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BMW KEEPS ELATION UNDER THE HOOD AS 1ST CAR ROLLS OFF S.C. ASSEMBLY LINE

If the announcement that BMW had picked South Carolina to build its first U.S. plant was a shout from the rooftops, then word that it actually had begun building cars was a whisper in the basement.

With no public notice, the German automaker rolled its first four-door sedan - a white 318i - off its brand-new assembly line Sept. 8 but did not announce it until four days later.The first 30 or so of the cars are to be sent to BMW dealers for more testing. Spokesman Bobby Hitt describes it as a reality check to make sure quality testing in the plant corresponds with the impressions of experienced BMW drivers.

Hitt said keeping first-car ceremonies private is an auto industry tradition. A public ceremony is planned for November.

The brief statement BMW sent out contrasted with the fanfare that accompanied BMW's announcement in June 1992 that it had chosen South Carolina for its first U.S. auto plant. Gov. Carroll Campbell and BMW chairman Eber-hard Von Kuenheim held a joint news conference for that announcement.

Building the plant took $400 million and two years. The company employs about 500 workers but expects that to increase to 1,200 by the end of the decade, with the plant producing about 400 cars daily.

Before that can happen, however, company officials want to make sure their new American work force can assemble the simplest version of BMW's least-complicated model. Hitt said the first car is white not only because it's one of the colors in the company's blue-black-and-white logo, but because white is an easy color for the paint shop to handle.

The production schedule calls for a slow, steady increase in daily output to about 20 cars daily by year's end.

"We're building cars fairly slowly," Hitt said, "When we're ready from a quality standpoint we'll go to three cars a day, then four."

A slow start is common for a new plant, said Bill Betts, a spokesman for General Motors' Saturn division, which went through its growing pains four years ago.

Betts and Hitt said testing new production processes unique to their plants was part of the reason for the cautious beginnings.

For BMW, getting all of each car's 60,000 parts to the plant on time may be troubling in the beginning. Hitt said all but two of the plant's suppliers still are in Europe. The two now operating in the United States are Lear Seating and Spartanburg Steel Products. More suppliers are expected to open nearby facilities within the next year.

And with only a trickle of U.S.-made cars coming from the Greer plant, company officials don't want to begin shipping cars to any of their 350 dealers until each dealer can get several of them, Hitt said.

One of the plant's first employees, assembly-line worker Ryan Childers of Gaffney, drove the first car out of the plant and through a paper barrier marking the event. He was chosen by his fellow workers, Hitt said.