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Walbro Automotive Corp. will continue its rapid expansion in Europe with a new, $15 million automotive fuel tank blow molding plant in Wales.

The Auburn Hills, Mich., company acquired six blow molding plants across Europe in July 1995 when it bought the fuel tank business of Norway's Dyno Industrier AS. Walbro expects to begin operations at the 97,000-square-foot plant in Deeside, Wales, by January 1998.

Meanwhile, Walbro just began operating a newly constructed 550,000-tank-per-year blow molding plant at Lockeren, Belgium, that replaced a plant in nearby Gent. The new unit has three blow molding machines.

The $19 million, 110,000-square-foot Lockeren plant will be dedicated Jan. 31.

The new United Kingdom plant eventually will be equipped with eight blow molding machines including a $5 million Krupp Kautex coextrusion machine, and another $1.2 million Kautex with a platen capable of moving three-dimensionally. That unit will make odd-shaped filler pipes for Toyota Motor Corp.

The Deeside plant will have an initial capacity of 250,000 tanks per year. That figure will be doubled by the year 2000, according to Bob Henderson, financial controller at subsidiary Walbro Automotive Ltd.

Walbro is expanding to meet a rush of new projects it is taking on for existing and new customers. It is benefitting from rapid growth in Britain's auto industry and the switch by more vehicle builders from metal to plastic fuel tanks, Henderson said.

``We will increase our turnover by 300-400 percent from around $8 million to $32 million by the year 2001,'' he said.

Other plants acquired from Dyno are at Kongsvinger, Norway; Pamplona, Spain; and Paris.

When Walbro acquired Dyno's tank-building business in Britain, it took over only one plant in Sandycroft, Wales. Dyno still operates a packaging blow molding plant nearby.

Walbro's Sandycroft plant, less than 4 miles from the new plant site, makes vehicle fuel system parts including fuel tanks, filler pipes, header tanks, demister nozzles and air ducts. Around 90,000 tanks now are produced there annually.

About 70 percent of Walbro's sales in the United Kingdom are to Land Rover, which it has supplied for 10 years.

Henderson said Walbro Automotive Ltd. is working on 26 new projects for new models. Business already won includes work for Toyota; developing the fuel filler pipe and tank for a replacement for the Frontera made by a joint venture of General Motors and Isuzu; work for Ford's Transit van and its Jaguar X200, and projects on two new models for Land Rover.

Henderson expects production at the Deeside plant to grow to 170,000 tanks in 1998, 256,000 in 1999 and 376,000 tanks in 2000. The company expects to raise its work force of 82 in Deeside to 150 by 2000.

Walbro has six blow molding machines at Sandycroft. They include two large machines, one each from Kautex and Bekum, each able to produce 150,000 tanks a year.

The plant also has four machines used to make pipes and ducts — two Bekums and two Kautex.

Walbro will take all those machines to Deeside, plus the two new Kautex models.

Walbro will continue producing monolayer tanks based on a blend of high density polyethylene and ethylene vinyl alcohol. But the new plant also will be capable of making six-layer tanks for Ford and Land Rover, using the Kautex coextrusion equipment.

Referring to the choice of Deeside for its new plant site, Henderson said: ``If we had a choice, the ideal site would have been between Derby and Birmingham. The reason we have not moved is that over the last four years we have built up a skilled and competent labor force, so we would lose expertise.''

He added that Walbro is looking to ``the whole of the U.K. automotive industry'' as its potential market.