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AutoPort makes Wilmington a vehicle shipping hub

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At the Port of Wilmington, Camaros, Equinoxes, and other brand-new vehicles roll off rail cars for their first stop on a journey that will take many of them to the Middle East.

Nearby, in vehicle-processing garages, new vans are being outfitted with shelving for future lives as work vans for tradespeople. More substantial work is done to other trucks, which are being converted to run on compressed natural gas for utility companies.

This company is called AutoPort and since 1981 has been one of the lesser-known players in the Port of Wilmington. Though the port is best known as the country’s biggest entry point for imported fresh fruit, it’s also a major outbound port for vehicle shipping. It occupies about 110 acres in the port and has about 120 employees.

AutoPort serves as a transportation hub for General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, said Dick Johnson, its vice president of business development.

About 60,000 cars pass through its processing centers each year. Including the vehicles it distributes domestically, the company touches about 150,000 vehicles a year.

Following a car along each of two journeys – international and domestic – is one way to understand how AutoPort’s business works.

From rail to ship

AutoPort is here because of its access to a port and rail tracks, of which it owns six spurs capable of holding 36 rail cars at once. The new vehicles that arrive here by train were mostly built in Midwest factories in Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere.

Wrapped Autoport vehicles prior to being loaded onto the cargo ship. | Photo by Ron Dubick

At their first stop, called the “first point of rest,” these ship-bound vehicles get a barcode tag and a hanging placard denoting their final destination. Many of these vehicles are SUVs bound for the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah.

After they get a tag, they’ll get a car wash and a safety kit – fire extinguishers, flares and first aid supplies are mandatory in new vehicles sold in the Middle East. To prepare the vehicles for their long sea voyage, their tires will be pumped up and much of their exposed exterior on the roof, trunk, and hood will get wrapped with plastic.

At this point, most port-bound vehicles start their wait for an outgoing ship, some of which can carry up to 5,000 vehicles.

In the past, more of AutoPort’s Middle East-bound vehicles received modifications, like customized paint jobs. But a depressed economic outlook in the Middle East – combined with dealers’ increased capabilities to make these upfits on their own – has limited AutoPort’s business in making major changes to vehicles that leave by ship.

AutoPort still does plenty of customization for the domestic market. In those case, the company fundamentally changes vehicles for its utility, law enforcement, and other customers.

From chassis to utility truck

Like an assembly line, many of AutoPort’s garages are specialized for a certain type of conversion. In one bay, men add partitions behind the cab and drill metal shelving into interiors of utility vans. They will end up as work vans for plumbers, electricians and other tradespeople. 

Elsewhere, a heavy-duty, three-quarter ton chassis is undergoing a major modification. Because it will be a utility truck for one of the region’s natural gas companies, it’s being converted to run on compressed natural gas. A van body is being added with large racks to accommodate natural gas readers, which will be switched out along this truck’s route.

Plenty of other clients have their own requests; a truck bound for a nearby law enforcement agency is getting roof-mounted light bar and corner strobe lights. Still other vehicles that come to AutoPort for domestic markets don’t get any modifications.

All of these domestic vehicles leave AutoPort by land, not sea, on car carrier trailers.

Most of AutoPort’s site is given over to parking lots to store vehicles and garages to modify them. But its rail
and port infrastructure are critical to its operations.

Port improvements could help company

Dick Johnson of AutoPort, located at the Port of Wilmington. | Photo by Ron Dubick

Though the Port of Wilmington is far from the largest port on the Eastern Seaboard, its smaller size gives it advantages, too, says Dick Johnson, director of business development at AutoPort.

Vehicles can often move to ships more quickly here instead of being delayed by other traffic.

Still, AutoPort must time its shipments by rail to ensure that each new ship can be filled as quickly as possible.

The company has benefitted from a handful of public infrastructure projects in recent decades.

In the late ’90s under then-Gov. Tom Carper, the state pitched in $27 million to build an auto-berth to transfer vehicles into waiting ships. More recently, the state built a dedicated road to the port so the company’s cars wouldn’t mix with local traffic.

Future upgrades to the port, including the paving of gravel lots, could help AutoPort expand its business further, Johnson said. A customer to pay AutoPort for vehicle imports – for now, AutoPort only ships vehicles out of the port – could be a solid addition to their business.

As a contractor for the big car companies, AutoPort does not itself conduct international trade. But even without being an exporter itself, AutoPort buys a lot of steel, exposing it to new import tariffs.

Fortunately for the company, it buys most of its shelving, van interiors, and other parts from U.S. factories. Some of its competitors use Chinese steel, which has become more expensive due to import taxes called tariffs.

Domestic conversions are likely to be a growing part of the company’s business, Johnson says, as are continued export opportunities from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. 

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