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VW Santana: When Brazilians made a German car in China

Forty years ago, a delegation from VW do Brasil arrived in Shanghai. Everything else is history…

Shanghai, 1984: a group of 30 managers and engineers from Volkswagen do Brasil arrive in the city to teach the Chinese how to build their first "foreign" car - Santana sedan.

It's raining like a bucket, and the assembly line installed in the truck factory is leaking. The boilers are dangerously close to the paint depot. But the worst thing is when you have to sleep: there are no decent hotels in the city and the only option is for the team to rent a house. Everything is unreliable, even the sewage system.

Exactly 40 years later China has become the driving force of the world economy with ultra-modern metropolises and the largest automobile industry in the world. Only in 2023 were produced in this country 26 million cars (compared to 2,2 million in Brazil and 4,1 million in Germany). The ground-breaking Santana model, which is a rarity on the roads today, is still valued as the most representative model in the history of Chinese motoring, as four million of them were produced in 28 years.

Until the early 1980s, China's automotive industry was practically limited to trucks and buses. Few sedans like it were developed and manufactured in the country Shanghai SH760, which was primarily intended for the country and its leaders. He is then the head of state Deng Xiaoping opened up the economy and tried to attract foreign companies to form joint ventures.

Volkswagen was quick to do so and signed its first contract with a state-owned company in 1982 SAIC (Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation) - he was born Shanghai Volkswagen, whose capital was divided equally between the two companies.

The choice fell on the model Santana, which was developed in Germany in 1981 as a sedan based on the Passat second generation. The model was unsuccessful in its country of origin, but was produced abroad in Japan (Nissan), Spain, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico and Brazil.

The Chinese wanted to learn how to make modern passenger cars, but who was going to teach them? Since the production in Germany already employed many robots, the parent company in Wolfsburg authorized its subsidiary Volkswagen do Brasil, to educate them. In addition, the engineers at the Via Anchieta factory have just completed the entire process of nationalizing the model.

Wolfgang Sauer (1930-2013), former president VW do Brasil, in an interview with the O Globo newspaper in 2007, revealed the details of the pioneering mission in China.

"We were able to learn better. We had a well-trained workforce and were used to production that was not too automated.” It was June 1984 Santana had a successful debut in Brazil – a country that later exported components for assembly to Shanghai.

"The Chinese Minister of Industry visited the factory in São Paulo. He was used to taking a nap after lunch, but on this trip he was in a bad mood and couldn't rest. Knowing this, we offered him a bed and since then relations have improved,” he recalled in an interview in 2007 Sour. The negotiations were difficult. The good side was that in Shanghai a technical university already existed and that many students spoke German. Even the minister spoke excellent German.

So they were Brazilians in Germans the first foreigners allowed to manufacture cars in China. After the assembly of several hundred CKD kits, several months of training and a general cleaning of the factory, the first Shanghai-built Santana rolled off the new production line in September 1985.

Another pioneer in China was the company American Motors Corporation (AMC), who is with the company in 1984 Beijing Automobile Works established a joint venture for the production of the Jeep model Cherokee XJ.

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