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 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.
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)
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Auto-Biography: In Search of … The East Glows – And Actual Chinese Curbside Classics
Curbside Classic: 1948 Buick Series 40 Special Sedanet – Just A Few Inches Short Of A GM’s Greatest Hit
Curbside Classic: 1931 Buick 96 Country Club Coupe – The Eight As Buick Built It
Curbside Classic: 1926 Ford Model T Coupe: T Stands For Tall
It’s 1924; A Glimpse Into What Was
A Tour of the Studebaker National Museum: Part I – Before World War II
Hmmm, I have been wondering what car laid the foundations for Buick’s reputation in China but was unaware that there was a pre WW II GM presence. I just assumed a few Cadillacs might have been privately imported between the wars. As for Ford’s presence? They were/are the McDonald’s hamburgers of automobiles.
Hey, I got a plate with my Big Mac yesterday. A plate!
Wow. Had no idea that Buick had a historical legacy in China that today’s GM was able to exploit to some extent.
One thing that accounted for GM successfully reestablishing itself in China in recent years is organizational, particularly when the parent company was experiencing a lot of troubles eventually leading to its Chapter 11 filing. GM China seemed to be fairly autonomous from the home office, they weren’t saddled with the big bureaucracy of the HQ back in Detroit, and could plan and carry out actions in a timely manner
The letter from Sun Yat Sen gets me thinking… what if Ford had taken up the offer? It probably wouldn’t have changed China, but it certainly would’ve given FoMoCo an opportunity they could only dream of today.
All those Buicks that GM is selling in China could’ve been Lincolns. And instead of being on life support, the brand might have had a chance to compete with Cadillac or even the Europeans. Instead of a Holden-based Park Avenue, we might still have real Town Cars or Continentals (probably courtesy of the Australian Falcon line).
I, too was unaware of Park Motor Company, maker of famous brand luxurious bubble cars.
(Luxurious bubble car–is that like a Kabinenroller with leather and wood?)
I’m trying to figure out what word got (mis)translated to “bubble”. Maybe “luxury” somehow connotes a “bubble economy”?
Maybe a double-error: “bauble”?
My educated guess based on hearing a lot of tortured English from native Asian language speakers is that the original Chinese meant “enclosed car,” but the translator barely knew English and picked “bubble” out of the dictionary when looking for a word meaning something like “enclosure.”
That makes more sense.
After seeing the signs saying ” Deformed Toilet ” actually meaning the toilet for the person with disabilities, it’s not hard to understand how pathetic the translation could be in cars.
and, I always giggle so hard about how confused my parents were after realizing I bought a $700 New Yorker Fifth Avenue last year for Michigan winter, since the name translation in Chinese sounds extremely luxurious and prestigious but after all the car is just plain cheap. They always try to figure out what a kind of car that is, with hidden headlights and vinyl roof, and spacious interior volume and looks really upscale. but after the fuel line gave up for successive Michigan rust, i took the crystal hood emblem as a souvenir and gave it to my dad eventually. he was quite happy to see that though, and my mom put it into a case with sponge in the living room as a reminder of American luxury made with Chrysler Crystal.
Higher-end brands being successful there makes sense; as even a Model T would be beyond the means of most peasants, it doesn’t stretch the imagination to suppose that any Chinese who could buy a Ford had the means for something fancier as well, given the social divides of the era.
Park Motors would work nicely in Korea!
Many of the pictures come from a museum located in Pudong, at the base of Shanghai tower. In fact, they are all fiberglass copies of the real thing.
It is interesting how little the Bund has changed since the above photo was taken.
they are the real things, looking worse than replicas. especially the late ’40s Buick, the museum was claiming it’s from ’30s, and they didnt keep the trim pieces, and they used a pair of taillights from soviet-chinese buses with some bondo to replace the real ones. even worse, no white wall tires!
now it’s not hard to see why no one drives an older car in china on a daily basis
Like the Buick that you mentioned, Pu-Yi’s Packard appears to have been hacked up, in addition to having bizarrely painted wheels and a nameplate mounted inside-out. The headlight surrounds and turn signals are wrong for a 1940 Packard 120, and probably other details as well. It is possible that this car was crashed, trashed, or otherwise damaged by the time that the Communists seized it, and lacking any idea of what the car was supposed to look like, they used whatever lamps, sheet metal, and filler that they had available to put together something that looked like a car.
oh, the wheels always remind me of the personalize vehicles in Mafia 2. I didn’t see any real cars as prestigious as a Packard or Continental painted like that. the wheels really look humorous.
besides that, the impressive flat clear golden grill really makes me speechless. It looks so prestigious for an emperor! and I think that well explains why many Toyota Corolla, Honda Accord come with factory golden chrome in China. As i live around Detroit now, it doesnt look unfamiliar to me since I travel on 8 Mi Rd fairly often. I see fair amount of similar trims on donky Grand Marquis and DeVille ( no, it’s D’Elegance ) with golden continental tire kit ( I am glad my continental tire bulge does not look golden on my Mark VIII )
And it’s highly entertained to think about cars with Communist officers. Seeing them demanding upgrades on dated Hongqi, I realize the mechanics moved the tried and true Town Car interior to Hongqi, fully authentically, with Continental Star for free on gauges. And they moved the Windsor V8 altogether too, but eventually they felt the engine was not smooth enough explaining as ” Americans only gave us a truck engine ”
Later on, they finally acquired a car engine, the Chrysler 2.2, and they were quite happy claiming the ownership of license in designing the engine in 1995 bragging about how advanced and refined it was in an Audi 5000.
I think it was the people with similar knowledge about cars patching the Buick and Packard along with all those introductions. I am impressed they counted the cylinders right though. I think Communist China shares similar level of attitude about the authenticity on cars and history.
As the economy in China is booming, with the decline of Detroit, Communist China is becoming very arrogant towards the cities they used to look up to. Schadenfreude was the main attitude about Detroit in China mainland when the city filed for bankruptcy, and Packard Plant on Grand Boulevard was the most symbolic scenery on websites. For the amount of knowledge about auto industry those chinese press acquires, I dont expect anyone can figure how it’s Packard though. ( but the sins of Detroit city is another story. anyway my appetite of working around Detroit is ruined especially considering one buddy working in Ford Motor Company got two Monte Carlo hit on Southfield Freeway. He drove my LeSabre with AC out in nearly whole June though. full sympathy )
I took a shot of a ’41 Packard in Farmington Hills, a very nice suburban area near Detroit, 20-30 miles away from Packard Plant. it was sold in two weeks. asking $16995. the dealer is on Grand River Avenue ( be aware though. they have quite some tricks )
Have you actually been there? I have.
the museum in the nearly basement of the Tower is one of the earliest museum I visited in Shanghai. I cant forget how the body shells on the street of Shanghai city scale model are missing ( when they are within the reach though ) and how my feet was stepped in the subway ( as a 10yo kid, which is a major disadvantage in Shanghai crowd )
Those cars are the authentic examples since they are significantly better than replicas. they have the grills in the right shape, right emblem ( forget about the hood emblem though ) on the grill which is far more challenging to duplicate than sticking a 120 emblem upside down, and more than 50% correct trim pieces!
I was there in March of this year.
Are you sure that all of the cars are fiberglass replicas? I have seen numerous photos of Chou En-Lai’s 1940 Buick taken to a garage for service, and it clearly was a real car with what looked like an original engine.
I am interested that Buick is showing “futuristic” cars in China and -not- showing them in the U.S. I would speculate that the two countries are in different places in their cultural development; Americans are heading into a “car as appliance” era while in China cars are still aspirational and identify social status more clearly.
One of my favorite movies is portrayed during this time, The Sand Pebbles. There’s a part where Jake Holman gets out of some car. Not sure what it was, but it was used as a taxi. I couldn’t find a picture of it on the web. I good excuse to watch.
Ah, The Sand Pebbles….classic Curbside Theater! And quite possibly Steve McQueen’s finest performance of his entire, and far too short, career. Awesome movie.
The picture of the gunboat moored in front of the GM warehouse is one of the best summaries of imperialism I’ve ever seen!
I always giggle about how siblings and friends in China consider my winter beater as a luxury car. ’95 LeSabre burning oil a quart every 1500mi, with minor rust but plastic rocker panel covers at no extra charge, cold out, dual climate control acting out, and power lock out, and one power window out. Still, it’s a Buick, and it looks Very prestigious to most Chinese. and the most reasonable guess is Park Avenue from some Chinese buddies with fair amount of knowledge about cars ( I always pretend driving a Park Avenue though ) and Park Avenue was the middle rank luxury cars among the imports to China. And some of them are still serving as diplomatic vehicles in Beijing, a high social status considered. ( while my current neighbor in Oak Park, drives a late ’90s Park Avenue with 4 hubcaps stolen in Detroit, missing hood emblem and muffler stolen )
Buying a Buick among Chinese students in US is a humble way to show the middle class inherent at an Impala price. Coming to upgrading, a Lincoln MKZ was condemned by a Chinese father of my friend ” you are too young to drive a Lincoln, and you shouldnt drive a V6 “. I always think the huge depreciation of older MKZ makes it a perfect alternative to Ford Fusion considering the luxurious interior as a bonus at only a little charge. He went away from a $10k MKZ to a $17k Acura with two cylinders less. His father was satisfied. I think it explains well about why many Chinese customers tend to be pathetic.
anther myth in China. Most Chinese people still think the vinyl roof on Fleetwood is leather, because they were impressed about how leather it feels and looks. Same story about the New Yorker Fifth Avenue and Town Car. I cant help laughing about a guy impressed upon seeing my Volare for the first time: ” This guy is rich. Even the roof is made of leather! ”
After repeating explaining how vinyl roof it is, a Chinese guy taking a ride in my car pointed at a Chrysler Sebring convertible said: ” Chrysler Sebring coupe with vinyl roof you were talking about! ” sigh******
My Chinese friends, to a one, drive German luxury cars and wouldn’t be caught dead in anything more than five years old.
Have you actually ever been in China?
another myth is the fetish about anything Germany. VW knows well about it coming to advertisement. And you will be surprised at how many Chinese video game players prefer to choose Nazi Germany equipment. And so many Iron Cross stickers on cars, on weird occasions though ( especially on a chevrolet cruze, or on a VW Passat B2, nearly new of course )
After seeing so many Passat B2 in china i cant help taking a photo of this in Meijer, as a photo of old country special.
Myth? I know of what I speak. My wife is Mainland Chinese, all my business clients are Mainland Chinese and most of my friends are Mainland Chinese and I speak Mandarin quite well. I’m in China at least once a year and usually more often than that.
I know of what I speak.
myth isnt always wrong. Chinese mainland has fetish about Germany cars especially VW, BMW, Audi and Mercedes ( but they picked up an awful company to assemble cars locally though ) and I think that explains why VW is that abusive, after dominating the market since Santana and all their derivatives ( Chrysler was still busy about putting Pentastar somewhere on Jeep Cherokees ) It’s usually easier to tell how cheapened a car is by touching the headliner. VW used hard plastic headliner for VW Santana/Vista Shanghai fleet special taxis. in other areas of China, they didn’t use hard plastic on headliner, yet ( till last year as i know ) And I always find some similarities about how Audi in China burns the engine oil comparing to my beater LeSabre. But I do feel funny about how the customers tend to overreact ( especially considering how short the lifespan of a car is. At that rate of throwaway, it’s not a problem at all )
This car compares high grade ( typical Chinglish, just for satire ) with this specific photo
if it’s me, i prefer to say, this car compares Supreme! better than Calais and Ciera!
Beautiful piece. Now I get why on Buick.
Hmm, based on my recent travels in Chiba, while Buicks are everywhere, the mainstream prestige car is Audi. But closer to the original thread, my mom grew up in China (1927-37) and her dad had Citroens. I’ll try to find a picture.
Citroens remain oddbird in china for over a century…
they sold few Citroen C6 there
Citroens of that era (the B2 and the C4/C6) were pretty sturdy things (for French cars). RWD, all-steel construction, bullet-proof motors… The C4s were called “Les Chrysler de Javel”, as they looked quite similar to early Mopar products.
Incidentally, Citroen is pretty big in China these days. The DS3 is selling like crazy, one of the few markets where PSA is gaining ground.
Wow, lots of Detroit iron (fiberglass??) in China, it seems. Back then, American cars were clearly preferred. The Packard is the most interesting one. Not just because it isn’t a Buick, but because it was in Japanese-controlled Manchukuo. And the explanation is CLASSIC Engrish.
Two things: the fact that it’s RHD : how many RHD cars did Packard make for that MY?? And where were they being sold? Japan itself (highly unlikely)? Hong Kong and/or Macau? Thailand?
Second, the wheel colours: wasn’t yellow the colour of the Emperor? Short of making the entire car yellow (a la King of Thailand), putting yellow wheels and a gold-plated grille might have been a good way to make this car stand out. See also (different context but perhaps relevant) red cars in Farouk’s Egypt.
There must have been French cars in the French concession, and British in the International settlement, as well as American. Buicks were popular with the manager/executive class within the settlement.
The ship used in the beginning of this article is British “Bridgewater”-class sloop and not US. The ship is the HMS Sandwich http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Sandwich_%28L12%29. Here is another picture. This ship served on Atlantic convoy duty and survived WWII. She was decommissioned from the Royal Navy after WWII and served as a commercial ship. She sank off of France in 1948. http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?196138