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Drive on any of Bursa’s tree-lined streets and the creaky vestiges of Turkey’s car-making past splutter past: 1980s Murat saloons, Kartal station-wagons and the odd classic Renault 12 carry families along the city’s highways and up steep, winding hillside roads.

Bursa was built around the base of Mount Uludag on the southeast shores of the Sea of Marmara. Once the capital of the Ottoman empire and the end of the silk route, it was renowned for its thermal waters. As well as markets and hammams, the city is an industrial heartland and home to one of Turkey’s first large-scale car-making projects: the Turk Otomobil Fabrikasi (Tofas), established here in 1968 and partnered with Turin-based Fiat.

“Imagine this site as an empty green field: no industry, no suppliers at all,” says Tofas’s ceo Kamil Basaran as he sits in his office sipping thick Turkish coffee next to the vast factory complex of more than 6,000 workers. “Our founder is the unforgettable Vehbi Koc. We were the last step coming from China on the silk road and he said, ‘Let’s make this the first step of the automotive industry in this country.’”

Welcome to Turkey’s car city – Anatolia’s Detroit. The first ever Turkish-produced car, the Devrim, was made in a railway factory in the nearby city of Eskisehir but it was Bursa that evolved into the country’s automotive nexus. Today its industrial hinterland is an ecosystem of small suppliers, mid-sized family companies and behemoth car plants. The city of nearly three million is Turkey’s second-largest exporter. Alongside Bursa’s other industries – textiles and some remarkably fizzy mineral water – the likes of Bosch and Valeo have been producing automotive parts in the area for decades.

The French automotive titan Renault arrived in the city in the late 1960s to partner with Oyak, the Turkish Armed Forces Pension Fund. Today its facility is the size of a small town, complete with a bank, fire and police stations. In the body workshop sparks fly as dozens of Renault employees – and hundreds of robots – are hard at it welding Méganes and Clios for global export and domestic markets. “We are especially known for our quality,” says Gurkan Atalay, a mechanical engineer who says part of the draw of the job was that the Renault 12 was the car of his childhood in Ankara. “The motivation here is high. Workers have a regard for their work.”

Though Bursa has industrial might, the city’s output has been very much defined by foreign car-making giants. To see a Turkish-branded motorcar requires a trip to the Tofas museum, housed in an ancient silk factory in Bursa’s leafy Yildirim district. Here, groups of school children move along a boardwalk past ancient wooden Anatolian carriages and on to old Tofas sedans bearing the company’s logo. A shining 1971 Murat 124 is on display, a model named after Murad-I Hudavendigar, an Ottoman Sultan thought to be born in the city in 1326 and killed on the battlefields of Kosovo by an assassin. Yet further along the (rather spurious) trajectory, the company’s Tofas insignia falls away to be replaced by the familiar icon of its partner company, Fiat.

“This decision was taken [in the late 1990s] with the Tempra model,” says Basaran. “We began to discuss whether we should put ‘Made in Turkey’, or even nothing, on the vehicle. There was confusion over whether it would enhance future engagements in Europe.”

Basaran sings the praises of his company’s collaborations with Fiat but stresses Tofas’s recent independent triumphs, including the in-house development and production of the Doblò Fiat model. For this, Tofas flew hundreds of workers to Turin to copy the working practices of the Italian partner. “Today we’re exporting to 80 countries from Bursa,” he says. “We are putting r&d very strongly ahead of us – we are beginning from the clay. Step by step we have everything in house.”

Even so, there is a national debate in Turkey about who will make the first fully Turkish car – a national innovation designed and produced on home turf using Turkish branding. “The prime minister has asked for a brave man to come forward to launch the project,” says professor Ali Surmen, rector at Bursa Technical University, a new institution established just over three years ago by central government to boost engineering and technical know-how in the city. “As an engine man, I say ‘Yes’. We need some heroes to make investments in these fields. [But] we need a small, new concept powered by electricity. We should redefine the concept of the car. Otherwise it’s too late.”

Many think Turkey’s “brave man” may come in the guise of Koc Holding, the country’s most powerful conglomerate (and the owner of Tofas), though Basaran tells monocle the current market “isn’t promising”. “We have great potential,” adds Surmen, who stresses Turkey’s car-making competitors: the likes of Iran, India, China and Thailand. “If you look at the history of South Korea or Japan you’ll see the government acted like a father – they organised, they guided and they encouraged. The government must guarantee something.”

Bursa’s innovation tsars have other plans. Not far away in the dimly lit confines of a new touring exhibit called “Sultans of Science”, we meet the mayor of Bursa, Recep Altepe. A man of Balkan descent, he is set on creating a Turkish-owned, Turkish-branded industrial network. Altepe is not interested in talking about the presence of Fiat and Renault. “Of course we know the foreign-owned companies are here,” he says. “Our aim is to make a Bursa brand.”

The mayor’s vision isn’t one of wheels but rails. During his last term the AKP representative set about creating a Turkish-built tram in the city using the existing industrial infrastructure. The project was called the Silkworm and the svelte red carriages can be seen carrying passengers around Bursa. “When I said during my first term that trams were going to be built in Bursa many people didn’t believe me,” adds the former mechanical engineer. “Now they are on our streets.”

For this, the mayor turned to Bursa’s Mittelstand. During the economic downturn, Altepe persuaded the medium-sized, family-run machinery company Durmazlar to turn its hand to tram making.

“We have 70 in-house engineers,” says Abdullah Bocan, Durmazlar’s business development and strategy manager as he shows us around the tram factory. He insists the company can compete on cost and quality: “Our prices are somewhere between China and Korea. Our last tender [38 new trams for the Aegean city of Izmir] went out at €1.6m; the going rate in the EU is €2.5m.”

The mayor’s ambitions for Bursa’s manufacturing future don’t stop here. “When we finish making trams we’re going to make aeroplanes,” he says as he readies to leave “Sultans of Science” with a large, suited entourage. “There are some institutions in Ankara doing this but I believe that we will build them faster. We have the technology, we have the capability and we have the will to make this happen.”

Touring Turkey

Bursa isn’t the only motor hub pushing Turkey up the increasingly heated global car-making rankings (the country is currently the 16th largest motor vehicle manufacturer in the world). Served by the strategic Derince port, the city of Izmit is home to Toyota, Ford and Honda.

Hyundai’s Izmit facility recently received a €508m facelift, a revamp and expansion that will allow for the production of Hyundai’s new i10 and i20 models and create 2,800 more jobs. In June this year, the factory will have produced a total of one million vehicles, mainly for European markets. Hyundai’s investment is good news for central government. Ankara plans to propel the country’s economy through growth in the sector.

“The automotive industry in Turkey started as assembly-based operations [but] after five decades the industry has not only become a production base but also an engineering hub,” says Ilker Ayci, president of the Investment Support and Promotion Agency of Turkey.

He adds, “52 out of 155 R&D centres in Turkey have been set up by companies in the automotive industry. Turkey increased its vehicle production from 374,000 [cars] in 2002 to over 1,125,534 units in 2013.”

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