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Polo, Ranger, C-Class... locally-built car sales heroes - Understanding SA’s amazing 2018 vehicle export story

2019-01-14 13:00

Lance Branquinho

Image: Wheels24

It has been two decades since South Africa’s automotive industry started gearing its industrial engineering efforts towards serving the global export market, and the growth story is inspiring.

Back in 1998 government incentivised manufacturers to build more vehicles that the local market required, with the surplus destined for export. The aim was to create downstream supply chain businesses, absorbing labour and creating employment, whilst also earning the country precious foreign currency.

In that first year, the industry exported a mere 25 000 vehicles. Twenty years on, the number of South African built vehicles shipped for delivery overseas, is much bigger.

Last year was a record local production and export effort from the South African industry, spearheaded by five brands: BMW, Ford, Mercedes, Toyota and VW. These five anchor exporters, aided by some others in much smaller volumes, managed to total 351 154 locally assembled vehicles delivered to foreign owners in 2018.

If you place that export number in perspective, it was more than half the total domestic sales for 2018 – and many of the cars sold locally are imported. Building for export is now such a profitable exercise, especially during periods of extended Rand weakness, that most manufacturers who have capacity to build in South Africa, sell more locally produced vehicle units into export – than they do for domestic consumption.

Of the big five exporters, who went biggest in 2018? The numbers and some context are below.

1. Mercedes-Benz: 89 019

East London can rightly claim to be the country’s emerging ‘motor city.’ The Mercedes-Benz assembly plant, strategically nestled on the Buffalo river with immediate shipping export access, built more cars for export than any other local facility last year.

The main trade is in C-Class sedans, not SUVs, and despite the four-door family car body style allegedly losing popularity, it sure does not appear to be influencing Mercedes-Benz South Africa’s export business. At all.

                                                                   Image: Wheels24/Janine Van der Post

2. Volkswagen: 64788

South Africa’s most popular passenger vehicle brand mirrored its domestic demand success with robust exports of Polo 2018. The compact hatchback is popular, wherever it happened to be marketed, with no risk of VW running out of demand soon.                    

                                                                       Image: Quickpic

3. Ford: 61 805

The blue oval brand managed to export 61805 vehicles produced by its South African operations in 2018, and most all of those were – naturally – Ford Ranger bakkies. This year looks even better for Ford as the Ranger is set for an upgrade, which should boost popularity in most markets.

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4. Toyota: 48 201

It is unusual to see Toyota anywhere but first place in any South African volume vehicle ranking, but the Japanese brand services such high local demand for its vehicles, that there is very little spare capacity to exports.

Despite this, and the fact that Toyota South Africa’s primary export market is Europe (where bakkies remain a small market) and Africa (where economic growth is commodity price dependant), nearly 50 000 export vehicles aren’t exactly a quiet year. In context, that’s double the number that the entire South African motor industry managed to export in 1998.

                                                                                 Image: Motorpress

5.  BMW: 38 954

BMW is last on our list of heavyweight South Africa vehicle exporters and its total volumes of 2018 must be seen in context. For BMW, it was a year of tremendous change in the South African manufacturing business. After decades of 3 Series production, the local assembly switched to X3. That implies two or more months of low volume as production transitions. But with an SUV as its export offering, all indications are that BMW SA will have a massive year in 2019.

              bmw x3

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