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DETROIT - Mann+Hummel Automotive, a German firm known for developing the first plastic housings for air and oil filters, is to begin work with North American automakers during 1997.

The 56-year supplier recently opened its North American headquarters in Southfield, Mich., where it will conduct sales, administration and engineering design work. The company, which primarily has supplied under-the-hood components to automakers in Europe and South America, would like to acquire another company 1997 to begin manufacturing in the United States.

"We need to work with an established company to gain a manufacturing presence here," said James Riordan, the company's regional president for the North American Free Trade Agreement areas. "We already have the experience and the products for rapid growth in this country."

The company is partly banking on the growth of its welded thermoplastic air-intake manifolds, which are used extensively in Europe as replacements for traditional lost-core technology. The vibration molded manifolds are expected to be used in North American vehicles by 1999, Riordan said. In Europe, the firm produces 1.5 million welded intake manifolds per year, he added.

The company also produces air-cleaner housings mande from polypropylene or nylon and other air-induction components.

The firm operated a 60,000-square-foot plant in Mexico City, which makes ait-cleaner housings and filter elements. The plant uses six injection presses with clamping forces as great as 650 tons. The facility supplies under-the-hood parts for Volkswagen AG in Mexico and Mercedes-Benz AG's Alabama plant.

Mann+Hummel Automotive is a division of Mann+Hummel GmbH, based in Ludwigsburg, Germany. The company recorded $800 million in sales during 1996, with 80 percent of that coming from the automotive market. It serves both original equipment makers and the automotive aftermarket.