If you asked anyone to compile a list of great European car-producing nations, it’s unlikely that they would think of Spain first. Compared with France, Germany, Italy and the UK, Spain appears at first to be a minor player.
This is not entirely fair. Spanish factories produce an enormous number of cars each year, and although the only local brand most people can think of is SEAT there have been many others dating back almost to the very earliest days of the motor industry. And there’s more to it than that. As we’ll see, several manufacturers based in other countries also build their cars in Spanish factories.
Some of the most fabulously luxurious cars from the first half of the 20th century were built by Hispano-Suiza. The name means ‘Spanish-Swiss’, and refers to company founder Emilio de la Cuadra’s decision to employ the brilliant Swiss engineer Marc Birkigt.
Between the two World Wars, Skoda (then much more of a premium manufacturer than it later became) built Hispano-Suizas under licence in what was then Czechoslovakia.
The company moved away from car building in the 1940s. Its automotive arm has become a member of the Italian Iveco group, while it French subsidiary is now part of the aerospace company Safran.
The post-war buyout of Hispano-Suiza led to the formation of Pegaso, which mostly built buses, tractors, trucks and military vehicles.
In the 1950s, it also manufactureda small number of sports cars. Unusually, almost every part of them, including the powerful V8 engines, was made in Spain rather than being imported. For their time, they were very advanced and very fast.
Only a few were built between 1951 and 1958. After that, Pegaso concentrated on its more practical (and profitable) vehicles before selling out to Iveco in 1990.
The arrival of SEAT
SEAT (Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo, or Spanish Touring Car Company) is and has always been Spain’s only mass-market car manufacturer.
It was founded in 1950, and launched its first car, a rebranded Fiat 1400 built in Barcelona, three years later.
The SEAT 1400 played its part in resurrecting the Spanish economy, as it was supposed to, but in a country still trying to recover from the Civil War of the late 1930s it was regarded as a luxury item. Ordinary Spaniards would have to wait a little longer for SEAT to build something they could afford.
The belly button
SEAT’s second model was the 600, based on the little Fiat of the same name and produced from 1957 to 1973.
Priced so that most Spaniards could afford it, it was built in very large numbers and became one of the key elements of an economic boom known as the Spanish miracle.
The 600 became such a common sight on Spanish roads that it was nicknamed el ombligo – the belly button – because everybody had one.
SEAT comes to the UK
The first-generation Ibiza was the second SEAT after the Ronda to be named after a place in Spain, a convention the company still uses to this day.
The car was based on a Fiat platform and was available with Fiat engines, though other engines were developed by SEAT in collaboration with Porsche.
Production started in 1984, and late the following year the Ibiza became the first SEAT to be exported to the UK. SEAT’s British press office owns an example which, though manufactured in 1987, is identical to the ’85 car.
After its early association with Fiat, SEAT became part of the Volkswagen Group in the 1980s. It is based in Martorell, north-west of Barcelona, where it has a large factory, constructed 25 years ago, producing the Ibiza, Leon and Arona models. Despite the Spanish identity, other models are built elsewhere: the Mii city car in Slovakia, the Alhambra MPV in Portugal and the Ateca SUV in the Czech Repbulic.
Barcelona-based Tramontana builds supercars which are about as far removed from the SEAT 600 as could be imagined, and are beyond even the wildest dreams of Hispano-Suiza.
The current model is a tandem two-seater which can be ordered with a 600bhp 5.2-litre V10 engine. If that sounds a bit feeble, you can have a twin-turbo 5.5-litre V12 producing nearly 900bhp instead. Each car is customised to the desire of its buyer, so there is almost no chance that any two will ever be identical.
GTA Motor is the road car manufacturing sister company of the race team GTA Motor Competición. Both are based in Valencia, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. The only car produced to date by GTA Motor is the Spano. This is a two-seater with a twin-turbocharged 8.4-litre Dodge V10 engine mounted ahead of the rear wheels.
Engineer Ignacio Fernandez founded IFR Automotive, based in Reus a few miles down the coast from Barcelona, in 2003.
IFR has produced two models of Aspid, the SS and the later GT-21 Invictus. Both are small, light and powerful, with advanced technology and an emphasis on luxury as well as performance.
Made in Spain: Audi
Decisions made within the multinational Volkswagen Group can lead to cars being built in unexpected places. SEAT’s factory at Martorell has until recently been used to manufacture the Audi Q3, but production of this car is being moved to Hungary. This is because Martorell needs the capacity to take on the A1 supermini. Until now, the A1 has been built in Brussels, but the factory there is being devoted to e-tron electric and hybrid models.
Made in Spain: Citroen
Although it is obviously a French brand, Citroen has a very large presence in Spain. In 1958 it established a factory in the north-western port of Vigo, building nothing but 2CVs for over a decade.
Today, Vigo is the home of the new Citroen Berlingo Multispace MPV, which is due to go on sale in the UK this year. In Spain’s capital, Madrid, Citroen has another factory whose most significant product is the second-generation C4 Cactus.
To the north-east lies Zaragoza, where Opel began building cars in the early 1980s. Opel and its UK equivalent brand Vauxhall are both part of GM Europe, which was recently taken over by Citroen’s parent company Groupe PSA. This partly explains why Zaragoza is the home of the C3 Aircross SUV, successor to the C3 Cactus MPV.
Made in Spain: Ford
Ford has a Spanish factory generally known as the Valencia plant, though it is actually located slightly south of the city in Almussafes (in much the same way that Nissan’s Sunderland factory is really in Washington).
It was created specifically to assemble the original Ford Fiesta, launched in 1976.
Fiestas are now built elsewhere, but Valencia still produces the Mondeo, Kuga, Galaxy and S-MAX, as well as some vans.
Made in Spain: Mercedes
Auto Union established a factory in Vitoria-Gasteiz, the effective capital of the Basque Autonomous Community, in 1954 and sold it to Daimler a few years later.
It is the oldest van plant in Europe and the second largest currently being operated by Daimler. It’s also the home of the Mercedes V-Class, a large MPV based on the Vito van.
Another Mercedes, the recently-launched X-Class pickup, is a close relative of the Nissan Navara, and built alongside it at another factory in Barcelona.
Made in Spain: Nissan
Nissan’s factory in Barcelona produces the Pulsar hatchback, the Navara pickup and the NV200, sold mostly as a van but sometimes as an MPV.
Another factory at Ávila in central Spain is devoted entirely to producing commercial vehicles.
Made in Spain: Peugeot
Peugeot inherited the Vigo factory when it bought Citroen in the 1970s.
Historically, more Citroens than Peugeots have been built there, but Vigo is currently the home of the Peugeot Partner (in van and MPV forms) and the 301, a car not sold in the UK or other western European markets.
Made in Spain: Renault
Renault already had a presence in Spain well before the first World War, but this was not a great success. It wasn’t until the 1950s that things really got moving.
Production at a new factory in Valladolid began in 1953. The same plant is still producing the Captur SUV and the all-electric Twizy.
In 1978 Renault opened another factory at Palencia (not to be confused with Valencia, which is 370 miles away) to build the 12 and the 18. It now produces the Kadjar SUV, along with estate and hot hatch versions of the Megane.
Yet another Spanish-built Renault is the Alaskan pickup. Not sold in the UK, this is Renault’s equivalent of the Nissan Navara and Mercedes X-Class, and is produced alongside them at Nissan’s Barcelona factory.
Made in Spain: Vauxhall
General Motors Europe created a factory at Zaragoza in 1982 and has been producing cars there ever since.
The Vauxhall models currently built there are the Mokka X and Crossland X SUVs and the three-door Corsa hatchback. The five-door Corsa is built at Eisenach in Germany.
Made in Spain: Volkswagen
As we have already seen, a great many products of the Volkswagen Group are built in Spain.
The only one so far with a VW badge on it is the Polo, which is manufactured in the extreme north of the country at Pamplona, better known for its annual bull run.
The Navarra plant at Pamplona is the only European factory building Polos, and one of only two worldwide (the other is at Uitenhage, near the southern tip of South Africa).
In turn, building Polos has, until now, been the only model built at the Navarra plant. However, Volkswagen has announced that the new T-Cross, a compact SUV closely related to the Polo, will also be produced there.