Inside Mahindra's American assembly as automaker sets sights on former Buick City site

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AUBURN HILLS (WJRT) - (10/03/19) - An automaker with strong roots in India is looking to take the North American auto industry by storm.

Mahindra Automotive North America has its sights set on the Vehicle City.

ABC12's Elisse Ramey visited the Auburn Hills plant to talk about a potential expansion and check out the company's American-assembled UTV.

About 110 people work at the plant, and another eight people work at an offsite warehouse.

"You don't see robots out here. It's hand built using torque certified nutrunners," Plant Manager Clarence Bringe said.

Half of the UTV's contents come from India, and the rest are from the U.S. But every piece of Mahindra's Roxor is put together in Auburn Hills.

"It's more basic than a lot of vehicles. It's more easy to work and reach," said employee Liliana Sanchez.

Workers and management alike boast about the durability of the side-by-side-utility-task-vehicle
(UTV).

"It is a very robust, tough vehicle. You have a turbo diesel in it. Your fuel mileage is just outstanding," Bringe said. "You can run this thing all day on a tank of fuel."

"This is a steel bodied, steel framed vehicle, turbo diesel engine, so it kind of creates a whole new sub-segment in that side-by-side category," said Vice President of Marketing Rich Ansell.

Ansell offered the ABC12 crew a ride on the trail just behind the manufacturing facility while also providing a history lesson of the Mahindra vehicle that's only been in production in the U.S. for roughly two years.

"Mahindra got its start back in 1947 with a contract from Willys Overland to make old military style vehicles, and we've been making a vehicle in India ever since," Ansell said.

The heavy duty, steel-bodied Roxor definitely looks like an old school type of military vehicle, and it is not street legal.

"We're going on 73, 74 years now and we decided to bring that vehicle, which is called the Thar in India, into the U.S. as an off-road only vehicle," Ansell said.

The car tops out at 55 miles per hour, but for off-roading or work-related tasks, you likely don't need to go faster than that to enjoy it.

"It won't meet U.S. on road crash standards and so you'd have to basically start from scratch were you to try and do that," Ansell said.

The sturdy UTV starts around $16,000, and it is completely customizable. Mahindra offers a hard or soft top and more than 400 colors for the vehicle that is hand painted.

"We're seeing a ton of interest with people who want to use the vehicle for commercial purposes - so mines, railroads. We've given a vehicle to the Michigan DNR. We gave a vehicle to Auburn Hills that they're going to use for parks maintenance and things like that," Ansell said.

At Auburn Hills plant they pump out 20 of Roxor each day, and their production demands are growing. That's why Mahindra Automotive North America is looking to expand.

"We've already sort of outgrown the limits of this facility with just the Roxor production," Ansell said. "We need a new facility, and we think Flint would be an ideal location for that."

Mahindra announced in August that it signed a letter of intent with Racer Trust to evaluate the old Buick City site in Flint. The plant would include production of mail delivery trucks should Mahindra be awarded a contract from the United States Postal Service (USPS) to build a next generation delivery vehicle.

"We have more products in the pipeline. The only thing I can really talk publicly about is we'll take that same platform that we've designed for the USPS and take that into the global vehicle truck market," Ansell said.

He didn't elaborate on other potential vehicles that could be produced in Flint, but touted the truck design that's now being considered by the USPS.

"It's a body and frame construction that's designed to a 20-year durability standard, so we think there's big opportunity in that segment regardless of if we win the USPS contract or not," Ansell said.

RACER Trust provided a statement to ABC12, which reads in part:

"Racer Trust will do all it can to support Mahindra during its evaluation process and to contribute to what we hope will be a successful outcome for the state, the community and the company."

Buick City closed in 1999, but there was work on the site from 1904 to 2010. It employed over 2,000 people. Reviving it in some capacity is what workers like Liliana Sanchez believe is needed in Michigan. She's worked for Mahindra for two years.

"I came from a management background, so when a factory opportunity came up where the money is more and the responsibility is less, you just worry about your station and doing it right instead of the whole place. And that's an opportunity that Michigan needs right now," Sanchez said.

Mahindra says up to 2,000 jobs could be created with the new plant. Right now the company employs around 500 people. When asked why they want to continue to build in Michigan, both Bringe and Ansell touted the state's automotive history.

"This is where all the talent is," Bringe said. "And this building was available so we setup shop here. We built the first [Roxor] prototype here."

"We're particularly proud of the fact that we're the first new OEM to come into southeastern Michigan and open up a manufacturing facility in close to 30 years," Ansell said. "To be able to bring manufacturing back to the state , a state that has a manufacturing legacy,we're proud of that fact."



 
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