September 07, 2016 @ 06:42 PM

Take a look inside the oldest car factory in Malaysia Part 1

Not many know that Volvo has been assembling cars in Malaysia for the last 50 years. To set that record straight, they’ve invited us inside to take a look

Words: Chris Ng
Photography: Aaron Lee
Video: Ian Kirk, Miko Abdullah

He leans back against his chair and looks up at the ceiling in a meeting room of Volvo Car Manufacturing Plant. I could see the cogs in his mind began to spin as he takes himself back to almost 50 years ago. A slight smile creeps up on his face. Mr. Selverdass s/o Marimuthu was one of Volvo’s longest serving employee. 

His first day at work was in 1969, started in the rank and file, then climbed up the ladder till he became the Manager in the Body Shop and Maintenance Department. He retired in 2005. Leaning forward, Mr. Dass begins to speak.

“It’s quite barren because many of the other factories were not up yet at that time,” Mr. Dass describes the area around the factory in 1969. “I think Volvo was the first assembly plant to be up. And then slowly the others came in. And also the other industries started to mushroom. 

“Even at that time, Volvo was one of the most popular because we had the big signage on top of the factory, which you can also see it as you are going on the Federal Highway.” I could feel a hint of pride in his voice. 

That was 1969. To get to the start of this story, we have to travel back to 1967, when the name Swedish Motor Assemblies was first incorporated. Yet, there was no one available that could impart their memory of the time. 

So one must do what one must and employ the extent of one’s imagination to get a picture of what it was like on the 7th of September, 1966. It was the first Wednesday of the ninth month, a pleasant day I would imagine, when a shovel pierced the ground in Shah Alam, stirring up the soil of a fertile land. Hands clapped with a mixture of relief and excitement, followed up liberal exchanges of handshakes to mark Volvo’s first milestone in Malaysia. 

It was also the completion of a long journey of four businessmen from Penang, who set up Federal Auto, which made the trip to Volvo in Sweden and convinced the Swedes that Malaysia was the right place for their next factory. The biggest encouragement to the Swedes was the policies of the Malaysian government at that time were tailored to get the country’s industrialisation up to speed with the rest of the world. 

Apart of Torslanda in Sweden and Ghent in Belgium, there was no other place that produced Volvo cars at that time. Shah Alam in Malaysia became the third and successfully introduced jobs for young Malaysians then as it is now. 

A year after that, in 1967, the first Volvo 144 rolled off the assembly line.

50 years later, Car Malaysia visits Volvo’s Shah Alam factory for the first time only to find that not much has changed and all of the old buildings are well-preserved. It is as if all of the 48,725 square metres of land has been locked in a bubble where time slows down. 

The proof is in the legacy photos, which will make you realise that the architecture of the main office building is just as it was 50 years ago. Having said that, the doors are now automatic sliders. And the name has changed into one that’s easily associated with the car it makes — Volvo Car Manufacturing Malaysia.

Clad in a blue visitor’s vest and safety shoes, requirements before entering the assembly line, I take my first step into the factory where all Volvos since the 144 are made. But it is not just the Swedish cars that are put together here. This factory has, in the past, engaged in contract assemblies and many cars of note have this plant to call its place of birth. 

The Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.8, Alfetta 2000 and Alfasud 1.3 were made here, as was the Discovery and Freelander of Land Rover. The Subaru 1600 and 1800, Suzuki Swift 1000, Vitara 3- and 5-door, and Perodua Rusa are just some of the vehicles that have entered here in pieces but exited a fully working model. 

With Volvo Car Manufacturing Malaysia’s new General Manager — the plant’s new boss — Frederik Karlsson leading the way, I walk down a short corridor that opens up to a large and well ventilated building that’s unexpectedly devoid of the usual buzz, whirrs and clanks of an assembly plant. This plant contrasts those that I have visited before.

I have been to Nissan and Perodua’s plant in Serendah, I’ve watched Mercedes-Benz cars get put together in Pekan, and then the same for Mazda, BMW and MINI in Kulim. I have toured the Porsche factory in Stuttgart where 911s of all guises, Boxsters and Caymans are born. 

So I have come to expect to see certain things whenever I enter a factory, like a conveyor or tracks that would make transferring the body-in-white from one station to the next much easier. In the Volvo factory, the vehicles in various stages of build, are pushed from one station to the next on large trolleys, much like how it was done decades ago. 

Immediately, I can tell the heritage and historic value of this factory. I get the same kind of impression whenever I see something traditional, like wood carvings or woven baskets, being made. Yet, these are modern cars with powerful engines and precise safety systems that are being put together. If you judge a book by its cover, or a factory by its dated architecture, then you wouldn’t have known that this place assembles high-tech, high-quality cars.

To be continued...

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