Investigative Newsource is tracking the shipment of a car from start to finish — from the manufacturing plant in Germany to the customer’s door near Las Vegas. The latest updates are at the top of the story, so scroll to the bottom to follow the car from the beginning.
Originally published June 25, 2012 at 8:14 p.m., updated June 28, 2012 at 9:07 a.m.
Gutierrez pulls in to the Findlay Volkswagen dealership a little before 9 p.m., where Robert Malthouse and Tom Hlady, the sales manager, are waiting patiently. Malthouse snaps photos from his phone while Gutierrez maneuvers the Golf R off the truck.
“I’ve been driving everybody here nuts waiting for this,” he tells me.
A VW worker works quickly to remove the wrapping. Malthouse hops in, and searches for the keys.
“Check the door,” Hlady yells to him.
“Oh,” Malthouse says.
Gutierrez offloads the rest of the cars while Malthouse works on his in the dealership’s garage, filling the wiper fluid basin, tightening the lug nuts, and attaching the license plate.
When he finishes, he changes quickly out of his work clothes — and hops in.
A left turn, another left, and a few miles later, he pulls into his garage, where boxes of accessories ordered in the months leading up to the car’s arrival line the right hand side. Malthouse’s girlfriend Melissa meets him as he steps out of the car. She breathes a sigh of relief, glad the wait is finally over. It seems he’s been driving her a bit nuts.
And with that, the car comes to rest. Malthouse puts his arm around Melissa and stares at a car that had just traveled over railroads, onboard a ship, across an ocean, through a canal, onto a truck and over hundreds of miles of desert to his garage.
With an ever-present smile, he thinks out loud: “I should probably put some gas in this.”
Malthouse's car is just one of the hundreds of commodities brought in to the Port of San Diego every year, which, in turn, is just one of hundreds of ports around the country.
The story we'll be bringing you next month is going to show you how this works on a grand scale, and it will involve ships the size of skyscrapers, federal agencies, longshoremen, truckers, railroads, and ports that are pouring billions upon billions of dollars into their infrastructure to prepare for the expansion of the Panama Canal — the biggest thing to happen to international shipping in almost a decade.
"Remember what this lot looked like yesterday?" asks Victor Arabe, the head of vehicle logistics for Volkswagen at the port of San Diego. Thousands of cars waiting to be shipped out to their final destinations are parked in the National City marine terminal lot. They were all unloaded from the Jinsei Maru just yesterday.
A half hour later, Heberto Gutierrez arrives. He lives in Chula Vista and has been a professional driver for more than a decade. He’s got a list of the cars he’s loading onto his truck, and he works at a frantic pace. Hurrying through the lot, he plucks one car after another. He hops in, drives a few hundred feet, and then loads each onto the bed of his Waggoner's truck.
Gutierrez takes extra special care with the Golf R. He wipes the wheel rims with his gloved finger, inspects it from every angle, drives it slowly from its parking spot around the lot.
He works the hydraulic lifts with the care of a surgeon. He checks and double-checks the safety pins carefully placed throughout the bed's frame. He checks the cargo's height using an expandable measuring stick, swinging it above the upper deck of cars.
"Just made it," he says with a smile.
We hit the road around 10:30 a.m., heading north on the 15. A call from my editor warns of a chemical spill near the California/Nevada state line.
"I'm sure it will be cleared up by the time we get there," I tell her.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Thousands of cars came to a halt nearly ten miles from the Nevada state line on I-15 north on Friday, in what the Los Angeles Times referred to as a "carmageddon." Travelers parked and stretched their legs, talking to each other in a mood infinitely more jovial than I'd ever have expected as a native East-Coaster.
My phone rings.
"This is crazy," Gutierrez says. He's bit farther ahead. I had stopped earlier on the side of the road to film his truck passing by.
We debate what to do and decide to simply trudge forward. An hour later, we'd covered one mile.
A lady in gym shorts jogs past my car, seemingly oblivious to the heat. A half hour later, two children follow, the boy's flip-flops spanking the baking blacktop. Apparently, the need to exercise in the desert struck some people at that moment.
We crest the top of a mountain, and around 4,000 feet, begin a slow descent toward the Nevada desert. Gutierrez worries about the tires. The constant braking could lead to overheating, and in the 100-plus degree heat, his tires could catch fire. He begins praying. Hard.
Around 5:30 a.m., the cargo vessel Jinsei Maru crawls past the southern tip of Point Loma and into the San Diego Bay carrying thousands of cars from Europe. At 652 feet long – nearly two football fields — the Maru dwarfs the tugboat maneuvering it into position. As big as it seems, Maru is considered a baby in the shipping world, where vessels can reach twice that size. Crewmen blend into the vessels’ facade, distinguishable only by their bright orange safety vests, and throw mooring lines to men below.
A near miss, a catch, and a tie-up.
Longshoremen from the Local 29 wait patiently in the parking lot next to the terminal, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and listening only half-heartedly to the morning safety briefing. Three Customs and Border Patrol agents sweep the ship before anyone is allowed on or off. A ramp reminiscent of a medieval drawbridge lowers slowly from the bow. The longshoremen make their way onboard. And in the next few hours, thousands of Audis, Volkswagens, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, and Porsches are driven off the decks of the NYK-owned Maru and on to the National City terminal parking lot.
The cars are destined for both northern and southern California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. And one car in particular is destined for Robert Malthouse, an eager Volkswagen technician in Henderson, Nevada.
Hidden in a white protective wrapping, each car looks the same — distinguishable only by the shape of the body and the location of the exhaust. The full-body wrap protects the new cars from "rail dust" — tiny flakes of iron deposits that can settle into a car's paint, a result of the friction between a railroad track and the wheels of the train transporting these cars from a factory to a port in a country half a world away.
Because factories like the one in Emden aren’t able to outfit each car to the unique specifications demanded by customers and dealerships, port accessorizing comes into play. In a building a few hundred yards from the ship, owner's manuals are placed in glove boxes, spoilers are installed atop trunks, and portable solar panels are used to charge car batteries.
The Volkswagen Golf R, the car for Malthouse, needs Mojo mats, a trunk liner, and a first aid kit.
By 1:30 p.m. the next day, it's ready — parked in space F59 -- for the next leg of its journey.
After reaching out to more than 100 brokers, dealerships, importers, trade centers and unions over the last four months, Investigative Newsource finally received clearance to do something we’ve been told is unprecedented: track a shipment of a car from start to finish — from the manufacturing plant in Germany to the customer’s door near Las Vegas.
You may not think of this as a huge accomplishment, but in the hyper-competitive world of international shipping, the logistics of private companies are a closely guarded secret. How long a shipment takes, what carriers are used, which route is taken — every piece of information is proprietary and not readily released to the public.
This particular shipment — a Volkswagen Golf R — is a special order placed by Robert Malthouse, a VW technician in Henderson, Nev., about ten miles southeast of the Las Vegas strip. Malthouse has been waiting since January for the “rising blue” colored Golf, released only every four years and no longer available after this month. It was unloaded on June 20, 2012 into the Port of San Diego, after completing a route from Emden, Germany, through the Panama Canal, and up the coast of Central America.
In the following days, we’ll use this car to show you — through photos, videos, and text — how Volkswagens, Audis, Porsches and others make their way into this country and land at dealerships, like the one in Henderson. The trip will be the foundation for a deeper story on the ripple effects of international shipping and how one commodity (a car) can affect millions of jobs and billions of dollars throughout the US — including the effect on shipping companies, longshore workers, trucking corporations, the railroad industry, and many more.
We promise you an enlightening journey. Stay with us.