Auto-Biography: In Search of….The East Glows – And Actual Chinese Curbside Classics

The East Glows 1965

In 1971, I committed a crime, the repercussions of which still affect me today. I was a bored eighteen-year-old whose overdeveloped but under-used automotive memory banks craved stimulus. In those pre-web dark ages, the information gap between monthly car magazines was excruciating. Desperate, I plied the 629.22 rack of the Iowa City Public Library, and found the font of automotive history. I slipped the heavy Rosetta stone under my baggy Army surplus jacket and walked out. I’ve been guiltily absorbing its contents ever since.

Ironically, out of the thousands of cars listed in it, the one that really grabbed me in 1971 was this one. And I (and my kids) have been searching in vain for it ever since. Turns out I never will find a genuine The East Glows, but I am eager to have some old Chinese Curbside Classics featured here. Are there any?

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“The Complete Encyclopedia of Motorcars – 1885 to the present” covers over four thousand makes, from the A.A.A. to the Zwickau. And for some inexplicable (but prescient) reason, the make and photo that first captured my imagination was the 1965 “The East Glows.”

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Sure, the Chinese sedan has an evocative name. But the encyclopedia is a cornucopia of catchy (or not) names from the pre-Lexus alphanumeric naming era. Some didn’t even try, as in the No Name, or the CAR. Others plagiarized, resulting in nine different “Standards.” High-school Latin was common, such as the Quo Vadis (“where are you going?”), Stimula, Audi and the German EGO (a “Super” model was available).

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Hyperbole is sprinkled liberally throughout. The Faultless is just “one of many ephemeral cyclecars.” The Famous’ only claim to fame was “rear wheels were larger than the front ones.” Unsurprisingly, American makes dominate the category of superlatives: Primo, Superior, Speedy (4 hp!), Pridemore, and the humble Super-Kar.

Speaking of humility, some makers were disarmingly honest: Rough, Riddle, Static, Troll, Lugly (pre-cursor to “fugly”?) and the predictive Lost Cause.

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Idealism might have seemed a better approach, but none found traction in the Darwinian marketplace. The Utopian, appropriately enough, was “built for a local clergyman, possibly only one made”. The Joymobile “never went into production.” And the Peace “never came.”

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Rounding out the ranks are random oddballs: Flying Feather, Ben Hur, Tic-Tac, O-We-Go, Lu-Lu, Egg, Wizard, U2, Ponder, Rip, LSD and the prophetic Lutz “formed to make electric steam cars; no evidence that they were ever made.”

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My father was more than a bit surprised when I mentioned the Phänomen/Phänomobil to him, as he remembered well that a neighbor of theirs in Silesia had one when he was a young child.  We had found a (somewhat rare) point of common interest.

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So why exactly did the 1965 The East Glows make such a lasting impression? It’s just a mish-mash of mid-fifties American design themes: a 1958 Studebaker crossed with a 1956 Buick. Built by “Car Factory No. 1, Peking,” it’s described as “one of the more recent designs to appear in China… a hand-built saloon with a six cylinder 150hp engine.”.  I can’t exactly say, other than its catch name and derivative styling.

Nevertheless The East Glows became (and remains) a Niedermeyer family legend. On a car trip years ago, when the boys needed something to focus on, I spontaneously made the following offer: a $500 reward for spotting any car with a Chinese license plate; and $20,000 for a The East Glows with valid Chinese plates. My younger son occasionally  kept his eyes peeled “just in case,”for some time after the offer was made, but I wasn’t exactly too worried; the offer was limited to U.S. roads.

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Are there any The East Glows left in China? Given that they were “hand-built,” and China’s passenger car industry then was mostly limited to a few Hong Qi (“Red Flag”) limousines for party big-wigs, it’s highly unlikely. This Red Flag is from 1985, found on a street and posted at the only site that has a good selection of China automobile history, But there’s nothing there that looks like a The East Glows.

On a trip to China a couple of years ago, my son Edward confirmed that restored, hot-rodded, or low-rider The East Glows are NOT seen cruising Beijing’s Chang’An Boulevard on hot summer nights. Is there any old-car culture in China connected to its indigenous cars?

We’ve been steeped in all things automotive for over a hundred years. Family lore, childhood memories, museums, racing, collecting, cruising, modifying, buying and selling, off-roading, car show dreaming, memorizing the Complete Encyclopedia of Motor Cars, writing about car-experiences on web-sites like this one; they’re all about the breadth and depth of our auto-biographies.

Dongfeng Golden Dragon

I suspect it’s different for the typical Chinese.  Mass-produced cars, and the incomes to buy them, are a recent phenomena. And their relationship to them is… different, undoubtedly.There are some early Chinese cars exhibited in museums, like this Dong Feng Golden Dragon, touted to be the first Chinese-designed automobile, and presented to Chairman Mao in 1958. Needless to say, it’s design wasn’t exactly very original, as was the case for all all Chinese cars for quite some time; or should I say “forever”?

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Recently,  rich Chinese have been snapping up classics from the US and Europe, as well as a an increasing share of new luxury cars. And there is a site devoted to classics.

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The Chinese lead designer for Buick’s Shanghai studio (Riviera and Invicta concepts) does not drive. He gets his inspiration from night clubs. Contrast that to GM’s legendary Bill Mitchell, who drove his various Corvette concepts home; a man inspired by racing cars, fighter jets and sharks. China builds more cars than the US. And Buicks are being designed for us in China. So, ironically, in 640 pages of obscure automotive history, The East Glows turned out to be the one car in the Almanac that points to the future.

Somewhere in China, there must be memories of The East Glows. Someone hand-made them; others drove or rode in them. Maybe, just maybe, there’s one stashed away in a museum, or in someone’s barn.

Are there any CC readers in China? We have readers all over the globe, but have never heard of one from China. Or one posted at the Cohort from China. I’d like to eventually have a Portal dedicated to vintage Chinese cars, but at this rate that might be a while.

And here’s the last bit of irony: it turns out there never really was an “The East Glows”. I found recently that subsequent  editions of the encyclopedia say it was simply called the “Beijing Limousine”, built (by hand) by the Beijing Auto Works for some years in very small quantities. BAW, which was founded in 1958 and has become one of the biggest automobile builders in China. I guess my $20k is truly safe. Whew!