THE WEEK THAT WAS: Opinions divide over China
As well it might be. That noise that sometimes wafts in on the breeze is the sound of US industry pioneers like Henry Ford, Walter P Chrysler and William C Durant spinning in their graves at the thought that the giant automakers they once created, and the giant domestic market their businesses created in turn, was one day earlier this year upstaged by Asia's sleeping giant, only really industrialised and modernised towards the end of the 20th century (compared with the US and UK which were industrial powerhouses by the end of the 19th).
While a few statistics-counting curmudgeons might still argue over just exactly how Beijing's bean counters tallied up - still using an abacus, they might also suggest - that Chinese auto industry sales earlier this year surpassed those in the US, the market's global dominance is now an accepted fact in the auto biz - analysts, news agencies and all manner of industry observers now refer to it in terms such as 'China, which earlier this year became the world's largest auto market'. Curmudgeons, get used to it.
There have been a few glitches on the way, of course. Outlandish claims have been made - Nanjing MG's 'start of production' (it wasn't) media event at the former MG Rover plant near Birmingham will forever stick in my mind, and BYD's oft-repeated claims to soon rule the EV world sometimes seem perhaps just a little ambitious.
But. Would legendary 'sage of Omaha' investor Warren Buffett put his money into BYD if there wasn't a decent return in the offing one day? Would seasoned former MG Rover engineers compliment their Chinese 'lift-and-shift' peers who unbolted almost an entire factory's worth of equipment from the Longbridge floor, chucked it into crates, loaded it on ships, unpacked it in Nanjing, worked out how to lay it all out again in the right sequence and started building saleable cars in a time frame that left the westerners gasping, if they weren't any good at production engineering?
Sure, some of the Chinese cars we see in the West may have poor quality interiors, obviously knocked-off styling and get lousy scores in German auto club crash tests, but do the doubters not remember where some of the Korean automakers were little more than 30 years ago? Hyundai assembling British Cortina CKD kits before using Mitsubishi drivetrains in self-designed hatchbacks with crumbly interiors and upholstery that changed colour in southern hemisphere sun? Kia using Mazda drivetrains and bodies under licence? Daewoo building the Opel-designed Kadett under licence? And making it (as the Le Mans) for Pontiac?
Look at Hyundai and Kia now (I grant you Daewoo is in deep trouble and a parental bail-out seems inevitable as this week ends). The only two major brands showing growth in the US this year. Local factories all around the world including two in the southern US. Small car production hubs in India (Hyundai) a medium car plant in Slovakia (Kia) and another in the Czech Republic (Hyundai) with gearboxes made alongside. Hyundai, in particular, now on the same picky North American buyers' shopping lists as Toyota and Honda.
I wouldn't count the Chinese out and I don't think they'll take as long as the two Korean automakers to catch up with the Japanese and western automakers globally. Not when their car firms regularly seem to open yet another assembly plant in yet another developing market. Egypt and Ecuador today; tomorrow, the world. Just like Hyundai did when it, too, was on the up.
It was, however, intriguing this week to see contrasting views of where the Chinese auto market will go. As September's data was tallied, it became clear that both monthly output and sales had soared and, in the euphoria, Toyota, a late starter in China compared with western rivals, also reported record monthly sales. Of interest was the differing outlook between leading, and long established, western player GM and analysts. Local chief Kevin Wale, announcing a 56% nine-month rise in sales, reckoned his firm could outpace market growth in 2010, too, and his boss, a certain Fritz Henderson, was just as bullish. But the analysts played it cautious, concerned that, as we've already seen in some western markets, that growth will slow as government incentives designed to stimulate sales are reduced or withdrawn. Similar views were expressed by western market analysts this week, too.
China, simply, is fascinating and will be a market and industry to watch for years to come. Woe betide western automakers who don't.
Have a good weekend.