Imported automobiles and those built by foreign manufacturers in the U.S. (commonly known as transplants) have had a tremendous impact on the domestic industry. By spurring further competition for the U.S. Big Three and raising quality standards, imports and transplants changed the U.S. industry forever.
For the first half-century of automaking, imports made up a mere trickle of cars on American roads. In 1950, only 21,287 units were imported, and domestic manufacturers shrugged off most of the the competition, citing their small size, low quality and scant feature content. By 1977, imports eclipsed the 2 million-unit mark, due in large measure to improved Japanese quality and the 1973 fuel crisis that made smaller, more-efficient cars popular.
Imports continued to set the quality benchmark and in 1986 reached an all-time high of 4.1 million units. By that time the Big Three were in catch-up mode and in the throes of a design and quality revolution that continues today.
The price of production on the home front, shipping costs and the building "Buy American" sentiment among U.S. consumers (and political leaders) led foreign automakers to consider producing high-volume vehicles in the States. In 1986 imports and transplants combined accounted for a staggering 4.8 million units.
The '80s also witnessed an unusual "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em" strategy by the Big Three, each forming joint ventures with Japanese auto-makers in an attempt to capitalize on consumer sentiment toward foreign vehicles.
The transplant strategy appears to have been wise and farsighted for the Japanese. As the value of the yen increased, Japanese automakers began to build more models in the U.S., and even shipped them home for sale there. Germany's BMW and Mercedes-Benz have similar export plans for their new plants in the South.
Some historical highlights of off-shore automaker activity include:
* Germany's Volkswagen AG imports its first Beetle in 1949. Two cars were sold that year. Before its U.S. run ends in 1979, more than 5 million Beetles were sold here. Beetle world-wide sales top 20 million, surpassing the 15 million record set by the Model T.
* British cars Austin Healey, MG and Jaguar arrive in the early '50s.
* Volkswagen of American is established in 1955 and sales jump 500% from previous year.
* It was 1957 when the Toyopet Crown made its unceremonious debut. It shook at high speeds and tended to overheat.
* Nissan begins importing the Datsun Bluebird in 1958. Nissan had more success in its first eight years with the Datsun pickup. By 1967 Datsun had sold 100,000 cars in the U.S. The following year, sales topped 50,000.
* Renault enters the U.S. in the late '50s. Its stay ends when Chrysler acquires American Motors Corp. from Renault SA in 1987.
* Isuzu enters in 1966, fades back, and reappears as an Opel in 1976.
* Malcolm Bricklin introduces the Subaru to the U.S. in 1969.
* Honda enters the U.S. market in 1969 with tiny N600. It boasts a 45-hp engine and a price of $1,275. Civic debuts in 1973. Accord in 1976 and Prelude in 1979.
* Mazda, then called Toyo Kogyo, arrives in 1970.
* Mitusbishi imports the Dodge Colt in 1971. It doesn't put its own name on imports until 1982.
* VW introduces Rabbit in 1975.
* VW becomes the first transplant automaker by opening a plant in Westmoreland, PA, in 1978 to build Rabbits and later Golfs, Jettas and pickups. The plant closes in 1988.
* Honda becomes the first Japanese transplant when the inaugural U.S.-built Accord rolls off the assembly line in Marysville, OH, in 1982. Civic production is added in 1986. Exports begin in 1988. East Liberty, OH, plant opens in 1989 to build Civics. A third production facility, in Anna, OH, supplies engines.
* Nissan Motor Mfg. Corp. USA opens a plant in Smyrna, TN, in 1983. The plant currently manufactures Altimas, Sentras, 200SX coupes, compact pickups and engines.
* The first U.S.-based joint venture between Japanese and U.S. automakers is Toyota and GM's New United Motor Mfg. Inc. (NUMMI), which opens in 1984 at an old GM plant in Fremont, CA. It originally produces Corollas and Chevy Novas. The plant now also builds Tacoma compact pickups and Geo Prizms.
* Suzuki, partly owned by GM, brings 2,600 trucks to the U.S. market in 1985. It adds cars in 1988 and delivers 15,400 vehicles in 1995.
* Yugo also arrives in '85, amid expectations that Eastern Europe will begin to flourish. Yugo exits in '92.
* South Korea's Hyundai arrives in 1986. Sales peak at 264,200 import units in 1987. The company sells 107,371 units in the U.S. in 1995.
* Mazda Motor Manufacturing (USA) Corp. opens a plant in Flat Rock, MI, in 1987. In 1992 it becomes a Ford/Mazda joint venture -- AutoAlliance. The plant reaches its peak in 1994 with 247,004 units. It currently builds Mazda MX-6 and 626 and Ford Probe.
* Production of Plymouth Laser, Eagle Talon and Summit and Mitsubishi Eclipse and Mirage starts at Mitsubishi and Chrysler Corp.'s Diamond-Star Motors Corp. joint venture at Normal, IL, in 1988. By 1995 production hits 220,685. The facility, which Mitsubishi now owns, makes Eclipse and Galant, Dodge Avenger, Eagle Talon and Chrysler Sebring.
* Toyota Motor Mfg. USA Inc. opens a plant in Georgetown, KY, to produce Camry in 1988. Manufacturing capacity is expected to reach 900,000 by 1988 at TMM, NUMMI and TMMC (Canada).
* Daihatsu begins importing to the U.S. in 1988. It exits in 1992.
* Nissan (Infiniti) and Toyota (Lexus) import sport luxury models in 1989, putting to rest talk that all Japanese cars are utilitarian.
* Ford and Nissan team up at the Ford truck plant at Avon Lake, OH, in 1992 to manufacture Mercury Villager and Nissan Quest minivans.
* Subaru-Isuzu Automotive Inc. (SIA) begins production at Lafayette, IN, in 1989 of Subaru Legacy cars for Fuji and Rodeo SUV and pickups for Isuzu. Isuzu begins producing a Honda version of the Rodeo (Passport) in 1994.
* Imports from the Pacific Rim continue to proliferate as Kia comes to the states in 1993 with less than 700 units. Kia continues to add product and last year sold 24,740 units in this country.
* BMW Manufacturing Corp. 318i models begin rolling off the line in Spartanburg, SC, in September 1994, marking the first U.S. production of a European model since VW left in 1988. The Z3 roadster goes into production for the 1997 model year.
* Mercedes-Benz will have capacity to produce 65,000 of its '97 all-activity vehicle (AAV) at its Vance, AL, plant.