For many years now, the Southern U.S. has been the fastest growing region in the country for the automotive industry. Besides the number suppliers and other related businesses emerging in the sector, the sheer volume of cars produced in Southern plants can be staggering, and perhaps surprising.
Here’s a look at the cars, trucks and buses the Southern automotive sector regularly produces – with more just around the corner.
But first, a little history
Cars have been produced in the South for almost as long as there have been cars. Consider a few examples (all of which have been chronicled in more detail in various issues of this magazine’s Vintage feature):
Ford Motor Company started assembling Model T Town Cars, Touring Cars and Runabouts in 1913 at its Louisville, Kentucky Assembly Plant. Today, the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, which opened in 1969, produces F-150s and Ford Super Duty pickups.
Of course, GM has been building the Corvette in Bowling Green, Kentucky, since 1981. Long before that, however, Louisville was the home of both the Urban Electric Truck, manufactured from 1912 to 1916, and the Dixie Flyer, which was built from 1916 to 1923. Both the electric truck and the Dixie Flyer were built by a company called Kentucky Wagon.
In 1927, GM built a plant in Lakewood Heights on Atlanta’s southeast side, where it would build Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks, and for a time, GMC and Chevy trucks. When that plant closed in 1990, GM was building the Chevy Caprice at Lakewood.
GM also opened a plant in Doraville Georgia in 1947. From then until 2008, the Doraville Assembly plant pumped out Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Chevys, Saturns and Opels.
In Tennessee, GM opened its Spring Hill Plant in 1985, and from 1990 until 2009, built Saturns there. Today, the reopened plant produces GMC Acadia, Cadillac XT-5, and XT-6.
Considerably before GM stepped into Tennessee, Nashville in the 1900s became the home for the Dorris Motor Car Company,(built originally in St.Louis) by a native son, George Preston Dorris. The company stopped building cars in 1926 when it went bankrupt. And that wasn’t the only car plant in Nashville; the Marathon Motor Works company was building cars in the city from 1907 to 1914 – 12 different models, 200 cars a month, before production ground to a halt.
Alabama’s car making legacy dates back to 1909, when the Great Southern Automobile Company built its models in Birmingham for 18 years. Right after that, Preston Motors Premocar started up in Birmingham in 1918 for a short run that ended in 1923. Keller Motor Company of Huntsville had an even shorter run of two years from 1947 to 1949 during which time it produced 18 cars before its founder, George D. Keller, died.
South Carolina had the Anderson automobile built starting in 1916 in Rock Hill. Until 1925, John Gary Anderson’s automobile was considered by some to be a rival to Henry Ford based on the quality of his car. Unlike Ford, though, which was selling Model Ts for less than $300, Anderson models cost between $1650 for a five-passenger touring car, and some sedans and coupes listing at $3,200.
Texas also has a longstanding history of car making: the Little Motor Kar Company built a handful of Texmobiles before its grand-sounding plans fell apart into scandal and bankruptcy.
The modern era – the South rises again
To the gratitude of the Southern economy, after years of fits and starts, auto making has made a substantial and much more solid return to the region.
It began with Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, which announced plans to build an SUV in Vance, Alabama in 1993. Today the company builds the Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class, and GLS-Class SUVs, and C-Class sedans at the Vance plant. And in a recent expansion, MBUSI will soon be building a new class of electric vehicles at a site nearby.
South Korea’s Hyundai started making cars in Montgomery, Alabama with the first rolling off the line in 2005. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama now produces Hyundai Elantra and Sonata sedans, and the Hyundai Santa Fe SUV.
Other companies are making vehicles bigger than cars in Alabama. New Flyer, a Canadian company which ranks as North America’s biggest transit bus manufacturer, builds battery electric buses in its Anniston factory. And Autocar, a 121-year old company based in Indiana, opened a second factory in Birmingham in 2017.
Quietly making boutique vehicles in Hoschton, Georgia – cars with names like Avezzano and Esperante – Panoz Sportscars has been a well-kept secret since 1989. Not exactly off-the-rack, Panoz makes stylish, pricey, bespoke roadsters, and have been featured on Jay Leno’s web-based car series.
School buses also originate in Georgia, specifically Fort Valley, where Blue Bird Corporation has been making a variety of models since 1927.
The state of Mississippi boasts two Japanese car making factories.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi produces the Corolla at the plant in Blue Springs. The eighth North American assembly plant for Toyota opened in 2011.
Nissan’s Canton Vehicle Assembly Plant began operations in 2003. Workers at that plant build the Altima sedan, Frontier, Titan and Titan XD pickups, the Murano SUV, and the Nissan NV passenger and cargo vans.
The Nissan Smyrna assembly plant began production in 1983. The plant produces Altima and Maxima sedans, the LEAF electric sedan, Pathfinder and Rogue SUVs, and the Infiniti QX60 SUV.
General Motors, as noted above builds GMC Acadia, Cadillac XT-5, and XT-6 at it’s retooled Spring Hill plant.
The Volkswagen Chattanooga Assembly plant has been building Passat sedans since 2011. It has since added the Atlas SUV in 2012, and this year announced the I.D. Crozz and Buzz all electric vehicles starting in 2022.
The Palmetto State is home to three European brands — BMW, built in Spartanburg starting in 1994, Swedish nameplate Volvo, now owned by the company Geely, and Mercedes-Benz Vans.
BMW builds the SUVs designated X3,X4,X5,X6,and X7 at its plant, actually located in Greer. Volvo opened its Ridgeville, South Carolina plant in 2018. It produces the S60 sedan. Mercedes-Benz produces its popular Sprinter vans at its Ladson, South Carolina plant, although in that case the vehicle comes as a CKD – complete knockdown kit – of parts assembled at the plant.
The Bluegrass state has been making cars and trucks for decades. Today, Toyota makes Camry and Avalon sedans there in Georgetown, as well as the RAV4 Hybrid SUV and the Lexus ES 350 sedan.
In Louisville at the Kentucky Truck Plant, Ford makes the Super Duty pickup, Expedition & Expedition EL/Max SUVs, Ford Escape compact crossover SUV, as well as Lincoln Navigator and Navigator L SUVS, and the Lincoln Corsair, a premium twin to the Escape.
Today GM makes all Corvettes in only one place, the plant in Bowling Green, which opened in 1981.
Toyota also builds trucks in Texas; San Antonio is home to the plant that builds both the Tacoma and the Tundra pickups.