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Tim Culpan

The Detroit of Asia Now Wants a Shot at EVs

Auto manufacturing accounts for over 10% of Thailand’s economy, which means the country has little choice but to pivot for the future.

A mini electric vehicle drives along a road in Bangkok.

A mini electric vehicle drives along a road in Bangkok.

Photographer: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

In 1961, a boxy sedan called the Ford Cortina kicked off Thailand’s auto industry with local workers assembling the cars using parts shipped from Britain. A few years later, Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. set up factories, launching a decades-long expansion that made the country Asia’s third-largest — and the world’s No. 10 — auto manufacturer. 

That position earned Thailand the moniker “the Detroit of Asia,” and with it came a comprehensive supply chain to feed the production of traditional internal combustion engines. Over the space of 50 years, Thailand went from knock-down assembly — where an entire vehicle is put together from an imported kit — to hosting end-to-end manufacturing at 18 plants across the country with thousands of parts suppliers.