After the cars are driven off the ship they are brought to a lot where they will be inspected. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox / January 11, 2012)

Just after sunrise, a caravan of nearly 1,000 new cars begins streaming down the ramp of a massive cargo ship, a procession that won't end until evening.

Mercedes-Benz and BMW models go one way. Land Rovers and other models go another.

Some days, the routine at the port of Baltimore runs in reverse, with thousands of U.S.-made cars being loaded for overseas destinations.

All that traffic means 2011 will turn out to have been a record year for the port of Baltimore's public auto terminals. Through November, longshoremen loaded and unloaded 403,679 vehicles, surpassing the total for all of 2010 by more than 6,500 autos.

To put it another way: During the first 10 months of 2011, the port's public and two private auto terminals handled 951,251 tons of cars, beating every other U.S. port — a first for Baltimore. The value of those vehicles was $10.1 billion.

In some ways, the attraction to Baltimore is a matter of simple math. The eight to 10 hours it takes ships to steam up the Chesapeake Bay is offset by the fact that Baltimore is 200 miles farther inland than other East Coast ports, said Ted Boudalis, operations manager of the local vehicle-processing center for Mercedes-Benz.

"The further we get inland from the ocean, the less it costs us in trucking. You shave time and distance," he said.

But there's more to it than that, said Rex Sherman, research director for the American Association of Port Authorities. Baltimore's 2011 numbers are a testament to the vision of Maryland officials over the years, he said.

"Those terminals weren't built overnight," Sherman said. "Port officials have been pretty aggressive in attracting and keeping business, and making investments in infrastructure that's allowing these autos to come in now that the market is back."

In 2005, Mercedes-Benz signed a 20-year lease with the Maryland Port Administration for its waterfront vehicle-processing center. Five years later, BMW jumped aboard with a five-year agreement to ship tens of thousands of cars to the port annually.

James White, executive director of the port administration, says the 2011 figures prove the port has made a "tremendous recovery" from the economic downturn, with the auto industry providing more than 1,000 jobs.

"Our success in autos is due to our inland location, excellent labor and renowned quality program," White said.

With the globalization of the auto industry, car company origins mean little. The port handles Ford vans made in Turkey and General Motors compact cars from Mexico. High-end American cars and SUVs are shipped to the Middle East, and $500,000 Maybach sedans and $250,000 McLaren sports cars arrive in Baltimore on their way to U.S. car enthusiasts.

"Everybody is everywhere," said Paul Hill, operations manager for shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics.

From the docks, it's a short distance to one of the port's three auto-processing plants. Mercedes-Benz handles its own cars plus BMW. Ford, Toyota, Nissan and Subaru go through a facility owned by WWL Vehicle Services Americas Inc. Volvo, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Jaguar, Land Rover and Chrysler are processed by Amports.

Once a month, port officials, car manufacturers, processors and longshoremen convene a meeting of the Quality Cargo Handling Action Team to talk over problems and devise solutions.

Baltimore is Mercedes-Benz's busiest U.S. port, with 125,000 vehicles imported annually. In October, the processing center prepared 12,400 vehicles — a record month until November's 13,000 vehicles.

Getting Mercedes vehicles ready for delivery to 350 dealerships from Virginia to Maine and to as far west as Colorado requires brute strength, a nimble workforce and a game plan worthy of an NFL team. The Mercedes team can clean and inspect a car, fix problems, add accessories and send it on its way in as little as 24 hours.

Cars arriving in Baltimore carry one of three designations: already sold, dealer request (usually a hot model) and general dealership stock.