Great Wall Motor became on Tuesday the first Chinese automaker to open an assembly plant in Europe, aiming to produce 50,000 vehicles per year for the whole continent in northern Bulgaria.
"Great Wall's plans to build a plant in Bulgaria and produce automobiles here are aimed at boosting our production capacity and exporting these automobiles for the European market," company president and chief executive Feng Ying Wang said.
"We estimate that in three to five years we will have a wide range of models made here and that these cars will be sold in all European countries," she added at the plant near the northern village of Bahovitsa.
Expanding sales in the European Union was "of key strategic importance" for the company, which is one of the leaders in China -- the largest car market in the world -- and exports to 120 other countries, Wang said.
"We offer the highest quality and that is why we were the first to move forward with plans to start production in Europe," she added proudly.
Wang's company is the only Chinese automaker to have already obtained Whole Vehicle Type Approval to market several of its models in the EU.
The facility in Bahovitsa, built together with Great Wall's Bulgarian partner Litex Motors, will initially employ 150 workers making 4,000 automobiles per year from Chinese-imported kits.
But plans are to expand capacity to an annual 50,000 cars and 2,000 workers.
The company started sales of three Chinese-imported models in Bulgaria last October and supplying the Bulgarian market with locally-assembled cars will remain an immediate priority, Wang said.
Sales will then start in neighbouring countries, with Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro expected to come first by end-2012, while talks will start this year for sales in Serbia, Litex Motors marketing director Ivo Dekov added.
"Our long-term plans are that after this first step the automobiles will be presented on the markets of the other European countries," Wang said, adding that the firm's aim was to sell cars of "top quality at reasonable prices."
"We proved that we can produce a car that meets all quality standards, including the toughest EU safety rules," Litex Motors executive director Iliya Terziev said, backdropped by a tomato-red Vollex C10 city car -- the first model now assembled in the Bulgaria plant.
Terziev's company provided the bulk of the 55 million leva (28 million euros, $37 million) invested in the facility so far.
Total investment is planned up to 150-160 million leva as welding and painting units are added to the assembly lines within the next two to three years, he said.
Talks will also start in the meantime to find Bulgarian subcontractors and start making some parts here in the long-run, rather than only assembling China-imported kits, Terziev added.
Until then, the number of models assembled here will grow from the initial Voleex C10 to also include Great Wall's popular Steed 5 pick-up truck.
The Hover H6 SUV and two more Voleex models, the C30 and 20R, will follow in 2012, Dekov said.