HARRODSBURG in Kentucky, USA, was a farming community when Hitachi Automotive opened its factory there in 1985.
To supply idle-speed valves to Nissan's new plant in Tennessee, Hitachi had to hire about 100 local people who had never worked in a factory before.
'We were a screwdriver factory - we just put together parts that came from Japan,' recalls Terry Cooper, the company's vice president of operations.
It was a humble start, but like many other auto suppliers and vehicle assembly plants that have appeared in America over the past 15 years, Hitachi has rapidly matured into something bigger.
Today the plant employs 975 people. Products range from vehicle ignition systems to alternators, and it serves as the headquarters for all Hitachi automotive business in North America.
'Whether you look at the number of jobs that are related to it or at the level of personal income that's coming out of it, this is a much more important sector of our economy than we had anticipated,' says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation in Michigan.
Last month, Cole's research team released a year-long study of the sector. Its chief findings included:
Japanese and European auto companies now account for 22 percent of US automaking capacity. They represent a factory capacity of 2.6 million vehicles.
The rise of international firms in American production has helped shift the balance of industry power away from Japan and back to the USA, which now turns out nearly one-third of all the vehicles produced in the world.
The international automakers spent more than $43 billion in 1996 on American component purchases and employee compensation.
The group now supports 6.5 jobs for every one person it employs. According to the study's authors, the international automakers are rising to the same level as GM, Ford and Chrysler.
Including related jobs at dealerships and in the service industry, the study estimates the international auto industry is now responsible for as many as 1.3 million jobs in the USA.
Cole's team conducted the study on behalf of the Association of International Automobile Manu-facturers, which has battled for public recognition as a viable economic force in North America.
Now, says AIAM President Philip Hutchinson, the automaker members have tangible proof.
'It's fair to say that North American automakers have moved from mass production to lean manufacturing as a result of this growth and new competition. The American auto industry is again leading the world, and we've helped make that happen.'
Another economic benefit is the investment in the rural areas of the US South and Midwest.
For example, a joint venture between Japan's Akebono Brake Co. and General Motors' Delphi Systems in Kentucky has trained nearly 1,000 workers in Japanese production techniques to run a new company with annual sales of $350 million.
Says John Harris, president of Akebono's Elizabethtown-based US subsidiary, 'People have money. They have the latitude to do things they couldn't do 10 years ago.'