Automotive Inc., the Mercedes dealership in Tuscaloosa.

"There is a lot of interest, and we already have several orders."

He said he expects the vehicles will become available for customers in August or September.

"It really is a great thing for Tuscaloosa and the state of Alabama," Peeples said.

The new C-Class marks the start of the fifth generation of Mercedes' top selling model, which boasts a revamped design and a host of new technology.

It also is part of the German automaker's plan to build the C-Class on four continents, putting the production near the markets where the cars will be sold. In addition to the Vance plant, the C-Class also is built in Bremen, Germany, and East London, South Africa. Later this year, production will begin in Beijing.

Mercedes invested about $2 billion at MBUSI to build additional facilities to accommodate the production of the C-Class and a fifth vehicle — an all-new model sportier sport utility vehicle that will be added to production next year, said Jason Hoff, president and CEO of MBUSI.

MBUSI also builds M-Class and GL-Class sports utility vehicles and R-Class crossover vehicles.

But the addition of the C-Class represents a rebirth of sorts for MBUSI, which like auto plants everywhere suffered during the Great Recession. The plant had layoffs, extended shutdowns and reduced workweeks as demand for luxury vehicles fell during the recession.

In 2009 at the height of the recession, MBUSI's annual production fell to 90,616 vehicles, compared with 152,561 vehicles a year earlier.

Vehicle production grew as the economy improved in the following years, and last year, MBUSI set a production record of 185,196 vehicles. Hoff said with the addition of the C-Class, whose production started last week, the plant will set a new record, producing more than 200,000 vehicles this year.

MBUSI also has added more than 1,000 workers to its operations with addition of the C-Class and in preparation for next year's model. It now has about 3,000 employees.

Things were not as bright five years ago, which Hoff described as the low point for the auto industry.

"We were down in volume and down in our production of SUVs," he said.

That prompted discussions on what MBUSI could do to bring more production to Tuscaloosa County. In December 2009, Mercedes announced it would move C-Class production for the sedans that would be sold in North America to Vance.

In the following years, work got underway to expand and revamp the plant and train workers to make the new model.

Mercedes' original production plant, which opened in 1997 was revamped for the new sedans and leaders of the teams that are building the cars were sent to Germany to learn the intricacies of the production so they could train their teammates.

"It's been a long but rewarding journey for us," Hoff said.

Gov. Robert Bentley who joined the Job One celebration noted Mercedes took a chance and believed in Alabama when it decided in 1993 to build its first U.S. auto plant here. Its success opened the door to recruit more manufacturers and led to further expansions and jobs at MBUSI, he said.

"Everywhere I go to recruit industry, Mercedes is mentioned," he said.

Dozens of political and business leaders joined plant workers for the Job One rollout.

Among them was Bill Taylor, MBUSI's first head of production who arrived on the scene in 1993 before the original plant was built. Six years later, he became MBUSI's president and CEO. He retired from MBUSI five years ago.

When asked if he ever thought the plant would be where it is today, he said he did not know the details of what would come but knew the potential and quality workforce was there.

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