The presence of Alan Mullaly, the head of Ford Motor Company at the opening day of the Bangkok International Auto Show was no coincidence – the New York Motor Show was on at the same time. Last year Thailand produced 2.45 million cars, (up 68% on 2011), sold 1.43 million locally (up 80%), and moved into the top 10 auto producing countries in the world. Thailand has around 18 vehicles per 100 people – America has 76.
Many of the world's car companies have production facilities in Thailand, so for many, it is home ground in a market they understand particularly well.
Most of the technology-introducing, luxury-market-testing big buck show cars had been shown first in Beijing, Paris, Frankfurt and Detroit, but the mere fact that so many of those important show cars made it to Bangkok while the New York Show was running is quite astonishing.
The reason the show might be lower on the radar of western car enthusiasts is that different values drive the market in Asia, and hence the major car releases at this Asian-centric show are cars built specifically for nearer markets with more basic needs than the luxury markets in countries with much higher per capita income.
Thailand and its neighbors have massive populations that don't already have cars – in addition to Thailand's 18 cars per 100 people, Malaysia has 39 cars per 100 people, China has eight, Indonesia has six, Philippines has three, India, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar have less than two cars per 100 people.
The Asian market is extremely practical at its core – it wants vehicles that can do a job cost-effectively and some of the exhibitors at the show were displaying machinery that is very cheap and very practical.
The cars and trucks and three wheelers which are produced for Asian markets may not be bristling with costly high tech features, but big numbers of mainly trucks are consumed, with the likes of Ford's new EcoSport, Toyota's new Vios, Chevrolet's Spin, Honda's Accord and Nissan's Pulsar being produced with special models just for the Thai market, and more for Asia in general.
This year's show felt like critical mass had been reached – Thailand now has a very large automotive industry concentration and last year's morning to dusk every 15 minute press conference schedule on media day has now blossomed into two consecutive press conference streams with motorcycles making up the third consecutive press conference agenda during the afternoon. Like the really big motor shows in Geneva, Frankfurt and Paris, one person can no longer cover a single show and catch all the major announcements. The show floor is so large it takes a solid day of walking just to cover it all.
The show's influence can't be measured solely in visitor and exhibitor numbers, but it is a relevant illustration of the renewed growth of the Asian Automotive Tiger. In the world order of automotive manufacturing Thailand is now poised to become a significant player.
The changing automotive geographic landscape
In the blink of an eye, the world's automotive industry has gone from centralized to distributed.
In 1950 America produced 80% of all the cars sold on Planet Earth each year.
The truck market had become quite sophisticated following WWII, catering to a global demand with its enduring symbol of American military-strength automotive knowhow well known across the Pacific landscape, and reliable trucks were in high demand everywhere.
Dashboards in American family cars were expansive. Cars ran big V8 engines, gas was cheap, and if there was pollution, no-one cared. The world's cars were fashioned with the American heartland and its needs in mind.
Cars were so big, that small family gatherings could be held in the trunk. It didn't matter that all that weight was being pushed around for the life of every vehicle because energy was cheap.
The automatic transmission had just become available to the masses, promising luxury motoring to everyone.
America still built half of the world's cars in 1960, fulfilling the American dream.
Fifty years later, and most developed countries are now saturated with cars and dozens of marques compete fiercely for buyers. America has 76.5 vehicles per 100 people, Australia (61.9), Canada (56.3), Italy (56.6), Germany (54.6), France (49.1), Great Britain (42.6) and Japan (54.3) – all countries with economies and cultures enriched by automobiles made in their own countries, infused with national character.
These markets were once buoyant when aspirers were becoming owners. Now everyone who wants a car has one and there's only the natural turnover of replacement vehicles to compete for. Now it's Asia's turn to have its economies infused with the economic growth that a vibrant automotive industry generates.
Thailand has been known as the Detroit of the East for two decades and now produces cars for multitudinous Asian markets - most of the big automotive names have a production plant in Thailand, and many have R&D facilities too. Production and development facilities require vast amounts of space, and land for large testing facilities is much cheaper in Thailand. As a major automotive player, its time has come and it is poised to become a serious player on the automotive scene and its circumstance is very similar to China just 13 years ago.
In 2000, China had just moved into the top ten automotive producers in the world. In 2010, it became number one, though it still holds little more than 20% of a vastly fragmented global production system where twenty countries produce more than 1% (roughly 800,000 units per annum) and more than half of the world's cars are made in even smaller quantities. America now produces less than 10% of world production and new players are moving quickly up the leaderboard.
Thailand's situation mirrors the per capita vehicle ownership levels of China in 2000 and America 90 years ago. Using domestic production as a base, and building exports quickly, Thailand now produces more cars each year than the United Kingdom or France – countries which embraced and pioneered the automobile 100 years ago.
This year the Bangkok International Auto Show grew appreciably in size, as it has done in each of the last four years I have attended, with visitors to the show expected to top two million this year.
In terms of the most lasting images of the Bangkok Motor Show, there were two highlights.
One was the appearance of Ducati alongside Volkswagen. Volkswagen for Ducati at a bargain basement price and at the same time bought serious motorcycle credibility to the broader automotive company which includes such highly compatible and relevant marques - Audi, Bugatti, Lamborghini ... and now the four-wheeled brand equivalent to all of those marques in different ways.
Anyway, I suspect there will be many synergies between the VW Group and Ducati, and I'm looking forward to seeing how they evolve. Ducati sits well with Volkswagen's brands - I would have paired it with Lamborghini.
The other was the appearance of a brand which you've probably never heard of – Haval.
Haval was formerly the name of a very successful (in China) range of SUVs within the Chinese manufacturer Great Wall Motors (GWM) stable but was spun out as a brand in its own right in the last twelve months and is already a significant player thanks to now being credited with GWM's market share for the pick-up truck market.
Indeed, it is instantaneously the largest manufacturer of SUVs in Asia and it now plans to spend US$340 million on a manufacturing plant in Thailand with an initial capacity of 100,000 vehicles but for expansion to more than 200,000 per annum in the forseeable future.
Haval showed the Haval E concept which it debuted at Auto Beijing less than 12 months ago, though it is now almost certain to become a flagship model of the near future with a 245 hp hybrid drive-train and Lamborghini-type scissor doors.
There is a lot to like about scissor doors that rise vertically and hence enable easier access in cramped environments that make them practical features for a pick-up. Many people are predicting that the doors won't make it to the production version – I'm hoping they are retained. It's a very strong point of difference.
The Haval manufacturing plant to be built in Thailand is significant – a Chinese maker not just assembling but building cars in Thailand.