It seems unthinkable in a market defined by mass production and sheer sales volumes, but American manufacturers are turning to small "coachbuilders" to help build distinctive low-volume vehicles that can strengthen the brands' images.

It seems unthinkable in a market defined by mass production and sheer sales volumes, but American manufacturers are turning to small "coachbuilders" to help build distinctive low-volume vehicles that can strengthen a brand's image.


CARtoday.com yesterday quoted Chrysler chief executive Dieter Zetsche as saying that should the quad-turbo, six-litre V12-engined ME Four-Twelve supercar go into production, it would not be built in one of Chrysler's own factories. "We are in talks with partners who are interested in building it," Zetsche said.


Major car companies are geared to build upwards of 100 000 of a particular model annually and adding a vehicle such as a sports car, which sells in much smaller numbers, to an assembly line is costly and severely disrupts the production process.


However, "we have to break some manufacturing rules to get some of these cool (design) proportions to appear," said Larry Achram, vice president of virtual engineering on the Chrysler Crossfire. "If it's a niche vehicle, and you don't have to build it in-house, it's much less expensive."


Coachbuilders, such as Pininfarina, are common in Europe particularly for building a one-off show car, but industry officials see an opportunity for small companies to take a greater role in building production cars in North America, despite the overcapacity in the motor industry created by underutilised plants.


Coachbuilders are able to design, engineer or build a vehicle in half the time of a mass-market company, saving hundreds of millions of dollars, and absorbing much of the risk associated with any new car or truck launch, executives said.


Investment by the niche manufacturers in assembly plants and expensive tooling machinery reportedly frees up capital for automakers to invest in future development of cars.


"It gives (car companies) opportunities to take things off the balance sheet, because all the tools are taken on by suppliers," Tim Olind, chief operating officer of Karmann USA, a unit of Germany's Wilhelm Karmann GmbH, told the news agency.


Karmann, which builds the Crossfire and Audi A4 and Mercedes CLK cabriolets in Germany, broke ground in July for a facility in Michigan, to engineer and build cars, Olind said.


With the car market fragmenting and consumers demanding more choices, the number of nameplates in the United States has grown well past 300, from about 250 four years ago, the report said - the average sales volume per nameplate has dropped to around 40 000, from more than 100 000 15 years ago.


Canadian auto parts company Magna International, which also builds the BMW X3 sport utility and DaimlerChrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV at its Magna Steyr plant in Austria, reportedly has said it could add an assembly plant in North America.


Magna would consider building a new facility or taking over an existing assembly plant from a down-sizing automaker, a spokesman told Reuters.


Recently, General Motors Europe contracted Bertone to build its outgoing Astra coupe and cabriolet models and Saab has long outsourced the building of its 9-3 convertible and Mitsubishi has its small SUV, the Shogun Pinin, built by Pininfarina.