Outside of Charleston, South Carolina, there is an unmarked warehouse where wooden crates, cardboard boxes, and masses of material wait on shelves waiting for assembly. When the time is right, the scattered components are removed from the shelves to staging areas where an assembly line commences.
Components are removed from protective wrapping where an industrial marriage is consummated. Engines and transmissions are wedded to chassis, frames, and axles as they are suspended on wires and cranes and move on down the assembly line. Within 90 minutes, there ceremony is complete and leaves the facility as a brand new re-assembled Mercedes-Benz van to be delivered at a dealership for an expectant customer.
The marriage of the disparate parts in Charleston, which comes instead of importing completed vehicles, comes because of the so-called “chicken tax” that was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1963 after the death of John F. Kennedy. The chicken tax is a 25% tariff on potato starch, dextrin, brandy, and light trucks imposed by the United States in response to tariffs placed by France and West Germany on imported American chickens. The tit-for-tat came during the height of the Cold War when the Soviet Union erected the infamous Berlin Wall. It became known as the “Chicken War” while the US and Europe grappled over trade issues long before the birth of the eventual European Union.
Even though the tariffs on potato starch, dextrin, and brandy were lifted, the impost on light trucks has remained, ostensibly to protect domestic manufacturers from foreign competition. In 2003, a Cato Institute study called the chicken tax "a policy in search of a rationale." Debate over its repeal has languished for more than 50 years.
The chickens may have come to roost, but they have not deterred the German manufacturer from increasing its market share in the United States. Rather than continuing to dodge the Tax Man, Mercedes-Benz will invest more than $500 million in a new plant over the next 10 years, where the new Metris and Sprinter vans will be built on site for the North American market.
Sprinter and Metris vans are customizable through Mercedes-Benz MasterSolutions partners in the US who can add components and configurations to suit various applications to suit customers and in direct competition with American manufacturers. Customers can order custom packages on the showroom floor. Mercedes’s partners: Knapheide, Auto Truck Group, and SmartLiner, offer custom solutions. Sprinter and Metris vans are being customized as fully-functional ambulances, contractor vans, and even luxury passenger vans at even the private jet-level. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina said recently at the factory groundbreaking, “These are the Mac Daddy of vans.”