This is the strange story of the assembly of Mercedes-Benz trucks in China, stimulated by the German Nazi regime when China was already at war with Japan.
We have written about the development of the first Chinese truck in Shenyang, 1928-1931. Soon after, there was another interesting project about producing trucks in China. The Kuomintang government had a German military advisor named general Alexander (Ernst Alfred Hermann Freiherr) von Falkenhausen.
This general introduced Mercedes Benz trucks in quantities in China. Plans for a Mercedes truck assembly plant were already made in 1933.
The German company who did the negotiations with the Chinese Kuomintang government was the Otto Wolff Eisengrosshandel of Cologne , already involved in the construction of railways in China: the Zhejiang-Jiangxi-Hunan track in 1933, Yushan-Nanchang in 1934 and Nanchang- Pingxiang in 1936. Wolff had a China office: the Otto Wolf Far Eastern Branch in Shanghai. Mr. Otto Wolff Sr., the co-owner of the company, was also a Daimler Benz member of the board of directors.
In 1935 the negotiations started to began in earnest. They resulted in an agreement of the delivery of 5000 Mercedes Benz L2000 Diesel truck chassis within five years, starting from March 1936.
The China Automobile Company (CAC), owned by the Chinese government, was set up in Shanghai in the late 1936.
Wolff handled the German end of the deal. The start capital of the company was six billion Chinese dollar, of which half was provided by Chinese investors, the government and private persons, and half was credited by the Otto Wolff Company, to be paid back after five years. Only one truck model was planned, the Mercedes Benz L3000 3-ton truck.
The first 1800 chassis or kits were supplied to the CAC by May 1936, for assembly in Nantao, a suburb of Shanghai. In Zhuzhou, Hunan province, a factory site was constructed from the beginning of 1937. Cabs and bodies were to be built here and a repair and spare-parts facility was constructed.
Tires, glass and leather would be manufactured at a branch facility in Shanghai. The first trucks were made in Zhuzhou in the autumn of 1937.
With the appearance of warships in Shanghai and the Marco Polo Bridge incident in July 1937, the Second China Japanese War broke out.
In October 1938 the production facilities were shifted to Guilin, Guangxi province. Import of chassis proceeded first over Hong Kong, later through Indo-China. After the Indochinese route was lost, the chassis were delivered via Haiphong and driven to the border at Pingxiang, where the cabs were added, with the final assembly taking place at Guilin.
Thereafter, chassis came via overland routes through the Soviet Union, till the outbreak of the German-Soviet war in 1941. That was the end of the project. The weird thing about this story is that Germany provided the Chinese Guomindang regime with trucks which were also used in the army and in the war against Japan while the cooperation between imperial Japan and Nazi Germany was growing since 1935. In 1937 Japan and Germany agreed the anti-Comintern pact against the Soviet Union , allying nazi Germany with Japan. In 1938 the Germans concluded a friendship agreement with the Japanese vassal state Manchukuo. Wolff also dealt with Manchukuo.
It is difficult to get an idea how many trucks were built: the information about numbers is quite contradictory.
March 1936: order for 1000 chassis+engines worth 20 million Reich-mark, to be delivered 1936-1941.
March 1936: agreement to supply 5000 Mercedes L2000 truck chassis in the period 1936-1941 (5).
May 1936: about 1800 truck chassis or kits were supplied to CAC for assembly in Nantao (suburb of Shanghai) (5).
1936: agreement for the delivery of 1200 chassis for diesel trucks annually (1).
1936- 1940: about 4000 trucks assembled (2).
March 1938: 2000 truck chassis delivered by the Mercedes factory in Gaggenau.
June 1939: second order for 3900 truck chassis period 1939-1941, worth 1.2 million pound sterling.
1939: in total 7000 trucks delivered (1).
The idea was that from 1941 the China Automobile Company was going to produce the L2000 under license. I don’t know if that really happened. Mr Bai Guang showed me brochures of the CAC L2000 with CAC logo . The Mercedes star (with the text: DIESEL at the bottom) is replaced by a star with the character Zhong in the middle (the first character of Zhongguo= China) and the text “China Diesel Automobile” in Chinese characters at the bottom.
1. William C. Kirby, “Germany and republican China”, 1984, Stanford, California.
2. Lastauto/Omnibus, September 1980 Nr. 9
3. Confidential letter dated August 31 1936 written by Daniel F. Myers to Carl Christopherson, American Trade Commissioner in Shanghai.
4. “Made in China, Automobiles made before World War II”, composed by Erik van Ingen Schenau, China Motor Vehicle Documentation Centre, 2007.
5. Commercial Motor w/e August 16, 1986.
Always wondering if someone knows more or has more info: if you have, please, contact us!!