HORSES FOR COURSES by Dick Suter
From constructors of carriages to vendors of VWs, D'leteren is a success story through and through
This year marks the half-century of D'leteren's involvement as the exclusive Belgian importer of the German marque, Volkswagen. The deal was signed on March 16, 1948 by Pierre D'Ieteren and on August 26 the first VW Beetle was sold in Belgium. Before the end of that year a further 969 had been bought by Belgian motorists. Small beer, perhaps, in comparison with sales of VWs in Belgium nowadays, for VW has for long been the market leader, with the Golf the biggest single seller of the range - something the original Beetle never achieved here.
Founded in Brussels way back in 1805, D'leteren is the oldest transportation related company in Belgium and, possibly, in the world. It started out as a wheelwright and 25 years later became a builder of quality horse-drawn carriages, competing with others in Brussels, Paris, Berlin and London - the four coachbuilding centres in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1894 it built the bodywork for the first Belgium car, a Vincke, and over the next 40 years it built 3,400 bodies - an average of 85 per year. Many of the chassis were Belgian, for during this period Belgium boasted as many as 157 different car makes, Minerva and FN being the best known, but it also built bodies on Mercedes-Benz, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini and other foreign chassis. D'Ieteren had offices in Paris and New York, two of its most important markets at this time. Export accounted for 65% of production in this period.
In the 20's, the Belgian government had introduced very high taxation of some 100% for complete car importation while taxing car components imports at only 30%. By 1935, D'Ieteren had turned to assembling Studebakers in Rue du Mail (the site of its present headquarters, main showrooms and service facilities), taking advantage of the tax differences described above. Five years earlier, Lucien D'leteren, then running the company, had decided to start importing Studebakers from the USA, as the company's coachbuilding involvement needed pruning as a consequence of Wall Street's 'Black Thursday' financial calamities.
D'Ieteren continued Studebaker assembly to the outbreak of World War II and resumed it in a new plant in the Forest area of Brussels when hostilities ceased. This, in turn, became in 1954 the site for VW assembly and was also used for the exclusive production of bodies for the classic Porsche 356 Cabriolet, produced before the 911/912 model was launched in 1964 (D'leteren had already obtained distribution rights for Porsche in 1950). In 1965, Studebaker went bankrupt in the US but by this time D'Ieteren's VW business was its main activity. In 1974, Audi - which had been purchased by VW in 1965 - joined D'leteren's expanding stable and this was followed by exclusive distribution rights in 1975 for Yamaha and in 1982 for Motobecane bikes and motorcycles. Seat cars were added in 1984 and Skoda joined the line-up in January 1992.
D'leteren sold its Forest plant to Volkswagen in December 1970 and, while it is no longer in either the coachbuilding or assembly businesses, it is - in addition to its mega automobile importation business - the majority shareholder of Avis Europe (Rent-a-Car), which covers 126 countries in three continents - Europe, Africa and Asia. It is also the #1 family owned family company in Belgium, headed today by Roland D'Ieteren. In 1997 it achieved sales of BEF 88.6 billion and net earnings of BEF2.2 billion, with exceptional earnings of BEF2.1 billion (not counted with the BEF2.2 billion) added value through its participation in Avis Europe, following its introduction on the London Stock Exchange.
Strange twists of fate
Yorkshire man Major Ivan Hirst, now 84, was the man whose job it was in May 1945 to put some 100,000 jobless people back to work in the Volkswagen Wolfsburg plant. He cleared the factory, which had been partly demolished, then masterminded the start-up of Beetle assembly from the huge stocks of spare parts he found in the damaged facility. At that time it was the only car maker able to produce cars in Germany.
Not long before D'leteren became exclusive VW importer for Belgium, delegates from the British motor industry visited Wolfsburg and were offered the plant free. Sir William Rootes, the delegation's leader, considered the car (the Beetle) "too flimsy for real production" so the offer was not taken up. 50 years on, Volkswagen AG, now owner of Audi, Seat and Skoda, made a successful bid for Britain's most prestigious car builder, Rolls Royce. Makes you think, doesn't it?
See also: The Automotive Industry in Belgium
©Dick Suter - 1998
Original article appearing in "Internationals in Belgium" Dick Suter was an editor of the magazine and contributor and Ginny Suter was a regular contributor in the late 1990's and 2000's - The magazine had a circulation of 10,000 Please note that this article was first published many years ago and telephone and fax numbers are likely to be out of date and email addresses have been removed.
Source of images, unless otherwise stated - Suter family archives