Your Southern Rep goes south
Some of you fellow members might recall that I mentioned sometime ago that the G-Wagen was not exclusively made in the Graz factory, but that there was a military version of the G-Wagen, namely the 462 series, which was assembled in CKD (completely-knocked-down) fashion in Greece and exclusively for supply to the Greek army.
Well, it happens that I do travel to Greece quite often to visit a factory a subsidiary of my company in Salonika, the second biggest city in the country, some 500 kms north-east of Athens and some 300 kms west of the border with Turkey. As it happens, Greece has been for the last three thousand years in virtual state of war (and also in actual-, from time to time) with Turkey for the small matter of the three thousand islands in the Aegean Sea now under Greek sovereignty as well as some other territorial disputes. This is the reason for the extraordinarily high share of defence in the Greek state budget, which I believe is the highest, as a percentage of the GDP, in all the EU. These troubles have recently, once again, hit the headlines following the recent unsuccessful talks held by the Greek and Turkish halves of Cyprus in an attempt to reunite the island before the country joins the EU.
I do apologize for taking the liberty in extending such an introduction to this article, but I felt that these historical notes were necessary to illustrate the events that led me to the front gate of the HELLENIC VEHICLE INDUSTRY S.A., which is the company which produces the G-Wagen under licence in Greece. Let’s see. Being the largest human settlement close to the Turkish border, also some 100 kilometres away from the remains of Yugoslavia and in very close proximity also to Albania and Bulgaria, Salonika lets it military presence to be seen. Everywhere in and around the city there are lots of military quarters and wherever you drive along you will encounter the unfamiliar (for us) sight of military-spec G-Wagens patrolling the city.
On one of those occasions, I told the person who was driving me and who already knew about my “vice” for G-Wagens that I would love to know where these jeeps (as everybody down there insists in calling them) were made in order to plan for a future visit. To my surprise, my friend told me that they were made in Salonika’s main industrial estate and that (funny, innit?) he happened be friend with one of the Austrian engineers initially brought by Steyr when the company was established and that if I’d like to visit the factory he would be more than happy to arrange for a visit! Such coincidence does not cease to amaze me, especially when one considers that the only other Steyr factory outside Austria is in Guildford, ten miles away from where I live! (Watch this space for a future report on this one). Naturally, I accepted my friend’s offer and waited for the visit, which took place on 12 March.
The HELLENIC VEHICLE INDUSTRY S.A. (ELBO for short) (http://www.elbo.gr/en/index.html) was established in 1972 as STEYR HELLAS S.A., a 100% subsidiary of Steyr Austria, and shortly after completion of their factory, they started assembling Steyr trucks and buses with the goal of increasing the local content to close to 50%. At the time, the country was very poorly motorised and had high import duties levied on all new means of transport. Steyr thought that it could greatly improve its growth prospects by having a foothold on the Greek market where it would enjoy a position of virtual monopoly in the truck market. But back then Greece was a very poor country and most companies could not afford to buy new trucks, least of the quality (and price) of the Steyr range. So, tucked against the competition of second-hand imports mainly from Germany, for 15 years the company relied on a core of public service orders of light and medium sized 4x4 trucks, of which the military accounted for a big share.
So when the Greek army faced the question of which light 4x4 vehicle to buy to replace its ageing ex-US army jeeps, political and strategic consideration was given to award the contract to the only local manufacturer which could fit the bill, and that was, naturally, the Steyr’s G-Wagen. By 1987 and after suffering severe losses, Steyr was determined to pull the plug on the operation and, again after strategic consideration was given to the danger of having its military trucks and G-Wagens manufactured outside the country (even in Turkey, god forbids!), the Greek state agreed to buy all the shares in the company and renamed it as HELLENIC VEHICLE INDUSTRY S.A. (ELBO S.A). In August 2000, 43% of the shares and the management of the company were transferred to the private sector, which has since managed to return the company to profitability while maintaining all their licenser’s quality standards.
Today ELBO is the largest vehicle manufacturer in the country. The company’s production facilities are located in the Industrial Area of Salonika and cover a total area of 270,000 sq. meters, of which some 60,000 are covered. It turns over some 150 million EURO, employs some 1,000 employees, together with state-of-the-art equipment and is currently ISO 9001 certified.
ELBO continues to be the Greek Army’s largest supplier of various types of armoured and other vehicles, which principally are the following (as quoted in the company’s prospectus, in italics my comments):
· Military Cross Country Jeep (!) (4x4) MB 240 GD. See, they call it a jeep!. This is the SWB version.
· Ambulance M 997A2 Hummer HMMWV (4x4). The chassis arrives complete at ELBO, where the bodywork is fitted and painted.
· Military Cross Country Vehicle Type 290 GD 1 ¼ Ton (4x4). This is the LWB version.
· Special Military Truck Unimog (4x4). The vehicles arrive complete at ELBO, where only fitting of special equipment and paintwork is done.
· Military Trucks on Steyr 14M14 Chassis (4x4). Permissible max weight of this truck is 14 tons. Fitted with the legendary Steyr type WD 612.91 engine with 6 cylinders and 136 HP at 2400 rpm. All assembly is carried out by ELBO.
· Military Trucks Variations (Other Steyr Trucks): Among these the Airport Crash Tender FLF 5500, a 23 ton truck with the Steyr WD 815.74 V8 engine with 350 HP at 2200 rpm and 1230 Nm of torque at 1400 rpm. Some assembly is done by ELBO.
· Recovery Truck Oshkosh M984 A1 8x8. Some assembly is done by ELBO.
· Leonidas Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC). A 14.8 ton APC with the Steyr 7FA six cylinder engine with 320 HP at 2300 rpm. Good for 70 Km/h on the road.
· Kentaurus Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicle (AIFV). A 19.8 ton tank with a 420 HP engine.
Also the company does the refurbishment of older tanks and other army vehicles. It has recently refurbished 700 Steyr trucks of all models for the Greek army. Other civilian customers are public transport (buses) refuse collection (trucks) and fire-fighters (Air-Crash tender, Industrial Fire-fighting and Support Fire-fighting trucks). ELBO also undertakes bodywork-only jobs, like the building and fitting of bodywork to the army’s Hummer ambulances and fitting of special equipment to public services Unimogs.
At the moment, the Salonika factory has a 2 ½ year contract for the supply to the Greek army of 2,500 G-Wagens, which will make the total made in Greece some 8-9,000 units since assembly started a few years back. All the Greek army G-Wagens are Mercedes badged. The first versions of the G-Wagen made in Salonika were of the 462 series 240 GD, fitted with the very sluggish 2,4 litre 4 cylinder diesel with 72 BHP and a 4 speed manual gearbox. Post 1990 orders are of the naturally-aspirated 290 GD with 94 BHP and still manual. But the current contract specifies the 290 GD mated to the 4-speed auto gearbox. Naturally all have 24-volt electrics. Something curious is that the cars built post-1990 are 461 series, as in the Graz factory, and no longer 462 series as they originally were.
There are two variants, the ¼ ton, a soft-top SWB (2400 mm) and the 1 ¼ ton, a LWB (2800 mm) chassis-cab with a high-capacity pick-up tray in the back covered with a soft-top. This latter has the wider heavy duty axles together with the front flared wheel-arches (the ones at the back are not needed given the wider width of the tray as compared with the cabin). Both currently come with the 290 GD and the auto gearbox but neither is specified with either the front or rear diff locks. This is, according to the factory manager, to prevent poorly trained drivers to cause major damage to the drivetrain if they fail to disengage them on hard surfaces. The equipment is of course very utilitarian: all come now with the latest 461 series dashboard, steering wheel and controls, but none of them features any airbags. Obviously forget about goodies like ABS but when I enquired if they did not want aircon, given the atrocious heat of the Greek summer, they told me that yes they wanted and no they were not willing to pay for it! Something curious is that the half rear door of the SWB soft top opens from left to right, which would have been ideal for the UK RHD version of the G-Wagen but was never offered; instead of as typically in the soft tops the door unfolding down. The rear door has the spare wheel attached to it, making the, also typical for a soft top, swinging holder redundant. They all come with the neat headlamp grilles, blackout lights and the manually applied camouflage paint, which makes each of them visually unique. Of course, most Greek G-Wagens feature military specification equipment, like big guns, medium guns, and also small guns (my apologies, but as I assured Mr Gagalis I had no interest whatsoever in gathering military intelligence and as a result of this, I cannot tell a weapon from a bicycle rack).
Together with these, the company is currently filling the order to supply 250 Mercedes-badged G-Wagens to the Cypriot army. These are beautiful desert-spec SWB non-tops, again with the 2,9 litre diesel and the 4-speed auto gearbox and all come (raucous drumbeat) in RHD! Yes, in RHD! Who said G-Wagens were no longer in RHD? (Sorry, it was me!). But then I also said that, if you have an order for 250 or so G-Wagens for some country’s army, they will make them for you in RHD if you so wish.
Again, the Cypriot Gs feature the latest 461 series interior, albeit being a military version, in very basic form. These, though, feature the hydraulically-operated rear diff-lock and come with the spare wheel fitted to the rear right-hand side instead of the back as in the SAS Pink Panther Land Rovers. The camouflage, being for the desert is much lighter than in the Greek version.
ELBO makes the G-Wagens under a license agreement with Daimler-Chrysler Germany and not with Steyr. Unfortunately, the license agreement does not allow ELBO to sell privately, and I would imagine that in fact limits the company’s customers to Greek entities or others very close to Greece (like Greek Cyprus). But don’t despair: someday all these shiny beautiful RHD G-Wagens will be decommissioned after their normal economic life. They will be auctioned and bought by those military vehicle specialists we all know and we’ll get the chance to buy and restore them and enjoy them in the best of the British summer. Or so I hope, about that rare summer, I mean.
My first ever visit to a G-Wagen factory was amazing. Most of you will recall the symptoms experienced by a convinced G-Wagen nutter when he approaches any place where more than three G-Wagens are gathered. I normally suffer these on occasion of our club’s AGM or on the even rarer occasion when I manage to gather more than three G-Wagens for an off-road driving day. But just seeing the factory’s front yard with some 200+ freshly made G-Wagens for delivery to the Greek army made my adrenaline rush. I had previously been introduced to the Deputy Managing Director of ELBO, Mr Dimitrios Gagalis, who by means of a brief chat probed my G-Wagen credentials and eventually was pleased enough with his findings as to authorise the visit. You see, any self-respecting manager of a company like this would prefer a G-Wagen-mad Spaniard who resembles a Turkish spy to visit, rather than a Turkish spy who looks like a suspiciously looking Spaniard. Anyway, Mr Dimitrios introduced me to his production manager (whose name I can’t recall, sorry but I misfiled his business card) and to Mr Athanasios Kotsakis, public relations manager of the company, who would be accompanying me during the visit.
The first thing that stroked me were the stringent security measures around the premises. Apart from the initially distant welcome by the management, I noticed the barbed wire over the fences and the frequent signs banning all photography. One has to understand that this is a factory whose main customer by large is the military and can only infer that if I were visiting the MoD assembly line at Solihull, somebody would think that visitors like me look suspiciously Argentinean. In any event, Mr Gagalis kindly advised me to feel free to request permission to photograph if and when I wished to do so and assured me that adequate consideration would be given to such requests.
For a start they granted permission for me to photograph the finished G-Wagens who were waiting to be delivered in the front yard. And then we proceeded to the main factory building which is where the assembly proper takes place.
But this is not just an ordinary assembly line. The factory builds the chassis in house, welding the crossmembers to the lengths of the framework supplied by DB Germany, which come with the chassis number already printed. This enables for early modifications to cater for the fitting of special equipment or for building RHD units. Unfortunately, my request of taking a picture of the construction of a LWB chassis was met with an educated but firm rejection. The bodywork comes from a local supplier ready for priming, preparation and painting. The engines are fully assembled in the factory and each unit produced is tested in the bench. The wiring loom is also made in house and each connection is tested individually before delivery to the assembly line. Basically the only already-assembled units shipped from Germany or Austria to ELBO, together with a multitude of components, are the axles and main- and transfer gearboxes. All the rest is either assembled in-house or by any of the numerous locally appointed suppliers, which adds likelihood to the claim of more than 40% local content in terms of value added to the final product.
Despite its current ownership, the company cannot deny its Steyr origins. In fact, judging from the wealth of photographs that I’ve seen of the Graz factory, I would swear that this one looks to me very much like Graz. Much of the middle management are Austrians brought by Steyr which have subsequently grown family roots in Greece and this creates some Germanic feel to the whole facility. I was told that they have a representative from DB moving between this factory and the Mercedes one in Aksaray, Turkey, who makes sure that not a single G-Wagen is delivered to the customer without his thorough inspection, to ensure that the quality of the final product deserves the three-pointed star adorning the grille.
And well-made they look! Everything in the factory looks neat, clean, orderly, organised and timely. And you can just judge for yourselves about the final product by looking at the pictures. All in all, it was a visit that I thoroughly enjoyed and from here I would like to thank the management of ELBO for making it possible. I would also like to thank Mr Kotsakis for furnishing me with prospects and photographs, as well as with a 2003 diary of the company which I now have to give away to the first member of the GWOA who rings me answering correctly the following question: What is the first name of the sister-in-law of the next-door-neighbour of the guard to the main gate of the ELBO’s factory? The right answer will be published, together with the name of the lucky winner, in the next issue of the G-Wizz.