Chrysler / Kaiser-Frazer Rotterdam Assembly Plant (NEKAF): 1958-1970
Until 1958, Chrysler/Plymouth and Dodge had separate export operations, including assembly activities.
The oldest Chrysler-related car plant in Europe was the Dodge Brothers factory in the UK, which was the continuation of an early Maxwell activity, taken over in 1926. Until 1940, they made specific right-hand-drive models for the UK, including Chrysler and Plymouth models; after that it became a trucks-only operation, and small numbers of cars were imported from Canada and Australia.
Chrysler Corporation established their first own European assembly plant at the end of 1926 in Antwerp, Belgium where it assembled Chrysler and Plymouth models. Some independent national distributors built Dodges under contract, but until 1958, Antwerp remained the main activity for Chrysler US management in Europe.
After the second world war, the Swiss AMAG company started an assembly operation in 1948, building cars like Swiss premium watches, with a corresponding retail price. The Swiss, having come rich out of the war, had no problem with these prices, but their market was closed and few were exported. This compact model plant was finally closed in 1972.
Another company in Switzerland was MOWAG, which made Dodge and DeSoto based military and special purpose vehicles. Today the company is owned by General Dynamics.
The Swedish company ANA also opened an assembly plant in Nykoping in 1948 for assembly of Chrysler/Plymouth. ANA was also owner of the SAAB distribution company in Sweden and until 1978, when Saab bought ANA, there was cooperation with Chrysler/Plymouth. The assembly factory was closed in 1959; in the 1990s the PR man of SAAB ANA wrote an interesting book (in Swedish) about the history of the company.
In 1958, Chrysler formed Chrysler International to expand global sales. The corporation bought a 35% share in France’s Simca Automobiles, with the right to assemble Simcas in export markets; they would eventually own Simca outright. They also bought into the British Rootes Group, eventually owning that as well.
Kaiser-Frazer had opened a new plant in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1949; it made Kaiser/Willys Jeeps, and, soon, Simcas (under contract). The plant was deemed NEKAF — Nederlandse Kaiser-Frazer Fabrieken N.V. Among the vehicles it built was the M38A1 Jeep, which was used by the Dutch military from 1952 through 1996 (though the last ones were delivered in the late 1960s); parts were made in the United States and shipped to NEKAF for assembly, starting in 1955. Eventually, 24% of the parts were made by local suppliers.
Kaiser-Frazer was unable to maintain a high enough production rate to avoid penalties, ending production in 1958; another firm, Kemper & Van Twist Diesel, took over production through 1962 (source for this paragraph, added by the Allpar staff: M38A1.com.) Not having a diesel, despite a prototype Perkins-powered Jeep, they lost the order by the mid-1960s, and Land Rover took over the business until the end of the 1970s, when the Steyr-developed Mercedes G series took over.
Kemper en Van Twist produced both military and civilian Jeeps for some years, and imported Jeeps until 1975, when AMC’s importer took over.
Chrysler International decided to buy this plant from Kaiser-Frazer, closing the Antwerp plant after 32 years. At first, in 1958, Chrysler considerably increased the Simca production, including the ex-Ford Simca Beaulieu and Chambord models. Simca production would continue till the end of 1961, at which time it stopped being viable, because of import duty eliminations in Europe (the beginning of the EEC).
The first United States-designed models were produced at the end of 1959. A wide range of 1960 models, similar to the American versions, were made in low volumes. In the first year, even the big Chrysler Windsor/New Yorker were built. It was, for most models, the last year with the big fins. Plymouth had the biggest fins, and were hard to sell to the conservative buyers. It was decided to cut the fins off to “Mercedes style.” But we had not changed the catalogue and for some time we had customers complaining that they had not ordered this type of car.
As in the United States, 1960 was a difficult production year because of the new unibody construction and the effect it had on other components and the total quality. These problems would last till the 1963 model year, when Chrysler introduced their unique 5 year/50,000 miles warranty program.
In spite of some of these problems, the new Valiant (and later Lancer) compacts had a good reception with the public and would soon become the mainstay of the plant.
In just one year, production would be streamlined. Rotterdam would then mainly build the compact range including the Barracuda and moderate volumes of 4 door B-body sedans (Plymouth Belvedere/Dodge Coronet), internally called “the conventionals.”
Special production items included limited diesel production and a small series of 8 passenger limousines under the name Coronado. The Plymouth Coronados essentially continued a line made in Antwerp, using the Plymouth Belvedere as the basis; the rear compartment had extra folding chairs. Engines were a six cylinder and a Perkins four-cylinder diesel.
When the last Simca had been built, there was a search for ways to compensate for it:
- Ghia developed the St. Regis compact car, to be built in Rotterdam; but it never happened.
- Because of the good relationship with SAAB ANA in Sweden, it was decided that Rotterdam would start assembling the Saab 96 for the European market. Sweden was not yet a member of the European market in those days, so there was a import duties advantage. But the deal lasted only about a year. It was probably stopped because Chrysler had acquired a majority of Simca, which would launch a small car, and was about to acquire the British Rootes group.
- The next project would be the production of Farmobil for the European market. Chrysler had bought this Greek manufacturer of a special purpose vehicle; Greece was not yet a member of the EEC in those days, so Rotterdam seemed a good choice. But despite a technical review program in Benelux and an early parts depot, the deal never materialized.
As of 1963 model year production manpower was reduced, but in line with the US the 1963 to 1966 period was a fairly good and dynamic period for the company. Dealer morale was positively influenced by things like the Chrysler aquisitions in the world and the world tour of the turbine car.
Rotterdam introduced Quality First in line with the US 5/50 program. More emphasis was put on export and to complying with European taste; after a thorough benchmark of European competition, the compacts got additional equipment like reclining seats, grab handles, clock, trunk light, central rear arm rest, etc. under the name of “European goodies.” In the opposite part of the market, a very basic Valiant two door sedan was introduced. This kind of business coupe was the cheapest US car on the market.
Compact styling, including the new Barracuda, were much appreciated.
As part of their global expansion Chrysler bought in 1964 the Spanish manufacturer Barreiros and started building Simca cars and Dodge trucks. Spain still being a closed market, Chrysler started building the Dodge Dart in a deluxe trim version, the car being the only big car available in the country for the business and political elite. It followed the basic design of the US model but was also available with a Barreiros diesel.
In 1970 a new model was introduced, which was a cooperation with Chrysler Argentina.
Volumes declined considerably when imports were allowed and the range disappeared with the sales of Chrysler Europe to Peugeot group. There is a comprehensive booklet available ( in Spanish ) about this factory.
After the succesful period from 1963 to 1966, production would come to an end due to several issues:
- The rise of European competition (MB, BMW, etc). These companies now had smaller engines with better performance for lower fuel consumption, more sophisticated chassis technology, and more equipment. This was especially important in markets were road tax and insurance were based on engine capacity. Although Rotterdam had introduced “European Goodies,” they were competing with a basically cheap US car against new European premium models. As of 1967, Chrysler was the only one still assembling U.S. models, while GM and Ford were concentrating much more on their European products. Chrysler had similar plans with their new Simca and Rootes subsidiaries, so the need to sell U.S. compact cars was disappearing.
- America was approaching the first phase of safety and environmental requirements long before Europe, also making U.S. cars difficult to homologate for Europe.
- The Rotterdam plant, which had originally started as a low cost plant, had become rather expensive due to economic developments.
As a result of all this volumes in Rotterdam went down to an uneconomic level.
Simca came a bit to the rescue when production of the Bertone Simca 1200 Coupe was transferred to Rotterdam for two years due to capacity problems, but that was the end.
Although the plant still had celebrated the production of the 50,000th car (including Simcas!) in November 1968, Chrysler conventional models already stopped in 1969 and compact production stopped with the 1970 models.
Export activities from the Chrysler Rotterdam plant
One can say that Benelux (Belgium, the Netherland, and Luxembourg), Switzerland, Sweden and, to a lesser degree, France were the best markets for US products.
Rotterdam was purely an assembly plant and had two customers who were responsible for U.S. models sales :
- -Chrysler Benelux in Antwerp for Belgium-Netherlands and Luxembourg.
- -Chrysler International London for the distributors in European countries.
About half of the production went to Belgium but due to the fiscal road tax system they were mainly models with the smallest base engine (many with the 170 cu inch 6 cylinder). Due to the long historic presence in Belgium (where Chrysler’s first European factory was built), a reasonable good dealer network existed. In the price-conscious Belgian market, prices were attractive due to the absence of a special luxury car tax.
The Netherlands sold fewer cars in those days but this could partly be attributed to the extra luxury car tax resulting in higher prices. However The Netherlands had no road tax based on engine capacity, and there was, therefore, a trend to sell more powerful engines.
As of 1963 Chrysler International London embarked on a European sales push outside Benelux, with mixed success.
FRANCE also has a horsepower-based tax system; so the great majority of Valiants and Darts were sold with the 6 cylinder 170 cu inch engine by the importer, Centre Distribution Chrysler in Paris. In a number of years a remarkable performance was made when a series of the latest Valiant/Dart models were delivered in time for a dealer drive away at the occasion of the Paris show early October. This meant that the Detroit CKD Plant packed the material in mid August – shipped it to the US East Coast and onwards to Rotterdam – where material was unpacked – assembled and put on transport in time for the dealer drive away.
Starting in 1965 the Barracuda was sold, and a Formula S version made an impressive performance on the famous Montlhery track.
GERMANY seemed to be a promising market but few sales would be realized, due to the high technical demands which US cars of the time could not meet. Although at first sight specifications of a Chrysler V8 looked impressive, the chassis and power technology had not been designed to go high speed on the Autobahn. A funny event was the 1964 introduction of the Pentastar by Chrysler worldwide, which caused quite some surprise in Germany where people only knew the Mercedes star.
In ITALY, Chrysler had a fairly good reputation through their Ghia dream cars and specialty cars. But the market itself was completely influenced by local laws to protect Italian manufacturers and favoured small cars and small capacity engines, so few Rotterdam-built cars were sold. And why order an ordinary Rotterdam Barracuda if you could have a Ghia one!
SWITZERLAND had the fairly succesful, high-quality AMAG compact cars plant. A curious incident happened in the mid-60s when AMAG ordered in Rotterdam a small series of B body 4 door sedans. Two weeks after delivery to AMAG, the cars were back in Rotterdam, having been rejected by the Swiss quality control. But Rotterdam, being a low cost Chrysler plant, argued that for their production prices they could not build Swiss quality. After lengthy negotiations, Rotterdam put new bodies on the cars and was allowed to charge $200 more (quite some money in those days) and shipped the cars back to AMAG. After that, export business to AMAG was very low key.
But shortly after the incident we got an urgent call from AUSTRIA which had just joined the West European union. They urgently needed a series of cars for the staff members of an Arabian sheik visiting their country. Within 48 hours the cars with the bodies ex-AMAG were shipped to Austria! Other sales to Austria remained low because the market requirements were (are) fairly similar to Germany and Switzerland.
SWEDEN had always been a good market for Chrysler but was in those days not yet a member of the EEC. This meant that cars made in Rotterdam had to pay import duties and compete with cars made in the U.S. where production had more flexibility. This has restricted the number of cars shipped from Rotterdam to SAAB ANA the distributor.
A special success story in Sweden has been the Valiants for the police who used this model for 15 years. Today Swedish police is still proud of this car and it is shown in the National Police Museum in Stockholm.
In Spain, as noted earlier, Chrysler had an exclusive position with the locally made Dodge Dart in this period. Spain also gained the Dodge 3700 model in 1970, in cooperation with Argentina.
Also see our “Chrysler outside of North America” section, and these Mo-powered European cars:
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