Curbside Classic: The Buick Century in China

(Our first submission from China, by Zhang Ningxuan)

Here is the first chapter of the Chinese market efforts of the Big 3. Ford provided Redflag with some V8 engines and other components in the early 1980s but showed no interest in this market. Chrysler sold a retired engine manufacturing line to First Automobile Works, but dramatically decided to overcharge FAW for the corresponding car manufacturing line. That directly eliminated the possibility of doing business here. GM was the last arrival, later than both by more than a decade. Their destination was Shanghai. The product they wanted to launch was the Buick Century.

The joint venture they created, now known as SAIC-GM, was the beginning of a 20-year continuous success of this GM branch. Bringing a fresh model was a humble and bold decision. Joint ventures preferred introducing retired models at that time. A retired model is competitive enough because no competitor existed. Retired manufacturing facilities can be utilized again. And old models were easier to produce as our workers didn’t have much experience. However, Shanghai-GM launched the ‘New’ Century in 1999, only 3 years later than in America. At that time, the Century Regal was the most advanced domestic build vehicle, before the Audi A6 (C5) and Toyota Crown (S180) in 2003.

The Century soon became an ideal choice not only for personal use but also for government and enterprise fleets. Some of those early Centuries are still running on the road and this post is about them. As for the Shanghai-GM, the Century was only the start point. As the payback for a pioneer, most of the Buick models since then were that popular among orient consumers, as long as they have more than 3 cylinders.

This photo was taken in mid-southern mainland in 2014. Something disgusting on this navy Century: wind deflectors, chrome wheel arch rims. If you zoom in, there is an ornament with a tassel hanging on the rearview mirror inside the car and a steering wheel cover. This was the starter pack of many Chinese middle-aged men when purchasing their first car in the early 2000s. It must be a cheesy owner, and I am wondering why a hood ornament was missing from his aftermarket package. The bullet-like hood ornament was standard equipment for 3.0L Regal and Royaum (Holden Caprice (WL)), but maybe 99.5% of Buick owners installed one for their beloved cars at that time.

Chrome wheels are our stereotypes on American cars until today, and this Century also possesses an exotic taste on the first glance. However, according to my childhood memories, this rim was for later Regals and was served in ordinary silver paint but not chrome. Here is a closer view: the central cap remains in its original condition. So, the wheels are aftermarkets again, but not bad. The only current Buick comes with chrome wheels here is Enclave Avenir. This is a CNDM Enclave, totally different from the original Enclave. Please don’t search for it, it is bland and boring.

This neat creamy Century was shot in northeastern Shanghai downtown in 2015. According to its license number, the coding rules of it indicates that the license could be issued in the early 2000s. I deeply suspect that this Century belongs to a Shanghai-GM employee. Both the white body paint and the G level base configuration were not commonly ordered. It might be a stock car and was digested internally before the launch of CNDM Regal in 1999.

A brand-new model only existed for two years before the major facelift. I have no idea why SGM was so diligent because there was barely any stress from the market. Although the Century was almost original, it still met the demands on the other side of the Pacific. But the localized version of it, the Regal replaced it immediately. For comparison, the VW Passat B2, lived here from 1985 to 2012, was parallel sold alongside its 3 facelifts and Passat B5, Passat B5.5, Passat B6, Passat NMS.

There is some paint remaining on the right fog light and the lower deflector. So, the paint may not be original. The plate is new, but I am sure the number is the initial registration; the old plate may be blown away during a typhoon. As it has a Shanghai license which starts with an A after the Chinese character, the plate certainly worthies much more than this Century. The average price of a Shanghai plate is CNY 89,600/ USD 12,800 in 2019, and this car might only worth 1/9 of its plate.

Basic rim with a plastic cap, and still clean. A steel rim is considered as a suicide behavior a few years later in mainland’s market. This Century wears MAXXIS tires. Base or medium SGM Buicks and Chevrolets commonly have Giti or Hankook tires now.

A simple G badge. The American coding system for the configuration levels is not popular here. We prefer the Germany style, using comfort or advanced or something else. After all, we speak a complex language and there is a huge number of adjectives which can be used to describe a car.

This is the evidence. This black Century was from the fleet of my university. Together with the photo at the beginning, they are from the same car. This Century must have experienced some trunk lid metalwork, and the badges are re-installed. So, the ‘GLX’ replaced the ‘GM’ which should follow the ‘SHANGHAI’. Like the creamy Century above, the black one has the same plate frame. It could be an SOP of the Buick dealers as warm service is something SGM constantly talks about.

Before 2004 or 2005, locally produced vehicles didn’t need to wear the manufacturer’s name in Chinese; And Chinese model names are never required. The Century’s production was ceased in 1999, so it is mysterious that this specific Century wears full Chinese badges. On the left is ‘Shanghai General Motors’ in full, and on the right is ‘New Century’. The Chinese characters are extended horizontally to suit the rectangular stance of the rear view of a sedan, and the brilliant font choice doesn’t damage the design at all. Nobody would have a Chinese model name on the trunk lid except some of our domestic brands, and SGM never made a Chinese model name into actual badges again. Thus, I am quite sure that this Century is the only Buick, the only GM, and the only Car from the manufacturer outside the mainland, which wears its model name in Chinese. Weird and rare.

From the aspect of a native speaker, SGM handles the Chinese language relatively well. SGM gives its brands and products appropriate and decent names, picking positive characters, and are easy to pronounce or remember. The Buick Regal, LaCrosse and Excelle (Daewoo Lacetti) are the only 3 examples I can recall among all foreign models, whose Chinese name is not a simple transliteration from its original name. The Regal’s translation is the emperor’s majestic, a bit over but acceptable. Considering the elegant name translation, I would regard SGM as a first-level Chinese speaker, the same as Japanese brands. For comparison, Ford sticks to transliteration, so that their model names are challenging for our tongues. The 4th generation of Chrysler Town & Country had a dragon-some nickname here during its local production. When the 5th was imported, Chrysler refused to use the nickname and chose a bland translation of T&C. That was a rustic Chinese name, and the last barrier of GL8’s massive success vanished due to this arrogant action of Chrysler.

I’ll end my post with two zombie Regals. PATAC, Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center, which was founded simultaneously as SGM, always contributes to the localization of GM models. The CNDM Regal (1999-2008) was their very first attempt. The lower one is the top model with a 3.0 V6 engine because the 7-spoke alloys are exclusive. Besides the alloy and the powertrain, a top model also has a hood ornament, and two screens on front seat headrests. PATAC gave the Century new front and rear fascia, new door panels and a new dashboard, together with the Regal name. The Century, the Regal and the 5th Regal was three continuous success. But the good days of SGM seems to be gone.

It tells from the intricate tweeter cap pattern on the A-pillar, I was in my Geely when I took this photo. For the years, Shanghai-VW, Shanghai-GM and FAW-VW share the top 3 of the sales ranking; Recently, SGM stayed in the third, with an increasing gap between the second. In November 2019, SGM was surpassed by Geely so, it dropped to 4th , and the number was merely 2k units more than the 5th Nissan. It is indeed a dangerous signal for SGM, but way better than the half-dead Changan-Ford.