Home » Chinese ‘Open-Top Inspection Vehicles’ Are Used For Very Specific Purposes And They Are Cooler Than Regular Convertibles

Chinese ‘Open-Top Inspection Vehicles’ Are Used For Very Specific Purposes And They Are Cooler Than Regular Convertibles

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Today we take a look at Chinese open-top inspection cars. An inspection car is used for various purposes, all extremely important. Some are used for military duties, others for civilian work. The main military duty is the inspection of troops by a high-ranking political or military officer. Examples of civilian work are tours for visiting foreign dignitaries and parades for famous astronauts or sportsmen. The main manufacturer of Chinese parade cars is Hongqi, a brand owned by First Auto Works (FAW). But others make open-top inspection cars as well, including BAW, Changfeng, Chery, and Shanghai. Let’s have a look.

The Chinese term for inspection car is 检阅车 (Jianyuè chē). An open-top inspection car is 敞篷检阅车 (Changpéng jianyuè chē). The first open-top inspection cars appeared in the late 1950s, and production continues until today. In this first article, I discuss Hongqi vehicles. In a follow-up article, I will show the open-top inspection vehicles of other Chinese car brands. In a second follow-up, I will take a look at the Hongqi roofed inspection cars, best known for their appearance during large military parades in China. Somewhere in between, I’ll talk about President Nixon. That’s the schedule. Now the cars:

The Hongqi CA72 Inspection Car Prototype

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The 1958 Hongqi CA72 is the first Chinese inspection car, seen here at the FAW factory premises in Changchun. FAW, or First Auto Works, is the owner of the Hongqi brand. It was developed for the 1959 parade in Beijing to celebrate 10 years of Communist rule.

The car was a large open-top vehicle with styling inspired by contemporary American cars. It was a one-off prototype, and in the end, it didn’t see any action. Too bad, because it was a classy machine loaded with chrome and standing on white wall tires. It has conventional rear doors, whereas later Hongqi inspection cars usually had rear-suicide doors

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The prototype was fitted with grab-rails behind the front bench and with a microphone. Most inspection cars have microphones. In the early days, they worked with a speaker hidden in the trunk. Later on, they became wireless, sending the signal to speakers along the parade ground or road.

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The CA72 prototype had a striking grille design that was inspired by a traditional Chinese hand fan. The prototype was special in the sense that it wasn’t directly based on an existing sedan, it was developed as an inspection car from the ground up. In the end, the prototype didn’t appear at the 1959 parade in Beijing. Instead, the newer CA71J1 was used there (see below). But the prototype got a consolation prize: It was used during the May 1st International Labor Day in Changchun in 1959. What happened next to the vehicle is unknown. Hongqi never showed it to anyone again and it isn’t in the Hongqi museum, either. So it was likely taken apart with the parts going in the next car. This was common in those days when parts, especially engines, were very scarce.

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Hongqi CA72 sedan prototype 1.

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Hongqi CA72 sedan prototype 2.Around the same time that the prototype of the inspection car was developed, Hongqi created several prototypes of the CA72 sedan. They began with a rather wild design that was toned down considerably for the eventual production version.

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Hongqi CA72 sedan. Production version. Seen in the Beijing Classic Car Museum in 2009. Photo by me.

The Beijing Classic Car Museum is a private museum in the far north of the capital. I have been there dozens of times. The photos in this article are from my earlier visits when the lighting was still okay. In 2015 the museum was renovated. After renovation, it all looked way more pretty inside but also very dark, making it harder to take a proper pic. I donated my Beijing-Jeep Cherokee XJ to the museum. The owner said my Jeep would go on display in a second museum building he was trying to get off the ground. We’ll see.

The Hongqi CA72J1 inspection car

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Hongqi CA72J1 prototype at the FAW factory in Changchun. Author’s collection.

Things got serious with the 1959 Hongqi CA72J1. It debuted in 1959 and was based on the production version of the Hongqi CA72 sedan. The car in this photo is a prototype without any handlebars, mirrors, or flagpoles. It has suicide rear doors and it is loaded with chrome and shiny bits.

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This is a second prototype. It is almost complete, with the flagpoles, mirrors, and a one-piece handlebar behind the front bench. It has a 3-person bench in front and another 3-person bench in the back.

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The same car, with license plate 06-0012.

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On October 1, 1959, two CA72J1 inspection cars appeared in China’s National Day military parade, inspecting the troops. In the car minister of defense Lin Biao. The handlebar had a different design. Instead of a one-piece unit as on the prototype, it had two separate handlebars, with an empty space in the middle. The engine was the same as in the CA72 sedan: a 5.6 liter V8 with 220 horsepower.

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On the left: Commander of the Beijing Military Region Yang Yong and defense minister Lin Biao on the right. At that time, the National Day parade was hosted by the defense minister and the commander of the Beijing Military Region. Later on, this changed to the president and Beijing commander, and so it is until today.

The clip above shows a motorcade with at least two CA72J1 in 1960 with Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia in the first car and Chinese Premier Zou Enlai in the second car. The third parade car is a Russian Zis.

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The handlebar situation is clearly visible here, and this car has additional bars on the sides of the rear bench. The car in the photo has an interesting history. In 1965, the Foreign Affairs Office of Yunnan Province requested Beijing for an open-top inspection car. Beijing approved, and a car was sent by train to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. It was used to parade visiting dignitaries of Southeast Asian countries, which are geographically near Yunnan. After many years of service, the car was sealed-up and forgotten about. In 1994, Yunnan province auctioned off the inspection car and four other Hongqi’s. It was bought by a collector who restored the vehicle, and it runs again.

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This photo is from a visit of Chairman Mao to Tiananmen Square in 1966, during an inspection of the infamous Red Guards. Those were very tense times in China, right at the start of the Cultural Revolution. There are three CA72J1s in the image. Mao stands in the middle of the first car.

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Image credit: MZBDL.

Early cars had a standard rear bench. When on parade, those who were paraded had to stand on their feet and hold the bar, like on the Yunnan car above. Later cars got a complex mechanism with a hydraulically lifted rear bench. When on parade, the rear bench would go up a bit, so the occupants could half-sit, half-stand — way more comfortable for an endless parade. The mechanism is visible on the car above, but it appears that Chairman Mao preferred to stand anyway.

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The new bench system was demonstrated by two FAW engineers in white lab coats in the image above. Parading made easy.

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Hongqi CA72J1, photo by me.

Above you see a superbly restored CA72J1 in the Sanhe Classic Car Museum in Chengdu. It stood in a small and dark exhibition hall. The museum has since moved into a new building, but I haven’t been there yet. The museum is owned by the Sanhe Group. They operate a large number of car dealers in the Chengdu area, for brands like Volvo and Aston Martin. They had a perfect Volvo Amazon on display in their main Volvo shop.

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Above is the view from the bench.

The Hongqi CA770 inspection cars

The Hongqi CA770 state limousine was manufactured in various forms and variants from 1965 until 1981. Besides the state limousines, Hongqi created short-wheelbase sedans, wagons, ambulances, hearses, and a lot of inspection cars, both open-top and with a roof.

Hongqi CA770JG

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The CA770JG inspection car was based on the Hongqi CA770 state limousine. Eight CA770JG inspection cars were made from 1968 until the late 1970s. It was the longest inspection car so far with a length of 5.98 meters, a width of 1.99 meters, a height of 1.62 meters, and a curb weight of 2,730 kilos (about 6,000 pounds). It had a one-piece handlebar and the new bench mechanism. There was still a lot of chrome but not as much as on the CA72.

Power came from a 5.65-liter four-stroke water-cooled carbureted V8 engine. Output was 223 hp (164 kW). The inspection cars were equipped with a dual brake system. If, for any reason, the main brake system failed the driver could switch to the second system.

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Hongqi CA770JG in the Beijing Classic Car Museum. Photos by me.

The Beijing Classic Car Museum has an unrestored CA770JG. It was in perfect condition the last time I saw it. The owner of the museum regularly participated in classic-car rallies and the car was often displayed at Hongqi events. The interior was red and it even had a red grip on the bar! I haven’t seen a grip like this in any period photos so I guess they are a later addition. Inspecting in comfort!

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The interior with a red cloth over the front bench and the divider. There is a lot of space to stand around in the rear compartment. The interior is standard CA770 except for the radio unit.

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The taillights of the CA770-series are inspired by traditional Chinese lanterns. The red-white car in the background is China’s official first car; the FAW Dongfeng CA71 sedan.

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Hongqi CA770JG in the Dalian Classic Car Museum. Photo by me.

This is another CA770, seen in the Dalian Classic Car Museum in Dalian, Liaoning Province. It was a private museum too, somewhat similar to the Beijing Classic Car Museum in concept and collection. I have been to the museum twice. It had a fantastic collection of cars and motorbikes. Sadly the museum closed after the owner got into financial troubles and allegedly killed his brother. The cars were sold off and ended up in several other museums and in private collections.

Hongqi CA770J

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The CA770J was a special variant with a piece of large glass on the partition wall, which had to protect the inspectors from wind and rain.

The Audi-based Hongqi inspection cars

From 1988 to 1999, the Audi 100 and Audi 200 were made in China by the FAW-Volkswagen joint venture. Under the joint venture agreement, FAW had the right to use the Audi as a platform for a Hongqi-branded car. The Chinese wasted no time and rolled out an incredible series of sedans, wagons, a whole lot of stretched limousines, and inspection cars. They were really on a roll in those days and created at least a dozen different inspection-car variants. Long, less long, pre-facelift, pro-facelift, with different engines, you name it. Time is too short to discuss them all in this article, so I’ll do the highlights. It was also at this time that Hongqi started to use ever more complex designations, which became somewhat of a mystery to all involved. The inspection cars were made from 1998 to around 2010.

Hongqi CA7220 A9EL2

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Hongqi CA7220 A9EL2, seen at the Changchun Auto Show in 2003. Photo by me.

The Hongqi CA7220 A9EL2 was an inspection car based on the Hongqi CA7220 sedan. It was extended by 23 centimeters in the middle. Hongqi also made a stretched-limousine variant of the CA7220.  It was the first inspection car with a factory-standard body kit. It came in fancy colors like blue and red. It had flagpoles on the fenders and sporty wheels. I met this blue example at the 2003 Changchun Auto Show, in the hometown of Hongqi. They had a lot of cool stuff on show, like the classic Hongqi CA72 sedan on the right. But the star of the show was the CA7220 A9EL2, complete with a shiny ‘Winged One’ logo on the grille. That’s 1 for First Auto Works.

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Above is a factory photo of the A9EL2 in a dark red color. Note the bulge at the back. That’s where the roof is. Yes, the A9EL2 has a real convertible roof! A rarity under open-top inspection cars.

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With the roof up.

The Audi-based Hongqi cars were available with a wide array of engines. Some were developed by FAW, others were made by FAW but developed by Chrysler, others were sourced from Volkswagen, others from Audi, and others from Nissan. It wasn’t unusual that a certain model was available with 3 totally different engines. I was once made a full list. Not very relevant to this article but I cannot help myself. So here we go, all the engines used in Audi-based Hongi-branded sedans/limousines/wagons/inspection cars:

Audi 2.4 liter V6: 147hp (Chinese designation: BFK).
Audi 2.5 liter V6: 127hp.
Audi 2.6 liter V6: 137hp.
Audi 2.2 liter L5: 130hp.
Chrysler 2.2 liter four: 100 to 111hp. (Chinese designation CA488).
FAW 1.8 liter four (CA4GE (Audi designed)): 94hp.
FAW 2.0 liter four (CA4GE): 96hp.
FAW 2.2 liter four (CA4GE): 99hp.
Nissan 2.0 V6 (VG20): 123hp.
Nissan 3.0 V6 (VG30S): 141hp.

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The CA7220 A9EL2A2 was a longer variant of the CA7220 A9EL2. It was extended by 52 centimeters in the middle. When launched, FAW released this brilliant image with a car mirrored on the floor, like it is riding on a beach. It has a red-black color scheme with a beige interior. The Hongqi ‘red flag’ hood ornament is much larger than with the smaller cars.

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Above you see car, this one with a dark gray interior.

CA7220A9E

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The CA7220A9E was an interesting inspection car. It was not extended and the B-pillars were left in place. It had a black convertible roof. The roof, however, seems very thin so it is probably only useful in light rain.

CA7220 A9E

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The CA7220 A9E was more of a convertible than an inspection car. It is not extended and it doesn’t have flagpoles. It is equipped with a sports kit, including a rear spoiler, and it has an “anti-roll bar” at the B-pillar position.

CA7220 A9EL2A2 Cabrio-Coach

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The A9EL2A2 Cabrio-Coach was a variant of the A9EL2A2, with the same 52-centimeter extension. The car has full-side frames and a retractable roof. It is a proper inspection car with a divider and a handlebar, and with flag poles on the front fenders. The interior is clad in red and beige. The exterior is painted in a classy silver shade, a rare color among inspection cars.

CA7220 A9E3L2 Century Star

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All inspection cars should be red! Check out this fiery red Century Star inspection car, with a beige leather interior and classy wheel covers. The CA7220 A9E3L2 inspection car was based on the CA7220 Century Star sedan, itself a modernized variant of the CA7220 sedan. This is the most common Audi-based Hongqi inspection car, it debuted in 2000 and was manufactured until 2008. It was extended by 52 centimeters in the middle, with a one-piece bar atop the divider.

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Several Century Star inspection cars were used to parade athletes around town for the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, the home city of FAW and Hongqi. Sadly, the cars were not red but standard black. Happily, the interior was still beige. The sedans are Besturn B70s. Besturn, today Bestune, is another brand under FAW. The police van is a JMC-Ford Transit. The motto of the games was “Charming Changchun”.

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These athletes don’t know how to inspect. They just sit on the bench. Hopefully, they were better at short-track speed skating.

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That’s better! With a torch and all. Note the Beijing-Hyundai Sonata 2.5 V6 police car in the background.

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The Century Star was also used for more serious matters, like here in 2005. This car has military license plates and military personnel, with their hats on. The white-gloved gentlemen are Commander Fei Junlong and Flight Engineer Nie Haisheng. They were the crew of the Shenzhou VI mission, China’s second manned spaceflight. In China, the entire space program is part of the armed forces, and all taikonauts are army officers. Hence the military character of this particular parade. China organized similar parades for the crews of the first and third manned spaceflight. After that, the parades stopped. Perhaps folks got bored of it. When spaceflight becomes the new normal, nobody will care anymore.

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An all-red example in front of a FAW facility.

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Police in Changchun used an open-top Century Star inspection car for police business. The occupant had their helmets on. The inspection car was not extended and didn’t have a bar, but it did have flagpoles. Behind the inspection car two normal Century Star sedans and an armored anti-riot vehicle.

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The inspection car in traffic, followed by three sedans.

Hongqi HQ3 Inspection car

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The Hongqi HQ3 Inspection Car is an inspection car based on the Hongqi HQ3 sedan. The HQ3 was in turn based on the fourth-generation Toyota Crown Majesta, which, at the time, was made in China by the FAW-Toyota joint venture. FAW made good use of its deals with foreign automakers! It is very common for Chinese car makers to have joint venture deals with more than one non-Chinese car maker. At one point, FAW had simultaneous joint venture deals with Volkswagen, Audi (half-separate), Toyota, Mazda, and Daihatsu. Business as usual. Hongqi made two variants of the HQ3: There were two variants: the HQ300 powered by a 3.0 V6 and the HQ430 powered by a 4.3 liter V8.

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Image credit: Celsior.

The inspection car was based on the HQ300 model. It was extended in the middle by 30 centimeters. There is a wide divider with a stylish handlebar on top, finished in chrome and leather. In the back are two cushy leather seats. The HQ3 Inspection Car was a one-off concept car and was never used for an actual inspection. It is sometimes displayed at the Hongqi Factory Museum in Changchun, but sadly not when I visited.

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Image credit: Celsior.

The rear is a bit bulbous but it would have made for a fine inspection car. Note the extra thick A-pillars.

The Hongqi L5 inspection cars for Belarus

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The 2015 Hongqi L5 inspection car is based on the Hongqi L5 sedan. Hongqi made two units. It is a unique inspection car, mainly because it was not intended for any operations in China. The two cars were a gift from the Chinese Ministry of Defense to the Belarus Ministry of Defense.

The two cars were used during the 2015 Victory Day Parade in Minsk.

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It is a pretty inspection car with a straight and almost timeless design. There is a lot of chrome, and it has flagpoles on each front fender. It is also the only China-made inspection car with a V12 under the hood. In this case, a 6.0 liter V12 with 408 hp and 550 Nm. The transmission is a six-speed automatic, sending power to the rear wheels.

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The interior with a shipload of beige leather and a red carpet. There are screens on the backrests of the front seat. If the inspector gets bored inspection he can watch a DVD. The L5 inspection car doesn’t have a divider between the front seats and the rear compartment. So there is no place for a bar. Instead, it uses a stick-like apparatus that doesn’t seem very solid and is only suitable for one-person parading.

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All L5 inspection car images by FAW.

The L5 inspection car on the FAW factory premises in Changchun. And that means we are back to where this story began in 1958. That’s 57 years of open-top inspection cars by Hongqi. A pretty good run. Sadly, after 2015, they never produced another one again. The newer inspection cars are always roofed. But you never know. Perhaps at one point in the future, if things in China get a little wilder again, we will see another Hongqi open-top parade car.

 

(Topshot: Sally Torchinsky)

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22 Responses

  1. I know Hongqi briefly produced Lincoln Town Cars under license, did anything open topped ever come out of that? Zimmer did demonstrate that cutting the roof off is feasible

    1. Hello! No, they didn’t do an open top but they did develop 3 different extended-wheelbase variants based on the Town Car. Maybe I can write an article about it later on (:

      1. It appears they did not, a little strange, I guess, considering the car was so easily adapted to a convertible by a small convertor in it’s home country, being body on frame, you’d thing it was a more straightforward process than the Audi-based unibodies. Maybe the Chinese government wanted to keep some visual distance between themselves and the Lincoln-loving Kims down in Pyongyang? Or maybe, being obviously based on a current model American car, they were just thought to be not domestic enough for big parades, whereas a facelifted Audi no longer built by it’s original maker was a bit more unique?

        Also interesting that they were thinking of re-bodying the Panther chassis as late as 2004, which is also right about when Ford themselves stopped any thought of further significant improvements (the Marauder convertible concept being the last time Ford considered sheet metal changes)

  2. Dictator / general / high-ranking politician wants a convertible but that would be way too bourgeoisie. Hmmm….

    No, masses, this is definitely not an open-air pleasure-mobile. It is a very serious essential-part-of-my-official-duties “inspection vehicle”.

    1. The grille looks more European. The American cars with headlights like that and grilles kind of like that (late 40s to mid 50s) had big hood bulges above the grille. Couldn’t find an example without it, but I’m not an expert. Seems there are influences drawn from a lot of sources here. There’s something for every nostalgist to enjoy. A car from a past that never existed.

  3. Honestly, I dig the looks. Great write up on something I never really knew about – sure I’ve seen the photos but knew nothing more.

    The first couple look honestly quite nice, subtle, but attractive with a nice elegance in the fan grille. The Audi based one is like the prompt was “How can we ensure this design looks dated immediately without any elegance.” They’re then all pretty bad till you get to the the Honqui HQ3 where the prompt was “Hey how can we best combine the Hyundai Equus with the unattractive W220 S-Class, but also do it in the style of the Kia Amanti?”

    The 2015 L5 (outside of the weird front profile form the side view) looks great and is like what would happen if ford didn’t totally screw up the T-Bird relaunch

  4. All of this reminds me a bit of when I lived in Taipei in the early 90s and visited Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek’s ostentatious memorial. I was at first struck by how it reminded me a bit of the Lincoln memorial (with some serious Chinese adaptation). But considering Madam Chiang was always visiting DC back in the day soliciting bucks from Congress to fight the commie menace she must have been influenced by Abe’s shrine and thought something similar would do mighty fine for her hubby when the time came. But in his case, I thought it was strange they put his varied collection of Cadillac limos in the lower section, too. I mean, who gets buried with their limos? Well, I guess, dictators do. Is that tacky? Or is it just politics and car collecting transiting one another?

  5. I’m always excited to read Tycho’s posts! It read like an old school chinacarnews article. I’ve been planning to go to the Classic Car Museum in Huairou when the weather gets better. I’ll keep a look out for your old Jeep to make sure its properly being appreciated!

  6. Chinese motor companies and their history are infinitely fascinating. I’ve always found trying to break down their history a little difficult, so thank you for posting! Are citizens that purchase these vehicles able to drive them on the road? Or is that considered impersonating military personnel?

  7. Now we have Tycho from CarNewsChina here? 😮 This page is quickly becoming the Avengers of automotive news. All we gotta do now is nab Murilee Martin and Steve Lang to complete the summoning. If we can get Ray Wert to chime in and hump cars, even better!

  8. Great article, love to see these looks into the Chinese auto industry. Its wild that such a huge market is hardly ever covered in detail without devolving into hysterics.

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