The Quiet Collaborator: Valmet Automotive

Cars Culture

Ego-free Finnish builder creates heros...

Did you drive a Saab in the early 1980s and imagine you were travelling around in your own little piece of Swedish mechanosphere?

If so, here’s some news, the chances are you were equally likely to be enjoying a piece of Finnish car building excellence. In fact if you were, or still are, lucky enough to own that classic of the Saab oeuvre – the beautiful 90- then you can be certain of its Finnish heritage as all 25,000 of them were built in a town in Finland.

With a population of just over fifteen thousand Uusikaupunki is notable for two things. It is the home of the Bonk museum, a repository of absurdist (fictional) machines, which run on anchovy oil. And It also houses the main production facility and HQ of Vamlet Automotive Inc. whose own creations run on petrol, diesel and more recently, electric power. They’ve been quietly building cars in this northern outpost since setting up in 1968 as a partner with the then Saab Scania Company, initially manufacturing the Saab 95, 96 and 99.

Valmet-2 Saab’s 1970s wagons were Finnish to the core

Those first Saabs off the line in 1969 were destined solely for the domestic market, but Saab HQ were impressed enough with the workmanship and output of the Finnish plant that they were soon building export models. Between that first Saab 96 (delivered to the president of Finland in November 1969) to the last Saab 9-3, to be produced there in 2003, Valmet Automotive built over 730,000 cars for Saab.

Like a low key Carrozzeria the firm were rumoured to tinker with their guest builds to improve quality, and the whispers on the Saab blogosphere are that the Finland Saabs were the best build quality ever produced. Either way GM’s 2000 takeover of Saab eventually ended the 30 year affair and put pay to the Valmet Saab offspring. The Finns were not on the shelf for long before another high performance suitor came courting.

boxster_w500 Many of Porsche’s everyman heros bore the Valmet designation

It was 1997, the city boy was king, and he craved his Porsche. With 911s in big demand the Stuttgart operation was running at full tilt and Porsche were on the lookout for somewhere to build their new Boxsters and Caymans. This was a time when many manufacturers were turning to the Far East for a cheap date. But not Porsche. Preferring quality over a cheap fix, they headed north, rather than east, and struck a deal with the Finnish firm that was to prove instrumental in the German manufacturer’s later success at riding out the recession.

At its peak in 2006 Valmet Automotive was producing 30,000 Porsches a year- making up about a third of Porsche’s total output- whilst altering it’s staffing levels and shift patterns – sometimes almost daily- to complement the German operation. Now most of these Porsches headed out to the USA with only a ‘U’ in the VIN code to denote their Finnish provenance. But once again industry rumours abound that the Valmet Porsche’s build quality outstripped that of even the Stuttgart mothership.

Valmet100 The Cayman is the sexiest car made in Finland

Fielding a question on this point in a 2009 interview the Valmet Automotive CEO Ilpo Korhonen sagely replied: “Officially we are only allowed to be as good as Porsche.” And when we asked the company for a more up to date response we were met with the same cautious modesty, with their present Communications Manager Mikael Maki told us “We have always built cars according to the specifications of the customer. The idea is to create identical quality and finish as the customer produces in its own plants.”

Whatever the truth, the recession bit, and the market for luxury vehicles contracted. Porsche no longer needed the spare capacity and pulled back production into Stuttgart, so the last Cayman rolled off the line in 2011. This left a big hole at the heart of the Finnish factory and one that was only partially filled by its moves into the cutting edge and precarious world of the electric car. After tooling up for Fisker Automotive, as yet to no avail, and a dalliance with the currently dead in the water ‘THINK City’, the company is now once again in a steady relationship, working with Daimler AG.

Valmet-4 Fisker exploited the Finnish penchent for hi-tech

Right now they’re just over midway through a major contract to build over 100,000 Mercedes A-C class compacts, a serious deal for the firm, which is due to hit deadline in 2016. Employing a high risk strategy of ultra flexibility – both with its workforce and tooling- this quiet collaborator has had to live by its wits and has traded on a track record of superior build quality to draw in new contracts and to woo its high profile and exacting partners.

Like the legendary Hollywood stuntman Valmet Automotive Inc. has often soaked up the punches and taken the risks for its ‘star’. And whatever the official line may be from Finland, the word from behind the scenes is that he’s at least as good, if not sometimes a little better than, his frontman.