GWM rolls out the red carpet for itself at the Sofia show

GWM rolls out the red carpet for itself at the Sofia show

As far as European motor shows go, Sofia is, shall we say, not quite up there with Geneva, Paris or Frankfurt. And yet, as unlikely as it may sound, something that matters a great deal is going on there right now - the first Chinese manufacturer to set up a production plant in the European Union is exhibiting a nine-model range. And of those nine, three will be built in Bulgaria from September.

Great Wall Motor (GWM), in conjunction with local group Litex Motors, is right now readying its KD plant for production of the Wingle 5 pick-up, Haval H5 SUV and Voleex C10 small car. The facility at Lovech, 150km northeast of the Bulgarian capital, is the country's only car factory. While it is of course hugely premature, nevertheless, the facility is already being mentioned in the same category as Slovenia's only car plant, Renault's Revoz complex. This site, at Novo Mesto, seems to be in an almost permanent state of expansion.

Yes, caution is required, but remember that there are no tariffs between the 27 member states of the EU and there is a large market in central Europe for high quality yet affordable vehicles. Great Wall could be up against its initial 50,000 units per annum capacity constraint at Lovech possibly as soon as 2013. I for one won't be betting on this remaining a knocked down facility for long, as Great Wall is China's most ambitious and expansionary vehicle maker when it comes to overseas markets.

GWM already has an impressive sales record in countries such as Italy and Russia. Meanwhile, in Australia, where passenger-vehicle pick-ups are big business, Great Wall now outsells Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles and is closing on Hyundai. This is a serious company. And for Europe's existing vehicle makers, Lovech is a place name to note.

Author: Glenn Brooks