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October 12, 2011

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Old car, new status symbol

CHINESE are crazy about new cars and expensive sports machines, but a small, discerning and well-off group is buying imported vintage cars. Yao Minji takes the wheel.

Cars are powerful status symbols in China, especially the latest big-name foreign imports, but there's a new status symbol among those who are discreet and in the know - old cars.

What makes them so special is not only their beauty, their "cool" factor, their history and workmanship - it's the fact that it's difficult to import cars more than 20 years old. They are generally considered to be either second-hand autos or scrap metal. There is some wiggle-room; vague rules are open to interpretation.

Thus, collectors store them, although some do go for a spin now and then, taking to back roads for short drives with other collectors and using the plates from other vehicles.

The Classic Vehicle Union of China, founded in 2006, is trying to bring collectors together and promote their hobby. Customs regulations are a roadblock and officials can't understand why anyone would want to bring an old car into China, collectors say.

In general, classic cars are 20 to 45 years old; antique cars are 45 years or older and vintage cars are those made before 1930.

The Beijing-based Classic Vehicle Union took a major step forward last month when it got permission and organized the China Rally of International Classic Cars 2011; from September 18 to 23, around 30 cars traveled through six cities, starting in Beijing and finishing in Shanghai.

At the conclusion they parked in the Shanghai Automobile Museum in Jiading District and inspired visitors who had never seen them before. The oldest was an American Overland Whippet Model 96 made in 1927; the newest was a Shanghai 760 sedan manufactured in 1973.

"It is amazing to see these old cars, since they are so much more beautiful and delicate than the new machines on the street," says one automotive industry journalist.

The vehicle union, a nonprofit organization, has assisted with many international rallies that needed special permission to ship the cars and drive them in China, but the event in September was the first rally entirely in China.

In the West there's a popular culture of old cars and old cars are a very profitable business, but not so in China.

"We have many excellent old cars and quite a few rare vintage cars in China, but we don't have that many collectors, and many of them don't appreciate the culture of old cars," says Huang Zongmin, a rally participant and collector in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

"And there isn't a tight organization to connect us," he tells Shanghai Daily.

In Shanghai, there's only an informal group of aficionados.

Huang owns around 100 cars and is one of the largest collectors in China; he estimates there are only around a dozen collectors in Sichuan and less than 100 across China.

"There aren't a lot of events that let us get to know each other," he says.

Huang says his pride and joy is an extremely rare Benz Patent Motor Car No. 1, manufactured in 1886. He got the Benz in 2008 in a trade with the well-known Blackhawk Museum in California; in return, he gave the museum a 1974 Red Flag (Hongqi) CA770, known as the "national car" of China.

The first Red Flag car was virtually handmade in China in 1958, and Red Flag limousines became famous since they were mainly made for high-ranking Chinese officials around the country and used during visits of foreign heads of state.

In 1972, US President Nixon was politely asked to leave his own limousine at home and to ride instead in a Red Flag.

The open Red Flag limousine was also the vehicle in which Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zeming stood, and which President Hu Jintao still takes, when reviewing troops on important anniversaries.

Hooked collectors

Many Chinese collectors, like Huang, got into the world of old cars through Red Flags, a far different route from that of foreign collectors.

Huang, who is also one of the first collectors in China, started by accident in 1991 when he cofounded a small automobile repair shop. A customer from Hong Kong wanted to buy a Red Flag, but by the time Huang finally found one through his contacts, the customer had gone bankrupt.

"So I just kept the car, hoping to sell it later. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with it over time and didn't want to sell it. The Red Flag is so amazing since it's the first car that we Chinese invented and produced all by ourselves," Huang says. "Even today, it still looks fashionable with a nice balance of features from earlier days and its grandness as the national car. It shows how advanced our automobile industry was at its beginning."

It was said around 1,000 models of Red Flag CA770 were made over the years, and less than 100 are still left across the country. New Red Flags (with imported engines), open for public to purchase, are still made every year at the plant in Changchun, Jilin Province.

Huang was hooked. Fortunately he also sells new car; he pays 43 technicians just to maintain his cars and says he plans to open a museum in two or three years.

But he is vague about how he actually obtains old imported cars.

Collector Peter Chen, a Shanghai-based old car collector from Fujian Province, was similarly vague about his old overseas acquisitions, but he says his father owns a shipping company.

"I have my ways and I have helped many friends and customers get imported old cars, but it is difficult to explain, since for a long time there were no rules about importing old cars, until some vague ones recently," Chen says.

For many years the customs department has considered old cars to be scrap second-hand automobiles and import has been prohibited.

"That's probably a major reason Chinese collectors are reluctant to openly display their collections or get together more often," he says. "Many got their cars through ways that did not exactly follow regulations."

"But it has gotten better," he says without offering an explanation, "and I hope that we can have an open trade platform in just a few years."


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