Blog : China – the car geek’s heaven

Keith Adams

In case you hadn’t guessed, I really enjoyed my time in China. It was a week-long odyssey, which (re-)introduced me to the joys of staying in Communist hotels, driving on roads where people aren’t in a permanently snoozy state (I mean the UK, by the way), and seeing something utterly new and amazing around every corner.

It came as no surprise to learn that most people who live in Beijing or Shanghai wouldn’t dream of heading inland. And I reckon they’re missing a trick, because heading west from these great cities certainly gives you a chance to go back to basics. If I lived there, I’d jump in my generic Asian saloon,  brim it with 75p/litre unleaded, and go exploring.

That was hammered home on the first day I met up with the Journey of Discovery expedition – we were the only guests in a grandiose government-owned hotel that would have once been reserved for high party officials. There were around 100 rooms in the ‘Great Wall’ Hotel, and I reckon about 60 staff… who had the task of looking after the expedition team of 15.

The entrance was an immense marble effort with fountain and elaborate decor, and yet most of the lights remained off. Between the check-in desk and the lift, three separate ushers pointed the way for us – and once in, the fresh carpet under-foot had been freshly laid for the day; something that happened every day. Each floor had its own sub-reception desk, and every wood-clad room had centrally controlled radio, and no Internet. For those who want to get away from it all, this really was as close as it gets to five-star alternative accommodation. As you can guess, I loved it.

And literally, every day offered new and wonderful experiences such as this.

But for a car enthusiast – nay, professional car geek – like me, China is just splendid. I now understand what it’s like for the average non-car person to walk down the high street, and not know many of the vehicles around them. To set the scene, there seems to be no cars on the roads that are over 20 years old – so in contrast to travelling somewhere like Romania, where you’ll be tripping over old Dacias and Ladas, China’s younger car market offers up a fascinating mix of the Oriental, both Domestic and Japanese/Korean.

Inland, the cars are mainly Domestic, and as a contrast, in Beijing, European cars star.

The oldest cars around seem to be the highly ubiquitous Volkswagen Santana, which is a little-remembered saloon derivative of the Series 2 Passat, launched at the end of 1980. The funny thing is that they’re everywhere in China, obviously built as part of a Joint Venture, long after it died in Europe in 1987. I love the way it received a couple of facelifts (Morris Marina and Ital-style) to remain modern looking… And you know what, by the time I left, I wanted one.

Another early star is the locally-produced Audi 100C3, which I think also went through a number of facelifts. The original 1982 car looked good, but it’s interesting to see how the Chinese beefed it up with a larger grille and extended wheelarches, turning it into some kind of faux-Audi V8. I’m guessing when new, you had to be quite privileged to have one, and even now, most glistened, well looked after, in the watery, smoggy sun.

It seems that Volkswagen was onto something getting into the Chinese market so early, as today, it’s the biggest player in the market, enjoying two successful JVs, with First Auto Works and Shanghai Automobile Industry Corporation.

Did I see many MGs on my travels? Not so many in Beijing, but inland, in certain cities, the MG6 seemed to be gaining traction, with the 3 slowly picking up sales. Roewes on the other hand seemed quite popular all over, with the 350 seeming the most ubiquitous of the bunch. MG 3SWs (nee Rover Streetwise) were around, but already beginning to look dog-eared, no doubt punished by China’s less-than-perfect back roads.

But the rest of the cars were less-than-familiar to me, and took some identification. BYDs, Great Walls and Cherys were all in abundance, as were those famous fake Matizs, Smarts and Aygos. All looked shoddy close up, but compared with the bicycles that so many were still riding, they would have been quite wonderful. But it’s clear that China is rapidly industrialising inland, and car ownership is picking up rapidly. In many cities, the infrastructure has already been created, with the central authorities clearly expecting a boom in ownership – and, boy, is that going to happen. Some areas of China still have 30 cars per 1000 people…

But despite the planning, those cities that have enjoyed a boom in car ownership are already choked. In places like Xi’an and Tai Yuan, I saw traffic congestion that rivalled anything London or Paris has to offer.

As for the future – I can’t see how China isn’t going to become the most important car market in the world, with the most influential makers. The charming notion that it is a backwater nation (yes, there’s still mass poverty, and there are major environmental issues, but the wealth is spreading) that builds nothing but hopeless cars should be cast aside. I reckon China now is where Korea was ten years ago. And they’ll close the gap in half the time.

Taking a day out to look around the Beijing Motor Show was very revealing indeed. There weren’t anywhere near the number of horrors as I’d come to expect – the new stuff was mainly Asian-generic, and that will change, too, in time, as more companies hire European designers.

Of course, there were a few – but make up your mind from the gallery below. I’ve mixed up motor show images with the cars on the streets. Enjoy!


Keith Adams
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  1. Fascinating Keith. What struck me most about my visit to Beijing last year, apart from the ubiquity of the Volkswagen Santantas, as you mention, were they myriad of Euro-hatches with boots on the back. I am talking about things like the booted Citroen C4 and Peugeot 307. The Chinese just adore saloons and, it must be admitted, blandness in car design.

  2. Is it just me or is Chinese car body design universaly terrible? I appreciate that there are cultural factors in play but the majority of these vehicles look bland at best. No wonder European design is so coveted in the east…

  3. Keith lovin’ the Saxo saloon (complete with E39 lamps) but the facsimile Mercedes B klasse is a good one too!

    I wonder how much £££ you could make selling the facelift Jetta front ends to the old skool VW crowd though?

  4. With so many unrecognisable cars, nothing over 20 years old and unreadable (for Europeans) road signs I would have thought China would be car geek hell. Give me the USA or a former UK colony any time with their wide variety of cars and occasional classics.

  5. They’re closing in…

    The BMW-grilled Suzuki Supercarry clone is a Dongfeng, now available in the UK under the DFM (Dong Feng Motors) brand.

    Some of the Chery horrors pictured are sold in Italy under the DR brand. I’ve yet to see any on the road, but there were quite a few Great Wall pickups about – they’ve just gone on sale in the UK>

  6. I quite like the style of the car with the triangular tail lights. What did the Chinese drive around in 30 years ago?

  7. You missed photographing the terrible 3 wheelers….from the wobbly tin boxes to the fibreglass faux saloons all powered by 50cc engines. Really impressive is the amount of electricity….many mopeds are electric even they look as if they have an infernal combustion engine. I was passing thru on the way back from N Korea where the wood burning truck still exists.Now,I would live to see how that works!

  8. @9 Does it need a log-book? Keith, now I know how the world looks to my mother-in-law, who doesn’t know one car from another. If you ask her who has what its ‘a silver one’ etc.

  9. I cannot wait until Zotye (“Little Fool” in Dutch) cars (image 9695) will be exported to the Netherlands. They will sell like crazy!

  10. A good post I’ve been waiting for one like that, is that a mini or a Geely clone? Have you got any close ups of the Emgrand EC7 that’s meant to be launching in the UK soonish?

  11. Just like in the Middle East, they do like their ‘sedans’ in the Far East, don’t they? But, as “406V6” (a fine sedan, BTW…) says, give me a former British or French colony anyday.

  12. One of the first Chinese made cars was a copy of the fifties Mercedes 190, which appeared just after the Mao era, when cars were extremely rare. The first modern design was the Santana, a decent Volkswagen product, which the Chinese started assembling in 1982.

  13. I worked in Taiwan about 14-15 years ago, developing designs for computing gear with Taiwanese Industrial Designers – the reason why SE Asian originated design looks so odd is that they haven’t had the art & design revolutions we had in Europe. European automotive and industrial design is the result of a rich history of Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Bauhaus, Ulm, Functionalism and Post Modernism, and so on. SE Asian design schools have none of that, and at the moment have yet to develop the identity, or confidence, to produce the kind of design we have come to expect in Europe. The clear superiority of the MG6 design over just about everything else shown here is proof of that. From my experience (because Taiwanese design hasn’t improved in leaps and bounds since my tenure), SE Asian design still has a LONG way to go. However, the cars that KIA are currently producing (designed by an ex-Audi designer) show the way forward. Once Chinese manufacturers grasps this concept, they will be a real force to be reckoned with.

  14. Interesting you should mention the Streetwise as i quite liked that idea and the look of the car. at first one would think who would want a 2wd cross over looking vehicle. but guess what…land rover freelander is going for a 2wd only option as is the evoque. ford territory is also has a 2wd version (rwd). alex

  15. hmm.. I would think that the reason why the Chinese designed cars are not to western tastes is that, they perhaps don’t have a handle on design psychology in the same way the we have. It was one of the first things we were taught in design lectures – often having to sketch totally unrelated objects – even natural objects such as shells and leaves to understand how shape, form and continuity give a psychological reaction – I even tried to sketch my cat as part of the same lectures and was able to directly relate it to car design – even the female body is a fantastic example – look at the body of say, Megan Fox laying on her side, then look at the shoulder line of an E-Type. You see why the E-type gets the ‘jaw-drop’ reaction it does from people (even Enzo Ferrari back in the day). They simply don’t think in the same way designers in the west (and even Japan) do

  16. Maybe all people want in China is a cheap, reliable five seater saloon. They do remind me of America, where hatchbacks have never really taken off and the four and two door sedan is still king.

  17. @Alexscott:

    I, too, have always liked the Streetwise and its looks. Clearly the Chinese have embraced the vehicle wholeheartedly as some of the personalised ones I saw on this website towards the end of last year relating to MG fans in China looked fantastic.

    Sorry to sound simple, butI wish I could get some sales literature for the Chinese built MG 3 SW (even though I can’t read Chinese) as the pictures would be interesting to see how the car has progressed onwards from its Longbridge days.

  18. I liked the Streetwise at the time, the Chinese like the car, looked odd when produced them as MG though. Very interesting picures of refreshed and old cars! Regards Mark

  19. What did they do to that poor BINI. It looks like someone left the Garage door open and the whole front end melted in the sun. The Chinese are truly skilled, they actually managed to make something uglier than the Clubfoot.
    I too like the black car – it looks like a cross between A55/A60 Farina and a Russian ZIL. The sides look vaguely familiar too, but for the life of me I cant place it.

  20. Some of the copies are surprisingly convincing – the Aygo/C1 clone is just like the real thing!

  21. Black car is a Hong Qi. They have been being made, in various disguises, since 1957. One of their best selling products was based on the Audi 100. They also made a Rolls Phantom lookalike prototype.

  22. Sell the ZX saloon at a sensible price. Great cars when they were sold in Europe, overshadowed by their 306 sister.

  23. Today there seems to be 3 types of Chinese car;

    1. European cast-offs that seem to be updated every year with the latest faddy design (VW Santana with Passat Mk6/Golf Mk5 circle lights) so they look daft (but must have huge profit margins).

    2. Poorly conceived or just plain nasty copies of other Euro/Asian/US cars

    3. Homegrown designs that are so ghastly that how the designers ever thought that they were good designs scares the living wotsits out of me! (The 3 wheeled vaguely motorised contraption from the last series of TG springs to mind).

    I don’t remember looking at old Hyundai Stellars or Ponies and thinking yikes! They are hideous. They weren’t bonny I must admit but atleast they weren’t disgusting (although later Ssanyongs seemed to be aiming for that reaction).

    I don’t think its the so much the fault of the designer – anybody can hire somebody as talented as Peter Schreyer and create nice cars (and the new Kias do look good) but the taste in China seems to be… erm… unusual… Pastiche seems to be cool.

    So while in 5 years the likes of BYD, SAIC etc will have competitive drive trains and chassis, they won’t really appeal to anyone with Western tastes unless they start to embody a style that is uniquely Chinese.

    A design that is confident and full of national style sells. Look at Audi, they make cars that are confident and exude Germanic style and as a consequence you can’t move on the roads for the hateful things. A Ferrari shouts Italy as loudly as it’s V8. A Ford Mustang looks American as much as it hates corners and a Jaguar can’t look anything other than British.

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