Followers of Dave Leggett's blog will be aware that just-auto's editor was recently very taken with Great Wall's entertainingly named Wingle pick-up, writes Mark Bursa.

Not long ago it was the Japanese manufacturers that held the monopoly on silly names - remember the Mazda Bongo Friendee, the Nissan Urban Dump and the Daihatsu Pantry Boy Supreme, all stars of a not-too distant Tokyo Show.

Now the Chinese have muscled in, with the Great Wall Wingle rivalling the Geely Rural Nanny as the daftest name so far. But while Great Wall's linguistic problems may raise a few laughs - a well-produced brochure available at Paris describes the good-looking Hover SUV as "stouthearted and invigorative" - it's clear that this company is no joke.

Great Wall has hardly appeared on the radar so far - attention has focused on more aggressive rivals such as Geely and Chery. But while these carmakers are throttling back their export strategies, Great Wall is gearing up for a rapid rise in sales both abroad and in China. And it's not limiting its horizons to SUVs and pick-ups - a full range of sedans and MPVs is under development, and the first of these will be ready next year.

Great Wall is planning to export around 30,000 Hovers this year, more than double 2005's level of 14,326 units, which made Great Wall one of China's largest vehicle exporters. Export volumes accounted for more than 25% of the company's total sales volume last year, and the target is a 1:1 export-to-domestic sales ratio by 2008. Great Wall last year sold its cars in 65 countries, mainly in the Middle East, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.

Russia was the largest export market, with 4,535 units sold, and Great Wall is currently setting up a CKD assembly plant in Russia to build vehicles there. This plant is costing US$70 million and could build up to 50,000 vehicles a year.

Great Wall has also signed its first European distributor, Eurasia Motors of Brescia, Italy, and Eurasia forecasts sales of more than 10,000 Hovers in Italy alone. Other European distributors were seen sniffing round Great Wall's Paris Show stand, including the UK's IM Group. A right-hand drive Hover will be built from the end of 2006. And the Hover will make a US debut at the Detroit Show in January.

This is an ambitious and well-organised business that has already become China's largest pick-up truck maker, with sales last year of 34,756, up 38.2% on 2004. It also sold 22,243 SUVs. These were mainly older-generation vehicles, not Hovers or Wingles. Hover production only started in March 2005 - 8,642 units were sold last year - while the Wingle was only unveiled in July 2006. In the first half of 2006, 12,700 Hovers were sold in China; total H1 Great Wall SUV sales topped 18,000. Pick-up sales growth continued, with 24,955 units sold in January-June 2006.

The older Great Wall pick-ups - called Deer, Sailor and Socool (yes, as in 'so cool') - are based on Nissan designs. The older SUVs - called Safe, Sing and Pegasus - use the same running gear but with bodies that look vaguely like the Honda CR-V fitted with typically ornate chrome trim.

In 2003 Nissan threatened Great Wall with a lawsuit for design piracy, a claim that the Chinese company denied. The threat fizzled out, as with many similar incidents, as the vague nature of Chinese law meant it was highly unlikely Nissan would win any court case. Great Wall stresses that the piracy issue is now dead. In its own charming way, it says: "Wingle is the first home-made superior pick-up with independent intellectual right."

Since 2003, Great Wall has invested aggressively in expanding its business. The company is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, and last week placed an additional 300 million shares with institutional investors, raising a further US$253m. Turnover last year was US$482m and the company made an after-tax profit of US$55.8m, according to its annual report.

Great Wall group owns more than ten subsidiaries and it currently has about 8,000 employees. Based in Baoding, Hebei province, it is establishing a major production centre in three phases. Phase 1, already complete, has a capacity of 170,000 pick-ups and SUVs.

This is a full assembly plant with die tooling shop, stamping shop, welding shop, framing shop, paint plant and final assembly line together with an R&D centre, test laboratories, and proving ground. Hover and Wingle share a platform, and are built on the same line.

Phase two involves setting up a supplier park around the production line, involving cooperation from domestic and foreign parts suppliers. It already sources from a number of leading global Tier 1s, including Bosch, which supplies common-rail diesel engine systems and ABS for the Hover; Honeywell (turbochargers); Borg-Warner (transmissions); and Delphi (petrol fuel injection systems).

Mr Leggett will no doubt be pleased to discover that the Hover also features an "Inner Mirror with Munual [sic] Anti-dizzy Function", which presumably means an adjustable dimming rear-view mirror!

Phase three involves a second plant, with a 200,000 capacity. Construction started in July 2005, and the plant will come on stream next year, when Great Wall diversifies into passenger car production, with a range of sedans and MPVs under development.

These include a self-developed MPV series and a range of passenger cars with engines ranging from 1.0 litre to 2.0 litres. Design work started on five new model lines in mid-2005. These are codenamed M11, CH011, CH021, CH031 and V22 simultaneously in the second half of 2005. Great Wall says the M series and CH series are "family sedans
targeting ordinary families, young and middle-aged consumers pursuing individual lifestyles". The V22 is a five-door, eight-seater MPV targeting "businessmen and middle-class families".

The company says the first of the new cars, the 1-litre M11, will be launched in the first quarter of 2007, with 1.3-litre and 2-litre sedans and the first MPVs appearing "in the latter part of 2007". Also due next year is a single-cab Wingle (Wingle Single?) to accompany the crew-cab version already launched.

Great Wall is doing a lot of the development itself in its 30,000sq m R&D centre, built at a cost of US$38m. The centre employs more than 500 engineers, and Great Wall wants to develop in into "a national technology R&D centre with the development capability of engines, car bodies, auto-electronics and passenger vehicles", according to the company's website. Inevitably, European design and engineering consultants have been involved in the development of Hover and Wingle, and the new passenger cars.

Great Wall also produces engines in separate 280,000sq m facility with an annual output of 200,000 units. These are mainly Mitsubishi-designed units: the 2.2-litre GW491QE gasoline engine is used in various domestic-market Great Wall vehicles, and is supplied to other Chinese automakers including Beijing Automotive, Golden Dragon in Xiamen, and Anhui Jianghuai Automobile (JAC).

Export models have the GW4D28 2.8-litre diesel or the GW2.4S 2.4-litre gasoline engine, which are Euro III compliant. The diesel is Great Wall's own work - with significant input from Bosch. Great Wall calls the engine "INTEC - King of intellectual oil saving"!

Its press releases may be funny for now, but Great Wall is a company that deserves to be taken seriously.

Mark Bursa