To continue the topic of early Chinese car-building industry, recently visited by Paul, I saw it fitting to shed some light on another example of its achievements – the Dongfanghong BJ760, a Chinese car with the poetic name “The East Is Red”, which was produced from 1960-1969.
As we’ll see soon enough, the car itself is largely based on the Soviet-made Volga GAZ-21 (1956-1970) – which I personally tend to see as a testament to this car’s qualities; after all, USSR and China were no more good friends by the late 1950s, any technical cooperation being ceased, and the Chinese had a habit to choose worthy prototypes to work upon, like various American vehicles, as in the case described in Paul’s article, or the “Pontoon” Mercedes-Benz 180, as in the case of Shanghai SH760.
However, it is noticeable – and notable, too – that the Chinese didn’t copy the car outright, but rather made some significant modifications to the original design, in sake of both more modern look and functional improvements.
At front, the most obvious changes are the employment of a different, flatter windshield, with corresponding changes to the windshield frame and cowl panel, and the lack of Volga’s characteristic rain-gutter, which is running along the upper edge of the windshield on the Soviet car – more generic drip rails running along the A-pillars are used instead. Why not a more wrap-around windshield, one may ask ? By the late 1950s, it was still a hot thing even in America – just as this funky two-tone paint. In should be noted that the Volga’s A-pillars proved to be somewhat prone to stress cracking on high mileage cars, mostly those constantly used on bad roads with a heavy load on the roof luggage rack, so this could’ve been not only a cosmetic change, but an attempt to address some durability issues. The “through-the-roof” antenna is also gone.
Volga’s pop-up cowl ventilator, a design dating back right to the 1930s, was substituted with a fixed cowl vent scoop. The hood also differs from the Volga and follows the shape of the windshield, being significantly flatter and lacking the center stiffening rib – definitely a somewhat more up-to-date look for the late 1950s, and lower hood line would’ve improved driver visibility somewhat. Front bumper seems to be similar to the earliest, 1957 model GAZ-21, but has much smaller bumper guards and is moved further backwards – the Volga’s bumper was separated from the fenders and the bottom part of the grille opening by a horizontal gravel pan, which seems to be completely absent on the Dongfanghong, being replaced by a vertical mudguard beneath the grille.
All in all, it is obvious that the Chinese designers made an attempt to give their creation a distinct “face” to distinguish it from the Soviet original, as well as to incorporate some of the more recent design trends – still of the second freshness by 1960, though.
The doors, while keeping the original internals, got new outer skins with straighter edges – thick upper door frames still giving out a design dating back all the way to 1954, anyway. The Volga’s “deer’s leg” ornament on rear doors and back fenders is completely removed, creating continuous convex body sides with an unbroken character line extended all the way to the taillight. The result is a more slab-sided, boxy appearance, somewhat contrary to the Volga’s curvy shapes. A larger, panoramic rear window was added, cleverly matching the car’s reverse-canted C-pillar and rear door frames – this trait gives the Dongfanghong a somewhat studebaker-ish look from the side. By the way, that’s something I’d love to have on my Volga (the gray one on the pix) – both for better look and visibility; the original rear window is rather small and thick C-pillars create big blind spots, so a panoramic rear window was indeed a big improvement. Large 15″ wheels and high ground clearance are preserved intact.
The most drastic changes are present in the rear styling, which, while generally seeming to be inspired by American fashion, resembles the French Simca Vedette to some degree as well. The Volga’s distinctive feature – bolt-on back fenders – is still in use, what is obvious due to the presence of a rubber insulation strip that separates the back fender from the body (a usual location of rust, thanks to water collection along the rubber strip). Rear bumper also got smaller bumper-guards (what may be the reason ?), but is otherwise indistinguishable from the early versions of GAZ-21. Good thing that the designers didn’t opt to incorporate those decadent bourgeois tail-fins, as used on The East Glows: that wood look passe very soon indeed.
The interior, on the other hand, shows some traces of European influence, like the almost-Germanic dashboard instrumentation featuring two big round dials. This design replaced the Volga’s instrument cluster, which was itself reminiscent of Ford’s mid-1950s “Astro-Dial”. Other than this, changes are few, and mostly of cosmetic nature; the Chinese car also keeps the Volga’s standard 3-speed manual gearbox, completely with non-synchronous 1st gear and slow, sloppy column shifter. Retrospectively, replacing it with GAZ-69’s floor shifter (this car was also produced in China) would’ve been a better decision. The difference in hood and dashboard curvature is very clearly visible on these two photos – the Dongfanghong‘s hood and dash are much flatter. Not using the non-reflective dashboard cover was obviously an ill-devised decision. There’s supposed to be a radio, but I don’t get where the dashboard speaker is located. Hardly we’re dealing with some audiophile setup, though.
One can notice that in the lower left corner of the dashboard only one heater control lever remains – on the Volga, the second one was used to raise / lower the pop-up cowl vent, which is absent on the Chinese car. By closing the vent, the driver could set the ventilation system to recirculate warm air, significantly improving interior heating on a cold winter day – a feature hardly needed in China’s warmer climate. The “hand throttle” button (some sort of a rudimentary “cruise control”) is also removed, just as the cigarette lighter – the latter is a surprisingly modern touch; judging by the number of ash trays in Soviet cars of the time, both drivers and passengers were supposed to be heavy smokers.
Under the hood, the Volga’s all-aluminum 2.5 L engine can be identified unmistakably, as well as very characteristic combined clutch/brakes master cylinder, massive Zinc alloy generator relay unit on the right fender and snail-shell shaped heater fan housing. It seems that the Volga’s oil-bath type air cleaner was replaced by a paper filter in a remote housing, however it may be a later add-on as well. It is not clearly stated if the engine was produced locally or supplied by the Soviet Zavolzhsky plant, which produced powerplants for the GAZ. Interestingly, the car identification plate was relocated from the firewall to the center of the hood lock panel – maybe because the new air filter made in unaccessible ?
The changes to the body, while relatively subtle, indicate that the Chinese car most likely wasn’t built on duplicates of the original manufacturing equipment supplied by the USSR – its production involved many unique, most likely locally designed and produced, pressing dies. No surprise; 25 year before, the GAZ designers did just the same thing – designed their own front fenders for the body of the recently licensed 1934 Model 40A Ford (which was to become the GAZ M-1 after a heavy redesign by A. A. Lipgart’s engineering team) to test what they called the “graphoplastics” or “sculpting-on-paper” – a drafting technique used to create complex volumetric shapes, which was later used in the development of the Pobeda M-20 and the Volga itself.
One may only wonder if the manufacturing documentation was supplied by the Soviet part or reconstructed by means of reverse-engineering, a technique the Chinese mastered in the years to come. Unfortunately, no info on this subject seems to be available as of now.
According to the info I possess, somewhere from 106 to 238 cars of this model were produced – accounts differ; not large numbers for a production car, but definitely a lot of experience gained by China’s newborn automotive industry. As the photos tell us, changes were made to the car during its production run, but again, very little info on this subject is available, at least to a non-Chinese speaker, so the exact periodisation eludes me as well.
Currently, two Dongfanghongs are on display in Beijing Automotive Museum, one of which (an early modification ?) is notable for keeping the original GAZ-21 windshield, cowl and (slightly modified) hood, with a golden Chinese dragon replacing the GAZ’s deer statuette, and multiple other differences. This car looks surprisingly reminiscent of, while not identical to, another car mentioned in Paul’s article about The East Glows; it seems, the designers attempted to make the Volga simulate that Donfang Golden Dragon, which is generally referred to as the first Chinese home-designed car.
Curiously enough, another, much later Dongfanghong car is mentioned on www.carnewschina.com – the Dongfanghong Yituo, and it also seems to be based on an Eastern-European car, this time – the FSO Polonez.
Related reading: CC Volga Gaz-21: Coming Out Of Hibernation