CC Global: American Cars in Pre-Communist China – The East Is Red White & Blue

GM China Warehouse 1937

The look at the earliest automobiles made in China initiated by Paul would not be complete without a look at even earlier classic cars in China, from the turbulent early 20th Century up to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.  Numerous American auto manufacturers vied for a share of the car market in China before the Second World War, starting as early as the 1910s.  Buick’s prewar presence is well known today because of publicity generated by its return to the Chinese market as a centerpiece of GM’s strategy in China, and there were others that played noteworthy roles in the history of the automobile there.

Studebaker - Hemmings cropped

Studebaker was the one of the pioneers of the American auto industry in China, not only selling but also manufacturing cars in Shanghai. Studebaker sent a representative to Shanghai to promote its automobiles in 1916, and by 1922 approximately 10 percent of China’s 7,481 registered motor vehicles were Studebakers.  In 1922 it established a formal relationship for local production of its cars with a Shanghai concern that had distributed and serviced horse-drawn vehicles since 1851 and built bodies on chassis from Studebaker and other automakers.  Studebaker shipped 500 cars to Shanghai in 1922-23, but its records are unclear on whether they were complete vehicles, bare chassis, or completely knocked down, and on whether they were sold only in China or also in other regions of Asia.

Shanghai Horse Bazaar & Motor Company produced an unknown number of cars (no records have survived) that included unique locally coachbuilt body styles.  The sole known survivor is this four seat coupe body on a 1924 Studebaker Light-Six chassis, built in Shanghai in 1923 for Studebaker’s China representative and shipped to the U.S. for chassis installation, now on display at the Studebaker National Museum.

1200 Studebaker montage

Unusual features and materials that went into this Shanghai-built body and interior show that high quality materials, skilled labor, and even clever design talent were available to early car makers in China. A closed car with a full metal roof at a time when factory mass produced closed cars were only starting to take over the market from open cars in the U.S., it may have been the world’s first hardtop coupe, with a folding B-pillar that allowed both tight window seals when raised and an airy cabin with the windows and pillar lowered.  The body panels were lightweight aluminum instead of steel, and the interior was trimmed with solid planks of teak wood from Southeast Asia.  (Photographs and information from Hemmings Classic Car #27, December 2006)

1200 Shanghai International Settlement 1936

With economic development and living standards very low and mass production of automobiles nonexistent before the Second World War, cars were only for expatriates and very wealthy Chinese. They were concentrated in a few urban areas such as the international quarters of Shanghai (a 1936 view of the Huangpu River waterfront is shown above) and the British colony at Hong Kong.

1200 Funeral 1924

Although few Chinese could own a car, people coveted them as much as anywhere else in the world. This 1924 photograph shows a papier-mache Ford Model T made to be burned in a funeral, to ensure that the deceased would have a car in the afterlife–an early example of a custom that survives to this day in Chinese communities in various parts of Asia.

1200 Ford LettersThe worldwide success of the Ford Motor Company and the Model T, which included exports throughout Asia and local assembly in Japan, naturally drew the interest of the Republic of China that had overthrown China’s Emperor in 1912 and sought to modernize the country. Sun Yat-Sen, the founder and first president of the Republic of China and regarded as the founding father of modern China by both Nationalists and Communists, wrote to Henry Ford in 1924 to ask him to develop an automobile industry in China.  Whether the letter ever reached Henry himself is unknown, and five months later his office sent a cursory negative response, ending what may have been a historic opportunity.

1200 Taxi 1920s

With cars primarily for the affluent, expatriate or Chinese, chauffeur-driven cars predominated more than in most markets worldwide. Large sedans also were preferable for taxicab use, as shown in this photograph of a taxi company in the international quarter of Shanghai.  A higher-end manufacturer of large sedans could account for a high proportion of car sales in China, and in these conditions, Buick was especially successful.  A Buick appeared in a pivotal event in China’s history in February 1912, used to transport Sun Yat-Sen to his inauguration as the first president of the Republic of China.  The Last Emperor, Pu-Yi, who had abdicated in 1912, purchased a Buick as his first car in the mid-1920s.  GM’s current promotional materials claim that one-sixth of all cars registered in Shanghai in 1930 were Buicks.

Zhou Enlai Buick

Few of these conspicuous possessions of China’s privileged classes survived the Second World War and the establishment of the People’s Republic, but one that did is this 1941 Buick in a Shanghai museum. Imported while the country was fighting for its life against invasion by Japan from 1937 to 1945, or soon after the war, it survived into preservation because it came into the possession of Chou En-Lai, Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1976 and second only to Mao Tse-Tung.

Chiang Kai Shek Buick

Another Buick that has survived as a historic vehicle in a museum is this 1942 in Nanjing, the capital of Nationalist China, at the house that once was the official residence of Nationalist President Chiang Kai-Shek. Chiang Kai-Shek and Madame Chiang used the house and the car after the Second World War, until they fled to Taiwan ahead of the advancing Communists in 1949.

1200 Pu Yi Car 1

Belying the impression that GM publicity materials attempt to create, Buick was not necessarily the top choice of luxury car buyers in prewar China, and the automotive market of the time is poorly understood and probably always will be. An example that illustrates both of these points is a museum car that appears to be a 1941 Packard 120, purchased for the Last Emperor, who by the 1930s was the puppet “emperor” of a Japanese-controlled state in Manchuria.  His handlers and/or lackeys must have gone to great lengths to purchase this Packard, which would not have had an official import channel at the time because of economic sanctions placed on the Empire of Japan by the United States after Japan launched its all-out invasion of China in 1937.  Considerable effort and international intrigue would have been necessary to purchase and import the car only months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

1200 Pu Yi Car 2

A sample of the low state of knowledge about prewar cars in China is in the explanatory plaque for the Last Emperor’s Packard. Even if we excuse misspelling Packard as “park,” the museum accidentally mixing together the stories of Pu-Yi’s 1920s Buick and 1941 Packard is a glaring mistake.  (The bright yellow color inflicted on the stately Packard’s wheels and the backward “One Twenty” nameplate on the hood, I am at a loss for words to describe.)  With few cars and almost no documentation of the cars of this era surviving–the scant information in this article has used all of the data points that GM has found to use for promotional purposes for Buick–knowledge of prewar cars in China is likely always to be fragmentary.


Regardless of the historical details being limited–which would not bother Henry Ford, who famously said “History is bunk!”–Buick’s legacy in China is substantial and has been a windfall for GM. The impression that prewar Buicks made in China lasted half a century, in complete isolation from the fall of Buick from a maker of high-end cars such as the fast 1936-42 Century and the stylish 1963-65 Riviera to a division making bland cars such as the 1980s-2000s Century and the late 1980-90s Riviera.  When GM returned to China in the 1990s, it found that memories of prewar Buicks in China had given it a powerful marketing advantage over rivals that were far more prestigious in the rest of the world, conferring on Buick a cachet that Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz had to work for years to cultivate in China.  As a result, Buick has become the #1 selling brand in China, and a futuristic gullwing door plug-in hybrid show car shown exclusively in China (shown above) being called a “Buick Riviera” seems quite natural.  It is a fitting continuation of the work that multiple U.S. automakers did during the prewar era.



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