China’s Vintage U.S. Car Mania: Collectors Undeterred by Legal BarriersPosted: October 19, 2013
The number of classic car collectors is growing in China despite the obstacles from a government that sees them as dangerous
BEIJING – Calum MacLeod writes: As a boy, Sun Jian loved to watch war movies such as Patton, about the U.S. general and hero of World War II. He dreamed of owning a vintage U.S. Army jeep like the one old “Blood and Guts” sped about in as he led the fight against Nazis in Europe.
Now a successful real estate businessman, Sun, 47, finally got his jeep and wants to get his hands on more classic American cars. That is, if the Chinese government lets him.
China is becoming choked with automobile traffic in many of its cities, and authorities have banned from the roads vehicles over 15 years old out of concern that the older cars create more pollution. So importing classic cars is especially difficult, collectors complain.
The number of collectors is growing despite the obstacles as Chinese who have more disposable income from the country’s economic boom look for ways to indulge the passions their money can buy.
“However tired or hungry you are, when you hear the engine start after months of hard work, it’s unbeatable, the happiest moment in life,” says Luo Wenyou, 59, who owns 200 classic cars of which more than half are from abroad.
This week a convoy of classic cars that includes a 1964 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray departed from the Great Wall near Beijing for an 1,100-mile tour to Shanghai. This is the third year of the Classic Cars China Challenge, which channels the spirit of the famous Peking to Paris Race in 1907.
Ninety drivers are taking part in the tour, including a record 16 Chinese drivers.
Hou Xiaoming, secretary-general of the Classic Vehicle Union of China, says nothing compares with the American automobile of the 1950s and 1960s.
“They have exaggerated, strong character. You can see culture and history in the designs, one car represent an era,” he says.
“I also like secondhand or very old cars made for daily use, not like most Chinese who like brand new, luxurious cars,” he says. “Their beauty shines when they are moving.”
The popular turn to classic cars is going in the opposite direction of a newly prosperous society that often venerates the latest, flashiest brand.
“The technology nowadays is more advanced, but we can still learn from classic designs like this jeep, simple, tough and useful,” Sun says.
Luo Wenyou runs a collectors group with more than 3,000 members. He says they speak a language that gear heads in the USA would recognize. But the communist-run bureaucracy is not going along for the ride.
“I called the Beijing traffic police, they told me, ‘Your car has no doors, it’s too dangerous,’ ” Sun says of his Jeep. “But it was the original design in World War II, to save money.”
No matter, the government says. For the past three years, Sun has kept the jeep in a spot he leases on the outskirts of Beijing, driving it secretly on little-policed country roads like many classic car owners here.
“I really hope there could be new rules for collectors like me to drive our cars on the road, just from one city to another is enough,” he says. “Let more people know the beauty of classic cars.” Sun hopes his son, 15, will be able to drive the family pride and joy on his future wedding day.
Cars are not the only pricey passion that wealthier Chinese have trouble enjoying. They face similar challenges when trying to buy private jets and helicopters, enduring tight restrictions on their use enforced by the Chinese military that controls most of the country’s airspace.
There is hope for classic car collectors. A proposal seeking more relaxed treatment of the oldies has been submitted to the national parliament, says Hou Xiaoming, whose Classic Vehicle Union of China organized the rally to Shanghai.
There’s been no response to date, and it’s the same petition that has been submitted every year for five years without result.
Hou says the problem is not safety and technical issues associated with older vehicles. Owner of 10 classic cars, including a U.S. Buick from 1984 once used by George W. Bush, Hou says the hurdle has more to do with the inherent difficulty in China of getting any rules changed.
Fellow collector Luo Wenyou regrets China’s restrictive policy but says he understands its rationale: too many people, too many old cars and too much traffic. That has not dimmed his passion.
Luo has spent more than $11 million on his collection since his first purchase, a Polish model, back in 1978. He and his wife run a museum of classic cars but have to take three public buses to reach downtown, as none of their 200 vehicles can secure a licence to become street legal.
They could drive to work if they bought a newer car, but the couple prefer to spend all their money on the museum. Among the collection are Chevrolets, Dodges and a “Red Flag,” a 1958 limousine based on a Chrysler and made for China’s ruling Communist Party elite and visiting foreign dignitaries.
Government officials from Beijing came to visit the museum recently to see if perhaps they may want to display some of the vintage vehicles on Tiananmen Square.
Luo says most Chinese collectors buy the cars as an investment, but he buys for pleasure and does not see them as a good financial move. Carlos Tavares, CEO of Exclusive Classic Cars, a Portuguese company set up this year to sell classic cars in China, says the cars have value.
“There are lots of really wealthy people, and everybody can own a new Porsche, Maserati or Lamborghini,” he says. “The new rich Chinese are looking for something more unique to show their friends they are different. Classic cars are forbidden for now, but it may be possible in the future.”
Dang Wenque, 58, was admiring a Stingray, imported by Tavares’ firm, at a public display last week on Wangfujing, China’s most famous shopping street. Dang was the first member of his family to own a passenger car, a Ford Focus he bought in 2009 and a model that became the best-selling sedan in China in September.
“New cars are nowhere near as attractive,” says Dang, soon to retire as a manager in a textile firm in central China.