The Port of Wilmington took a big step toward rebuilding its once busy auto-shipping business thanks to a multiyear contract inked by the former Chrysler Group with a New Castle-based vehicle processing company.
AutoPort Inc. will export Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram cars and trucks manufactured by FCA US LLC of Auburn Hills, Michigan, to the Middle East beginning March 1. Both AutoPort and FCA US declined to say how long the contract will run. FCA US was created in 2009 by the alliance between Fiat and Chrysler and is the seventh-largest automaker in the world based on total annual vehicle sales.
Jodi Tinson, spokeswoman for FCA US, said the vehicles shipped to Wilmington will come from assembly plants in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Ontario, Canada. She declined to say how many vehicles could come through the port annually, but people close to the port say it will be thousands of vehicles.
The company has been using the Port of Baltimore for both imports and exports, Tinson said. But as FCA US expands its distribution to more markets outside North America and imports vehicles from locations such as Poland, Italy and Turkey, it became necessary to look for another port to pick up some of the business, Tinson said.
The Port of Wilmington was attractive because of its location on the East Coast and AutoPort's expertise in exporting to the Middle East, she said. The Port of Wilmington once had up to 100,000 vehicles coming across its docks annually. In 2002, it opened an approximately $27 million auto berth on Delaware River and a dedicated roadway to automobile storage areas.
But in 2008 Volkswagen of America Inc., which in 1976 selected the port for its auto hub for imports to North America, pulled out as a result of a consolidation. At one time, Chrysler also exported vehicles through the port.
"It will be wonderful to again see vehicles in the FCA US portfolio moving through our port," said Gene Bailey, executive director of the Diamond State Port Corp., which owns and operates the Port of Wilmington.
General Motors continues to use the port as one of its primary export hubs to the Middle East. AutoPort handles that business.
Roy Kirchner, chief executive of AutoPort, which leases 42 acres from the port and owns 60 acres adjacent to it, called the FCA US account a plus for the port. He said the vehicles will be brought in by rail and truck.
"Any business being brought to the state and the port is a plus," he said.