Twenty years ago this month, the first customer-ready M-Class SUVs began rolling off the Mercedes-Benz auto assembly line in Tuscaloosa County, launching new eras for both the automaker and the state of Alabama.

For Mercedes, the M-Class was the first mass-market SUV, and its success helped spin off a full range of similar models for the premium German automaker while also influencing the offerings from competitors.

For Alabama, the start of M-Class production was also the start of the modern auto industry. Minivans, sedans, pickups and more SUVs have followed, as Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and hundreds of suppliers set up shop in the state.

“In the 20 years since Mercedes began producing vehicles in Alabama, our partnership with the company has grown stronger today than ever before,” Gov. Robert Bentley said.

The first dealer-ready M-Class — Job 1 — is readied for the assembly line at Mercedes’ new Alabama plant in 1997. (Mercedes)

“The confidence that Mercedes has shown in our workforce and in the positive business climate we have created in the state has allowed the auto industry to continue to grow in the city of Vance and beyond, making Alabama one of the top auto-producing states in the country.”

Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said the impact of Mercedes on Alabama’s auto industry cannot be overstated.

“It was this company’s vision, to build an entirely new kind of vehicle in its first U.S. manufacturing plant, that led to the growing, innovative automotive operations we have throughout the state today,” Canfield said.

“Last year, for the second year in a row, workers at our three auto assembly plants combined to produce more than 1 million vehicles, and that all started on Feb. 14, 1997, with the first Mercedes-Benz M-Class made in Alabama.”

2.5 million-plus vehicles

After multiple expansions, the Mercedes plant, known as Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc., has seen investment valued at more than $4.5 billion. There are 3,500 team members who continue to produce the M-Class, which was renamed the GLE two years ago; they also build the GLS full-size SUV, C-Class sedan and GLE Coupé.

The Mercedes M-Class was the first vehicle produced in Alabama, beginning 20 years ago. (Mercedes)

MBUSI is responsible for more than 24,500 direct and indirect jobs in the region, with an estimated $1.5 billion annual economic impact on the state. It is consistently Alabama’s largest exporter, and in 2015 alone, shipped more than $5 billion in products to 135 markets around the globe.

Roughly two-thirds of the components in MBUSI-built vehicles come from North American suppliers, 30 of which are now in Alabama. Since that first M-Class rolled off the line, more than 2.5 million vehicles have followed it.

And more growth is on the horizon. MBUSI is in the middle of a $1.3 billion, 300-job expansion that is setting the stage for the production of its next-generation vehicles.

The plant has changed the trajectory of the surrounding economy, said Dara Longgrear, executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority.

“Our local economy now has a decidedly international focus, and the experience has taught us to embrace international trade, not fear it,” he said. “Tuscaloosa County and our region of Alabama enjoy a prominent place in the world’s luxury automotive sector as a primary contributor to our state’s No. 1 export by dollar volume, automobiles.”

Longgrear added that the local supplier network that has grown over the past 20 years includes companies from the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, Japan, China, India and Mexico.

Marking milestones

The GLE/M-Class will be celebrated by Mercedes officials and Alabama workers with a series of events over the next six months.

They’ll recognize several 20-year milestones, including the SUV’s production startup and market debut, as well as the grand opening of the Tuscaloosa County plant.

Mercedes gave its pioneering Alabama-built M-Class SUV a new name — the GLE. (Mercedes)

MBUSI President and CEO Jason Hoff said the first-generation M-Class represented a new direction for the automaker’s lineup, which is now heavily populated with SUVs. (The company did have the G-Wagen back then, but it was a very small niche model.)

“The M-Class at that time was our entrance to the SUV market, and if you look at how SUVs in general have exploded since then, it was obviously a key milestone and a huge step for our product portfolio. Now we have the GLA all the way up to the GLS,” he said.

The GLE remains a key player in that lineup, even two decades later, Hoff continued. It’s one of the company’s larger-volume vehicles, holding its own among popular sedans such as the E-Class and C-Class.

Last year, U.S. sales of the GLE/M-Class model line topped 51,000, making it Mercedes’ No. 2 seller in the market, trailing only the C-Class.

“It continues to meet customer demands from multiple aspects, from size to features,” Hoff said. “It’s still a true off-roader, and I think that’s one of the things a lot of people forget. It also has an off-road option that gives it even more capability.”

Next chapter

The GLE continues to be the flagship vehicle of Mercedes’ growing Alabama operations.

Hoff said the expansion is going well, and everything is on schedule.

The project includes a new body shop, major enhancements to the SUV assembly shop and upgraded logistics and IT systems that will make the plant one of the “smartest” automotive facilities in the world.

Mercedes is investing $1.3 billion to expand SUV production at its Alabama plant. The rendering shows the plant area including the planned expansion (white surfaces). (Mercedes-Benz)

“We are coming to the close of building construction, and the next step is installation of the equipment,” he said. The facility is expected to be put into full production in 2019.

While the plant’s annual capacity will remain at 300,000 vehicles, the additions will allow the company to better prepare for future generations of its SUVs, which are gaining popularity worldwide.

In 2016, Mercedes won the global luxury sales crown, topping rival BMW. Mercedes’ overall sales rose 11.3 percent to more than 2 million, while sales of its SUVs alone grew 34 percent.

At the launch of the redesigned and renamed GLE two years ago, Mercedes officials in Germany emphasized what the model has meant to the brand.

“State-of-the-art and efficient drive technology, combined with superior ride quality and the versatility and robustness typical for SUVs — the new GLE has all the ingredients to continue the success story of our best-seller,” said Ola Kaellenius, member of the Board of Management of Mercedes parent Daimler AG and a former head of MBUSI.

“Often copied, rarely equaled — the M-Class established the segment of premium SUVs in 1997 and since then has been one of the most successful models in the world,” he said.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.