China’s first limo and Chinese leaders

Beijing, Feb 18: What sedans did Chairman Mao Zedong choose for parade and daily use? Some of them can be found in a private classic car museum in the Chinese capital.

Located 80 km north of the city, the Beijing Classic Car Museum has 200 plus old limousines comprising Chinese and foreign brands like Hongqi (Red Flag), Ford, Dodge, Desoto, Mercedes-Benz and Volga.

Among them are 36 national sedan Hongqi vehicles and they are Luo Wenyou’s favorites. He is the owner of the museum, reports Xinhua.

“Some of them were once used by Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai, and Marshal Nie Rongzhen,” the 58-year-old Luo said.

In his eyes, “Hongqi represents China and Chinese car manufacturing the best”.

In 1956, the Communist Party of China held its central political bureau meeting, and Mao expressed his wish to be driven in a homemade car to the meeting.

At the time, China’s auto industry was budding following the country’s First Automobile Works (FAW) poised to break ground in 1953 in Changchun, capital of Jilin province.

” ‘Live up to Mao’s expectations, make a desirable car dedicated to him’ had become a popular cry since then,” Luo said.

In 1958, the first Hongqi sedan was produced by the FAW in response to Mao’s wish.

Since its debut as parade sedan at Tian’anmen Square in 1959 during China’s 10th National Day celebration, Hongqi’s role has never been changed.

Chinese people have regarded the brand as the nation’s pride for its links with party leaders and historical role in the country.

Hongqi has been the state guest sedan replacing former Soviet Union’s ZIS since 1964.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, being driven in a Hongqi car ranked alongside visiting Chairman Mao and staying at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse as one of the highest privileges for foreign dignitaries,” Luo said.

In 1961, Indonesia’s president Sukarno paid a visit to China. During the welcome ceremony along the Tian’anmen Square, he stood on the Hongqi CA72 Cabriolet to salute people, but later felt tired and sat onto the back seat.

“It could help him look like he was standing,” Luo said, “and Premier Zhou Enlai noticed”.

Afterwards, Zhou called for making a review car in which leaders and guests could either stand or sit.

One year later, the FAW developed a car that fulfilled Zhou’s requirement. In the car, the reviewers could press a button and escalate the seat to sit but appear as if they were standing.

Luo did not say whether this kind of car has been used by other reviews after that.

But he collected a special car which witnessed Zhou’s fight with bladder cancer.

“There is only a stretcher behind the driving cab,” Luo said. “Premier Zhou could lie on the stretcher.”

“The window was covered by a curtain in order not to be recognized when it was driven among the fleet,” Luo disclosed.

Luo Wenyou was born in the countryside in north China’s Hebei province and made money by running a transport company, a karting site and an automobile repair shop since the age of 24.

He took fresh crack at collecting world classic cars from 1978 when private car was still a rarity in China’s street, and has poured in tens of millions yuan into his “cause” up to now.

“I can’t exactly count how much money I have put in. The cars are priceless for me,” said Luo.

His life was intimately entwined with Hongqi since 1998, when Louis Vuitton Classic, one of the world’s largest free classic-car rallies, landed in China.

Luo drove the three rows of seats Hongqi CA770 in the rally from Dalian to Beijing as the only Chinese player.

He had almost 60 classic cars to choose from for the rally, including many high-performance world-level limousines.

“But I chose the Hongqi because a Chinese player should drive his own Chinese car in the game,” he said.

Luo said he forgot how many times he was moved to tears during the game. “Many witnesses shouted ‘long live China, long live Hongqi’,” he recalled.

Wherever he arrived, people lined the roads, cheering and taking photos with the Hongqi “in a display of respect and pride to Chinese-made vehicle”.

“The rally changed me from a common classic car fan into a responsible lover of Chinese-made limousines, especially the Hongqi,” Luo said.

“Since then, I have dreamt of letting more people know the history and value of them.”

Luo sold his businesses and house after the rally and immersed himself in China’ s classic car collection. His “craziness” used to anger his family, but nothing would stop him.

In 2005, he went to Beijing to build a classic car museum, only to find his love for ancient vehicles being cold-shouldered.

After spending eight million yuan, Luo’s private museum, a two-floor building of 3,000 square meters, finally opened in 2009.

“It takes a certain strength to collect these cars, and an entirely different kind to let people know their existence and value,” Luo told.

His initial purpose was to show people the history of Chinese classic cars as well as the nation. Unexpectedly, only a few school children and individual travelers visit the museum. It fails to make ends meet now.

“My sources of income are from tickets (50 yuan per person) and car rentals for exhibitions and movies. It is far from enough to cover the maintenance and repair costs,” Luo said.

Many well-to-do people offered to buy his 10.08-meter Hongqi over the past years, but he rejected the deals.

Equipped with a refrigerator, air conditioning, TV, telephone, leather sofas, the super long V8-engined vehicle is placed outstandingly in the museum and capable of holding ten passengers.

“How could our country produce such a great limousine in 1970s? Its technology and design are so amazing that even now it’s not a possibility for many countries,” he said, declining to say how it came into his possession.

IANS