In an increasingly globalized automotive industry, the major manufacturers now have production plants everywhere from Ethiopia to Azerbaijan. Oftentimes, their vehicles are made by local companies under license (sometimes re-badged under a regional brand name), or assembled from knocked-down or semi-knocked-down kits supplied by the mother company.
Yet no technology is more closely tied to national identity and pride than the automobile, and a surprisingly diverse array of countries also proudly produce truly indigenous vehicles (or are on the brink of doing so).
Here are 10 nations with serious automotive ambitions.
Automobile Dacia has been producing cars since the 1960s, is Romania’s largest exporter, and boasts Europe’s fifth-largest auto manufacturing facility (in Mioveni).
Dacia originally assembled Renault-licensed vehicles, but by 1995 had unveiled the 100-percent Romanian-designed Nova sedan and hatchback.
Since its 1999 acquisition by Renault, Dacia has been reinvigorated, producing a steady stream of new models, including SUVs, many of which are also assembled at Renault production sites worldwide. In 2014, the Mioveni plant produced its 5 millionth car, of which almost 2 million were the once Romania-ubiquitous Dacia 1300 (a licensed Renault 12 knockoff), which was finally discontinued in 2004.
While we don’t see its cars in America or Continental Europe, Malaysia is South-East Asia’s third-largest automaker, with annual output exceeding 500,000 vehicles.
Malaysian plants have long assembled vehicles for global automakers, but the Proton company, government-founded in 1983, leapt forward in 2000 with its first in-house design, the Waja. Within two years, Malaysia became only the 11th country capable of fully designing, engineering and manufacturing cars from the ground up.
Proton was joined by the now-larger Perodua in 1993, which sold more than 200,000 minicars last year. According to the Malaysia Automotive Institute, the country now hosts 27 vehicle manufacturers.
Perhaps best known for providing spectacular movie locations, spicy cuisine and legendary hashish, North Africa’s Kingdom of Morocco has, since 2002, also been producing its own supercar.
The brainchild of Moroccan former Sbarro designer Abdeslam Laraki, his namesake company crafts the $550,000 Fulgara sports car, the similarly Mercedes-Benz V12-powered Borac grand tourer, and the truly Transformers-y, 1,750-horsepower Epitome. Laraki builds just a handful of these stunners each year, but Morocco is also home to a pair of major Renault assembly plants, in Tangier and Casablanca, which churn out hundreds of thousands of vehicles for the French giant annually.
While Croatia is well established as a producer of automotive parts and software, its manufacturing of complete vehicles has been limited to low-volume electric cars.
Based in Sveta Nedelja, Rimac Automobili produces electric supercars, including the Concept One (hailed as the world’s fastest production electric vehicle), and recently announced dealerships for these rare cars in Europe, North America, and the Middle East.
At the other end of the electric vehicle spectrum, DOK-ING, which is a major manufacturer of specialist unmanned vehicles, revealed its tiny XD (now called the Loox) in 2010 – a butterfly-doored city car slated for imminent mass production.
Brazil has consistently been among the world’s top 10 automobile producing countries since the late 1970s, often topping the likes of France, Spain, and the UK. Brazilian factories have been building vehicles for the large global automakers – from Volkswagen and Fiat to GM and Ford – for decades, with more recent major investments coming from the likes of Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota.
But there’s an emerging homegrown Brazilian auto industry, too, perhaps best personified by Troller. Founded in 1995 and beginning mass production four years later, Troller makes the rugged, Jeep-inspired T4 SUV. By 2005, it had built a plant in Angola to make African-market T4s and, after the company’s 2007 acquisition by Ford, the T4 underwent a major redesign based on Ford’s T6 (global Ranger) platform.
Iran has had a significant automotive industry since the days of the Shah and, after a dip in production following the 1979 revolution, now makes more than 1.6 million vehicles annually.
Domestic production is dominated by two companies, both founded in the 1960s. Iran Khodro, which long produced the still-commonplace Paykan – an under-license Hillman Hunter – before, in 2003, unveiling the Iranian-designed Samand (as well as making cars for Peugeot and Renault).
There’s also SAIPA, which originally assembled Citroëns and Renaults under license, then Nissans and KIAs, but since 2000 has also produced its own models, including the 701 Caravan minivan and subcompact Tiba/Miniator.
As in many then-Eastern Bloc countries, Bulgarian factories started assembling foreign-designed cars – Moskvitch, Fiat and Renault – in the 1960s.
By the 1990s, there was even a short-lived joint venture with Britain’s Rover to produce the Austin Maestro. In 2012, China’s Great Wall Motors, in partnership with the domestic Litex Motors, created an assembly plant for knock-down kits of Voleex, Steed and Hover models, some of which are now exported to Italy, Romania and Macedonia. But that same year, Bulgarian engineer and racing driver Rosen Daskalov founded SIN cars, which produces the country’s first domestic supercar, the carbon fiber-bodied, $215,000 R1.
Employing more than 1.8 million workers, Pakistan’s automotive industry has traditionally consisted of companies assembling vehicles designed elsewhere, such as Sigma (Land Rover), Dewan Farooque (Kia-Hyundai, SsangYong), and Ghandhara (Isuzu, Nissan). However, Pakistan has taken teetering steps towards producing indigenous vehicles.
The first of these, the utilitarian five-door Revo built by Adam Motor Company, survived just one year and 600 units before production ceased in 2006. Lahore’s TMC Automobiles built the spartan but ultra-affordable ($2,500) Alif and Bay soft-top microcars, but went under in 2011. Last year, however, Pakistan’s government passed “Auto Policy 2016-21”, offering tax incentives to new automakers.
Thailand produces more vehicles – 1.9 million in 2015 – than the UK or Italy, but most are developed by foreign firms. The sole Thai-based automaker, Thai Rung, started life in the 1960s assembling Japanese and Chevrolet cars, shifting into assembling special-purpose vehicles based on imported chassis in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Thai Rung currently makes its own Toyota/Isuzu-based TR MUV4 and the Toyota Hilux-based, Hummer-esque TR Transformer, but has its sights set on through-and-through Thai creations. With more than half of its vehicles already being exported (many as semi-knocked-down kits), Thailand might just be the next South Korea of the automotive world.
Ghana’s Kantanka Automobile Company has a murky back-story that questions the very definition of domestic manufacturing. The man behind Kantanka is Kwadwo Safo, a self-styled apostle and inventor. In the mid aughts, Safo and his apprentices literally hand-built at least one SUV (plus an elongated limo version) almost from scratch.
But today’s Kantanka appears to actually be a turn-key assembly operation built and supplied by Chinese company Chongqing Big Science & Technology. Kantanka completes just around 120 “rugged” pickups and sport utilities monthly, and with the cheapest model costing 14 times Ghana’s average annual income, expect these to remain rare cars indeed.
Hopefully you learned something about the underground of automotive production today. I think it’s very interesting that just like movies and music, there’s a whole slew of mainstream contributors in the automotive world producing cars for the masses, but there are also plenty of indies out there with gems just waiting to be discovered. That, or they’re unreliable hunks of trash. Either way, they’re available to you if you ever decide to change things up a bit.