Once upon a time, in a faraway city in cold northern China, existed an unknown and unloved joint venture named Jinbei-GM — one that brought the Chevrolet S10 that we all know and love to remote parts of the world’s most populous country. Let’s look Jinbei-GM’s short life and resurrection of sorts.
In the late 1980’s, when China’s economy started opening up, lots of Chinese carmakers started looking for foreign partners, often with support from local and central governments. One of these companies was called Shenyang Jinbei Automotive. This company used the Jinbei (Gold Cup) brand on a series of light trucks and minivans. The minivans were based on the Toyota HiAce and made by a joint venture with Toyota. But the Chinese wanted pickup trucks, and for reasons unknown, they couldn’t make a deal to produce those with Toyota. So they looked to America.
In 1992, General Motors wasn’t producing any cars in China yet. The Shanghai-GM joint venture, known today as SAIC-GM, was only launched in 1997. For GM, a car-making deal with Shenyang Jinbei presented a golden opportunity to get a foothold in the promising car market. GM had taken a shot at China before; in the late 1980’s, the China Automobile Industry Corporation in Beijing was looking for a foreign partner to produce sedans and light trucks. They approached General Motors, and the Americans were interested. It didn’t work out due to disagreements between the two sides. When Shenyang Jinbei Automotive came knocking a few years later, GM was ready to try again.
After speedy negotiations the Jinbei-GM joint venture was founded in 1992. It was based in the city of Shenyang, capital of China’s cold northeast Liaoning Province. It was at first a 30-70 joint venture, with 30 percent of shares owned by General Motors and the other 70 percent belonging to Shenyang Jinbei Automotive. Total investment was $130 million. The contract for the Jinbei-GM joint venture was signed on January 15, 1992; the signing ceremony took place in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, a prestigious location more commonly used to host visiting heads of state. This indicated a strong support for the joint venture by the Chinese central government, which was a good sign.
Jinbei-GM would manufacture cars under the GMC brand. They settled on the GMC S10 Sonoma pickup truck and the GMC S15 Jimmy SUV. The GMC S10 Sonoma was based on the first generation Chevrolet S10 pickup truck. The GMC Jimmy was based on the first generation Chevrolet S10 Blazer. The joint venture aimed for an annual production of 50.000 units. Production started in August 1992.
There were 3 versions of the GMC S10 Sonoma :
- S10603: GMC Sonoma single cab short bed.
- S10803: GMC Sonoma single cab long bed.
- The S10653: GMC Sonoma extended cab short bed.
All were 4×2 and powered by the 2.5 liter four-cylinder “Iron Duke” petrol engine with an output of 77 kW (105 hp) and 185 Nm. The motor was mated to a 5-speed manual. Top speed was rated at 140 km/h and fuel consumption at 9 liters per 100 kilometers (26 MPG). The S10653 was more upmarket than its single cab sisters, with fancy wheels and strips over the sides and bumpers.
General Motors Shipped Blazers Over Partially-Disassembled
Image from period government catalog.The Jimmy was designated “S10506.” The big 4.3 liter V6 engine that became known for its reliability in the U.S. made 118 kW (158 hp) and 315 Nm. That, I’m pretty sure, made it the most powerful car produced in China at the time sans Hongqi state limousines. Top speed was rated at 170 km/h (over 100 mph) and fuel consumption was a steep 11 liters per 100 kilometers (21 mpg) [Editor’s note: In the U.S., this ain’t bad! -DT]. Gearbox was a 5-speed manual, sending horses to all wheels. The Jimmy came only in a top-trim level with black alloy wheels and shiny gold striping, as shown above.
The trucks were assembled from semi-knocked-down (SKD) kits, shipped in from the US. This required very little actual production work in Shenyang. This common practice of foreign companies shipping products semi-assembled to them be fully put together in China was common in the early joint-venture years in China, as there simply weren’t any suppliers available to build things from scratch. The first series of Beijing-Jeep Cherokee, Dongfeng-PSA Citroen ZX, and Shanghai-Volkswagen Santana were all “produced” in China with SKD kits.
Normally, the foreign carmaker would create kits especially for China, pack ‘m up and send ‘m over. However, General Motors went for a slightly cheaper solution. They just grabbed the cars needed from the general production line, packed ‘m up, and then sent ‘m over. So a “China-made” S10 was totally the same one folks could buy at a U.S. dealer, with the same badges and stickers and whatnot more. At the time, this was legal. Later on, the Chinese government became more stringent and demanded joint ventures to source more parts locally. That did indeed happen, and nowadays most auto parts are made in China, and not just for China-produced cars, either.
The Jinbei-GM joint venture got into trouble just one year after it began. One problem had to do with management. It appeared that the two top men, Robert Stramy for GM and Zhao Xiyou for Jinbei, had frequent squabbles that soured the entire relationship between the Americans and the Chinese. Mr Stramy, whose signature is on the previously-shown advertisement, was ordered back to the U.S. and Zhao was released from his post. The dismissal of Robert “Mr. Fix-it” Stramy was painful, as he was famous within GM for turning around troubled operations stateside and abroad. He even wrote a book about it. Well, Shenyang was too hard even for him I guess. I’ve been there. It’s a tough place. But management shuffles were a small problem compared to the much bigger disaster that was coming.
In mid-1993, the Chinese central government took steps to cool down the economy, which was overheated at the time, with high inflation and a gold-rush as consumers tried to hold onto their savings. Banks reacted with a near-total loan-freeze, which hit Jinbei-GM hard, as they were still only in their start-up phase and weren’t making any money yet. With the loan-freeze, Jinbei-GM didn’t have any working capital to run the plant. Production came to a near-halt.
Over the next 18 months only a small number of cars rolled off the line, and to make matters worse, they didn’t find many buyers. The overheated economy and the government’s response made consumers wary of buying anything expensive. So the few cars the company made weren’t even sold. It looked like the end was near for Jinbei-GM.
By 1995, Jinbei-GM had accumulated a loss of 267 million Yuan (over $32 million), and the two sides decided to reorganize the company. Three years later, in June of 1998, General Motors and Shenyang Jinbei Automotive jointly invested another 100 million U.S. dollars, bringing the total investment to $230 million. The shareholding in the joint venture was changed from 30-70 to 50-50. Next, the company killed the GMC Sonoma and Jimmy, and replaced them with the Chevy versions of their next generations — the Chevrolet Blazer SUV and Chevrolet S10 pickup truck. The joint venture also got its own official designation: JGM, for Jinbei General Motors. From now on, it would use the S10 designations and the JGM designations simultaneously.
China didn’t get the U.S. versions, but the South American versions, manufactured by GM Brazil. The South American versions had a more rounded front and different bumpers than the U.S. version. Just like before, it was an SKD operation, with the kits shipped in from Brazil. But there was more localization; some of the engines were made at the Shanghai-GM joint venture, which, as mentioned earlier, started business in 1997.
Sadly, things again didn’t go as planned. It took the joint venture almost three years to get the Trailblazer (the Chevrolet Blazer got a Chinese name: 开拓者, Kāitàzhě, which translates to “Trailblazer,” which is a bit confusing, as Chevrolet used the Trailblazer name for an appearance package on the Blazer in the U.S. until it became a separate model until 2001) and S10 into production, and the first cars rolled off the line in December 2000. Besides assembling the Trailblazer and S10, the joint venture was also tasked with the distribution of several imported Chevrolet cars, including the Trailblazer EXT and the Tahoe LT.
The S10 pickup truck had the S10253/JGM1030SBS designation. It was only available in double-cab form. Power came from a China-built 2.4 liter four-cylinder petrol engine with 88 kW (120 hp) and 177 Nm. The motor was mated to a 5-speed manual, sending horses to the rear wheels. Top speed was 150 km/h (around 95 mph) and 0-100 took a relaxing 17.51 seconds. Prices started at 139.800 yuan, or about $17,000.
As for the SUV, the Blazer came in three kinds:
- T10560/JGM6460TAD with a 4.3 liter V6.
- S10506/JGM6460SBS with the 2.4 four.
- JGM2050XJB, a police version of the 2.4 car.
The 4.3 V6 was imported from the U.S. It had an output of 132 kW(180 hp) and 340 Nm. The engine was mated to a 4-speed automatic, and it was a 4×4. Top speed was over 100 mph. Pricing for the 4.3 model started at 299.800 yuan (over $36,000 at the time).
The 2.4 used the same SAIC-GM engine as the S10 pickup truck. It was also rear-wheel drive with a 5-speed manual gearbox. Top speed was 150 km/h and fuel consumption was 9.5 liter per 100 kilometers (25 MPG). Initially, the price started at 239.800 yuan. (Around $29 large at the time).
The police version was painted in police livery and had lights and a siren on the roof. Many Chinese car makers produce vehicles for police and security services.
In 2003, the joint venture added a new version to the lineup powered by a “3L Vortec” 3.0 liter V6. This engine had an output of 94 kW (128 hp) and 215 Nm, and was coupled to a 4-speed automatic gearbox sending horses to all four wheels. Zero to 60 mph took over 12 seconds, and it got around 25 MPG. Price started at 249.800 yuan (roughly 30 grand). With the arrival of the 3.0 version, Jinbei-GM adjusted the price of the 2.4 version to 214.800 yuan ($26,000, roughly), a drop of 11%.
In 2001, Jinbei-GM planned to use three years (2001-2003) to reach an annual output of 30,000 vehicles, a target more modest than the earlier 40,000 a year figure. Compared to contemporary Chinese pickup trucks and SUVs, the Blazer and S10 were advanced and large. They were also way more expensive and way, way more thirsty, which didn’t help sales at all. The joint venture tried all sorts of things to attract customers. In 2002, they launched a “Chevrolet loves return visits, free car inspection” activity, which, as the name implies, offered free vehicle inspections. The idea was to make “buying and keeping a car easy and good fun.” Jinbei-GM furthermore organized a series of rallying events for with the Blazer, showing off its off-road potential.
The End & Resurrection of Sorts
It wasn’t enough. In early 2004, the Jinbei-GM joint venture was disbanded. The main reason was poor sales. But there was again a lot going on behind the scenes between the Chinese and American sides. Shenyang Jinbei Automobile had gone through several reorganizations and the Jinbei brand had been bought by the Brilliance Group, a daring private carmaker that is best known abroad for its joint venture with BMW. This made the exact ownership of the shares on the Chinese side very unclear. Phil Murtaugh, chairman and CEO of GM China at the time, told Chinese media: “Even I don’t know who the Chinese partner of Jinbei GM is.” Public criticism like that towards a joint venture partner was unusual, to say the least.
To get out of the mess, GM decided to do a new restructuring, and after some tough negotiations Shenyang Jinbei Automotive was bought out, and with that out of the picture. But at the time, the Chinese government didn’t allow foreign automakers to control more than 50% of the shares of a car maker. GM solved this problem by creating an ingenious new joint venture called Shanghai GM Norsom Motors. The Shanghai-GM joint venture became the new main shareholder with 50%. The other 50% was divided equally between Shanghai Auto (now SAIC) and GM China. A joint venture owned by a joint venture! As soon as this was settled, production of the S10 pickup truck and the Blazer was canceled. And that was the end of Jinbei-GM in China.
Shanghai GM Norsom Motors now owned the factory in Shenyang. In the early 2000’s, car sales in China started to boom and the existing production capacity in Shanghai was not enough. Subsequently, the Shenyang factory was put into good use for making the Shanghai-GM Buick GL8 and Chevrolet Cruze sedan, both of which became best-sellers on the Chinese car market.
In the 2000’s, the most popular kind of car in China was the sedan, followed by the MPs and pickup truck. SUVs weren’t popular at all, and the Blazer remained the only SUV General Motors had ever made in China until the arrival of the Chevrolet Captiva in 2012. The story is a bit more complicated for pickup trucks. GM didn’t make any under their own brands, but they had a short-lived joint venture with FAW making the FAW Kuncheng pickup truck.
The Jinbei brand still exists. However, the Brilliance Group went into bankruptcy and restructuring in late 2020 after it failed to pay back its loans. The restructuring is still ongoing at the time of writing. SAIC-GM, and the Shenyang plant, is still very much alive as well, but the joint venture is losing sales to Chinese carmakers, mainly caused by slow product development and by completely missing the EV boom. The far more versatile Chinese brands are slowly but certainly grabbing more market share, and those brands include Roewe, MG, and IM, all three owned by GM’s partner SAIC. Unless GM China can make a fast turnaround (they are trying) SAIC-GM might die in the foreseeable future. If so, this time, it’ll be the Chinese side that pulls the plug.
However, some legacy of Jinbei-GM lives on. The Blazer turned out to be a strong SUV, and even today many examples are offered for sale second hand and parts are still widely available. Emission regulations have largely banned these cars from the big cities, but don’t be surprised to see a big American Blazer SUV driving down the countryside in China!
The end of the Jinbei-GM joint venture led to a rare consumer protest in 2007, three years after the joint venture was disbanded. I first heard about this from a colleague of mine. She said the local Beijing government refused to register the Chevrolet Blazer 4.3 she had just bought. The car registry office said the manufacturer had ceased to exist, so they couldn’t legally register the vehicle. That meant no license plate and no insurance, so the car couldn’t be used. Naturally, she was very pissed off.
I was surprised by this story, as the Blazer had been off the market for just three years. As it turned out, an independent Beijing car seller had gotten his hands on 56 brand new Blazers, with the 4.3 liter engine, that had been stored away since 2002. He sold these cars for 220.000 yuan, a large discount over the original 299.800 yuan price. All cars were sold, but when the happy new owners of five-year-old cars tried to register their machines they were in for a nasty surprise; like my colleague’s car, none could be registered. The angry buyers initially blamed the dealer, who blamed GM, and then the buyers sought out Shanghai-GM for compensation! Shanghai-GM blamed the dealer, and so it went around for a while. In the end, Shanghai-GM took responsibility for the vehicles so they could be registered after all. My colleague got her license plates and happily used the Blazer until she left China some years later.
I witnessed the consumer protest myself. It was in central Beijing, just around the corner from where I lived. Large public consumer protests were very rare in China. They were not exactly forbidden but most consumers just didn’t care or dare. Nowadays, individual consumer protests are quite common but collective protests are still seldom seen.
About a dozen Blazers were lined up alongside the road. In the background was my local supermarket where I bought most of my stuff. Above the supermarket was a McDonald’s that stayed open until 0200 at night. The signs on the cars say: “Buy a Chevrolet, cannot be licensed, return my hard-earned money!” and “Refund! Refund! Refund!” The cars stood there for a few days, attracting lots of attention from local residents. And then one day, they were gone.