The first Sprinter van to roll off South Carolina’s newest automotive assembly line last week symbolized the last leg of a marathon road trip that took 20 years to complete.
It started with a couple of disappointing economic development deals involving heavy-duty trucks and fire engines.
It ended with Amazon.com announcing Wednesday that it has ordered 20,000 of the cargo vehicles now being made by Damiler AG’s Mercedes-Benz Vans unit in North Charleston, making the online retailer the plant’s single-biggest customer out of the gate.
It was a circuitous route to say the least.
The origins can be traced all the way back to 1998.
The Charleston region’s biggest jobs announcement 20 years ago was courtesy of a big-rig maker called Western Star Trucks. The Canadian company built a big assembly plant off Ladson Road, kicking off what would become Palmetto Commerce Park. The factory was designed to turn out as many as 20,000 vehicles annually and require 400 workers.
It never delivered on its promises. But it made its mark in more subtle way — by giving Daimler, and by extension Mercedes-Benz Vans, a financial stake in the Lowcountry.
The German auto giant’s Freightliner truck division snapped up Western Star in 2000 and almost immediately began to wind down production in North Charleston as the industry hit a downturn. The plant went dark less than a year after the lights went on.
It was a deflating turn of events.
The factory’s second shot at redemption didn’t go much better. Freightliner relocated a North Carolina-based fire-engine maker it owned called American LaFrance to the vacant building in 2002. But once again, the lofty production and payroll projections fell short. In 2005, Daimler put American LaFrance up for sale and mothballed the site once again.
The upside was that the company had decided to hang onto the idled plant for what it called “other purposes in its commercial vehicle business.”
The region finally hit pay dirt on the third go-around.
Daimler announced in late 2005 that it would reactivate the North Charleston plant slowly. It envisioned the possibility of expanding down the road, but this time the company made no promises.
“We’ll see what demand is in the market,” the then-head of the Daimler’s van business told The Post and Courier at that time. “As executives we don’t create jobs. Jobs are created by our customers and through good products.”
He added: "We have ambitious, long-term plans for the van market in North America."
As it turned out, the tempered expectations and prediction were spot on.
In 2006, Daimler began reassembling partially built Sprinters that it was shipping into the U.S. from Europe in containerized “kits” to skirt steep tariffs on imported finished vans. The boxy vehicles soon developed a following among buyers in North America. Production volume in South Carolina picked up.
By 2014, sales in the U.S., Canada and Mexico had climbed to the point that Daimler began to think seriously about building the vans from scratch somewhere within the North American Free Trade Agreement zone.
South Carolina was in the running for the $500 million investment and the 900 to 1,300 jobs it would create. So were sites along the Gulf Coast and in Mexico.
But the Palmetto State’s chances were enhanced by the fact that Daimler already owned a perfectly suitable factory in North Charleston with plenty of land to add the extra production space it would need to support a full-scale assembly operation. It didn’t hurt that the site was near a major East Coast seaport.
The long-awaited deal was sealed in March 2015.
And last week, with a timely jump-start from Amazon, Mercedes-Benz Vans was etched into South Carolina’s global automaking nameplate, joining BMW and Volvo Cars.