OSNABRUCK, Germany - Specialist assembler Wilhelm Karmann GmbH is upbeat about its prospects after seeing a wave of new business for niche products recently.
Rainer Thieme, chairman of Karmann's management board, expects further growth to come from the company's hard top coupe project.
Karmann showed a four-passenger coupe with a retractable hard top at last year's Frankfurt auto show. The hard top concept offers the comfort and convenience of a fixed-roof vehicle in winter and the fun of a convertible in summer. Unlike traditional 'rag tops,' it offers protection against theft and vandalism.
'The market for retractable hard tops will grow considerably,' said Thieme, citing forecasts of a European market of 100,000 vehicles by 2004.
Karmann also sees growth in its traditional contract assembly and convertible business.
A key convertible job for Karmann is assembly of the new, fourth-generation VW Golf cabriolet.
The current Golf cabriolet is produced at Karmann in Osnabrck for the European market. Production for North America is at Volkswagen's plant at Puebla, Mexico. But the next Golf cabriolet will be produced only in Osnabruck, said Thieme. Production will start in 2001, at double the current rate.
Karmann will also work on the New Beetle convertible. Thieme said the company will produce the 'top stack' for the car in Mexico with its North American partner Dura Convertible Systems.
Karmann is the system partner for the Volkswagen Group for the development of open vehicles, said Thieme. 'All Volkswagen convertibles are and will be developed by Karmann,' he said. 'Both companies are familiar with each others' working methods and means of communication.'
But that does not mean Karmann automatically receives the production contracts. For the next Golf cabriolet, the company had to compete with in-house assembly alternatives.
Karmann has seen big growth in volumes for the Mercedes-Benz CLK convertible, although production of the Kia Sportage and Golf station wagon has now ceased.
Although Karmann has seen a rapid increase in sales in the past few years, profit growth has slowed. In 1997, the company reported a post-tax profit of DM28.5 million (A14.4 million) on a turnover of DM1.3 billion.
Sales rose to DM2.2 billion in 1998 but profits fell to DM20.3 million. Thieme said that was due to increased investment.
In 1999 Karmann produced 76,603 cars, compared with 104,195 the previous year. Although units delivered fell, the value of sales rose slightly to an estimated DM2.25 billion.
Thieme said Karmann made post-tax profits of more than DM20 million last year.