Auto Makers From Asia Flock to Orange County

Times Staff Writer

A decade ago, when Japanese auto executives came to Orange County, it was usually to give speeches--or to visit Disneyland.

Today they are coming to stay.

Three Asian auto makers have recently placed headquarters for their U.S. operations in Orange County, and a fourth is on the way.

The Asian auto importers are settling in Orange County in pursuit of bigger profits for their shareholders and better life styles for their executives. So fast and furiously has this hub of auto import activity taken shape that auto industry analysts compare the phenomenon to northern New Jersey, where half a dozen European auto importers--including BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo--long ago established their U.S. headquarters.

The difference, however, is that it took decades for the European importers to declare the New Jersey coast as their domestic corporate domain. A cadre of Asian auto importers has opened U.S. headquarters in Orange County--within the past five years.

It began when Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America placed its U.S. headquarters in Fountain Valley in 1983. Suzuki of America Automotive Corp. selected Brea last July. The Korean auto maker, Hyundai Motor America, tapped Garden Grove last year--and on Feb. 15 it began selling its first cars in the U.S. market. Next year, Mazda Motor of America Central Inc. is slated to move its headquarters to Irvine, across the street from where it already houses its U.S. distribution facility.

The role of a distributor is to purchase cars from its overseas parent, establish a network of U.S. dealers and ship the cars to those dealers. The distributor sets the suggested retail prices and is responsible for advertising and marketing the cars in the United States. Distributors are also responsible for supplying dealers with needed parts and service training.

The shift to Orange County is coming largely at the expense of the Los Angeles area.

Mazda selected its new Irvine home over locations in Long Beach, City of Industry and San Bernardino. Mitsubishi moved to Fountain Valley from Los Angeles three years ago.

But the Big Three of the Asian auto industry say they plan to keep their U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles County. Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. is in Torrance; Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. is in Carson, and American Honda Motor Co. Inc. is in Gardena.

Some say the Orange County influx is long overdue. The U.S. headquarters for three major Japanese motorcycle manufacturers--Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha--are already situated in Orange County.

The four Orange County auto importers pack the same sales wallop of the county's biggest company, Fluor Corp.--the four are expected to post U.S. total car sales of about $4 billion in 1986--a tad less than the $4.2 billion in revenues that Fluor reported in 1985.

By far the biggest of the Orange County auto importers is Mazda, which projects sales of 230,000 cars and 115,000 trucks in the United States in 1986. Mitsubishi and Hyundai say they will each sell about 100,000 vehicles this year.

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