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!