Bread and butter. The shell of VW's best selling car, the Golf.
Volkswagen Bratislava

Volkswagen Bratislava's assembly line and paint shop are in shambles. Metal rods, engine parts, and plastic wrapped bundles lay strewn across grass lots outside the company's buildings. The workers have gone home. The normally antiseptic and smooth functioning factory looks like a disaster area.

In fact, the reason for the mess is that VW is gearing up for a major expansion of production at its Devínská Nová Ves factory. "We've shut down for three weeks," said Karel Wilhelm, technical managing director. "Production will begin again on September 8."

In July, VW Bratislava announced that it will pump DEM 124 million this year into new buildings and equipment for production of the new Golf model. The company's plan includes moving from two to three production shifts by September and increasing the workforce by 1,000 in 1997 - VW had 2,002 employees at the start of the year.

Early this year, VW Bratislava was steadily pumping out about 130 Golf Syncros a day. Established in 1991, the factory is the only one in the VW family that produces the all-wheel-drive Syncro. The company's production line is manual, with practically no automation. This enhances production flexibility, an essential ingredient for the manufacture of the custom-designed Syncro. The Syncro is manufactured so uniquely that only a few hundred of the 30,000 produced in a year are identical.

It was this flexibility that enabled the company to react quickly when help was needed back home in Germany in the spring. VW's new Passat has proved to be tremendously popular with car buyers in Europe, resulting in strains on VW's production system and waiting lists for the car. "We didn't plan to produce the Passat," said Dušan Marušek, public relations manager at VW. "But the whole production in Germany sold out."

In May of this year, to help alleviate some of this demand pressure, VW Bratislava started assembling the new Passat. "We temporarily tried to speed things up a bit," said Wilhelm. Some 4,000 Passats will roll off the assembly line this year, with none scheduled for 1998. "We'll finish [with Passats] by Christmas," he said.

Painted body parts and other parts for the Passat assembly operation are delivered daily to the Bratislava factory by train from Germany. During the current factory shutdown, production has trickled down to where about 25 Passats are produced a day.

Still the Golf - the fourth generation of VW's bread and butter car - remains VW Bratislava's main function. "We'll phase out the old model and phase in the new one," said Wilhelm. Approximately 60,000 front-wheel drive Golfs are budgeted for production in 1998. The factory will start manufacturing the custom Syncro version of the new Golf in late 1998.

VW's gearbox assembly operation is also scheduled for expansion. Two additional assembly lines will be running by the end of this year, and a third line for Passat gearboxes will also be installed. "We've completed the transfer of equipment from Germany," said Wilhelm.

The most challenging aspect of VW's expansion plans is finding enough qualified workers to staff the added third shift. "This is a problem," admitted Wilhelm. The company hopes to have the new workers hired by December. "We've got quite a good response [from advertisements] but still have a long way to go."

Jeffrey Jones is Editor-in-Chief of the Central Europe Automotive Report.